Maybe it happened this way. Maybe it didn’t….
‘Mr Parsons,’ Ogle said. When the assistant didn’t respond, he turned his head and repeated the name, his voice ringing through the shop. He was normally a softly-spoken man, always polite but today his nerves were on edge.
‘Yes sir?’ Parsons seemed to appear from nowhere. But that was his way. Much of the day he’d be impossible to find, tucked away behind this shelf or that, lost to the world as he read. Usually Ogle didn’t mind, but not today, not today.
‘I need to know how many have said they’ll attend, please.’
‘Of course.’ At the desk he looked through some of the sheets of paper before raising his head in a smile. ‘Eighty-seven. And there’s a promise of more. It’s an excellent response, sir.’
‘It is,’ Ogle agreed, but he was distracted by the enormity of it all. He was a man who preferred the company of a page to most people. Now he’d put himself forward and proposed all this and he hoped he’d done the right thing.
A slight man, given to wracking coughs in the winter and the suffering of heat in the summer, he wiped his face with a handkerchief. It was a little after ten in the morning and already he felt wearied by this August weather. Tonight would be worse, with all those bodies crammed together in the New King’s Arms. More than he’d dare hope, he had to admit. What he’d have to do was put the proposal and hope that all those who came would be willing to put their hands in their pockets.
The idea for a subscription library hadn’t been his, of course. He was perfectly content running his bookshop at the sign of the dial on Kirkgate End. It was his daughter Mary who planted the seeded and forced it to germination. She’d be there tonight with Parsons.
‘Have you made all the preparations?’ he asked suddenly. It terrified him that something would go wrong and people would leave in disgust. Then there’d quiet words around town and his custom would drain away to his competitors.
‘Everything’s in hand, sir.’
He nodded. Parsons was good at his job, the most efficient assistant he’d ever employed. Still young, but with his letters and numbers and always eager to learn more. The lad wasn’t exactly handsome, more presentable than anything, not one to attract the ladies who came looking for the latest novels. His clothes weren’t new, but his mother had tailored them into a fair fit for him, the breeches tight over his thighs, the hose always clean and white. Yes, presentable. And knowledgeable. If only he didn’t spend every spare minute hidden in a book. That wasn’t what h was paid to do…
He picked up a copy of the advertisement that had been printed in the Intelligencer and the Mercury. A call to a meeting, it announced, for all who might be interested in founding a library. Leeds certainly needed something like that, a place to collect volumes that would educate and entertain, that people could read in comfort or borrow. There were things he’d love to have close by – Sir Edward’s collection of tracts from the Reformation, for instance. He knew they were for sale. Or Mr. Garside’s collection of pamphlets from the Civil War. And there were those volumes of Wilson’s pedigree volumes. All beautiful items but not right for a bookshop; they needed somewhere more permanent.
Mary had seen that and sparked the idea of a library. Each founding member would pay to own a share, she said, and then an annual subscription, so everything would fund itself. It had so many possibilities that sometimes he felt it might overwhelm him. There would be the added pleasure of Ogle’s bookshop supplying all the volumes, although the profit on each one would be negligible, of course. He wouldn’t want to be too forward. But the sign of the dial would be famous in Leeds.
When he’d mentioned the idea toReverend Priestley from Mill Hill Chapel, the man had beamed.
‘Excellent, Ogle, excellent.’ The man had shaken his hand, then turned and done the same with Parsons. ‘I’d be happy to subscribe to it.’
Others said the same.
It was Parsons who arrived at the idea of the meeting.
‘I’ve been thinking, sir,’ he’d said tentatively at the beginning of July.
‘What?’ Ogle asked. He’d been in the middle of taking town a volume of Tacitus, ready to wrap and send to Mr. Armistead in Chapel Allerton.
‘Surely it would be to everyone’s advantage to have as many subscribers to the library as possible.’
‘Of course,’ he agreed. ‘But we’ve passed the word and so far only fifty have said they’d do it.’
‘Have you considered placing an advertisement in the newspapers?’
He hadn’t. His first reaction was that it was simply too gauche, too…commercial.
‘You could call a meeting of everyone who might be interested,’ Parsons continued quickly. ‘If you announce it in both newspapers then everyone will see it.’
‘That’s a very good idea,’ he had to allow.
‘I was talking to Miss Mary when she was in here yesterday. She told me I should suggest it.’
That girl, Ogle thought. She’d rather spend her time in here than with a dressmaker or a dancing master. Two and three times every week she appeared, spending hours in the place. How was a father supposed to marry off someone who’d rather see a book than a young man?
Parsons would have been the ideal match for her. A pity he’d never have two pennies to rub together. He had no capital, nothing but his own desire to learn. At the very best he might become the manager of a bookshop one day. Without money, though, he could never an owner. However much he came to know the educated folk of Leeds who came in and spent their money, he’d never have pounds, shillings and pence to cross the gulf and become one of them.
‘Mr. Parsons,’ Ogle said, and this time there was no hesitation in the reply.
‘Is everything prepared for this evening? The ledger? Ink? Quills?’
‘Yes sir.’ The young man smiled. ‘I’ll bring them myself. When you finish I’ll be ready to take down the names of everyone who wants to join. I’ve checked with the inn. They’ll have plenty of seats and ale for everyone. Wine for those who want it.’
‘Very good.’ But he felt a growing sense of alarm. What if he couldn’t persuade many more that a library would be such an excellent addition to Leeds, to give the town its own Alexandria? All he’d end up with would be a pitiful thing. Half a room at the back of the shop, nothing more. That was what his wife had feared. Not so much the failure, but the embarrassment that went with it. Caroline was a creature who loved society. His sons were the same, rarely in the house with all their engagements. They’d feel they daren’t show their faces and all because of him. ‘Go for your dinner, Mr. Parsons.’
‘I’m too nervous to eat, sir,’ the young man said with a gentle smile.
‘So am I,’ Ogle admitted.
At six o’clock he closed the door and turned the key in the lock. The weather outside was hot enough to cause the skin around his neck to prickle, itchy and uncomfortable. He kept scratching at it but nothing helped. Mary had arrived a few minutes before, fussing about him in the way women did. She adjusted his stock and combed his hair with her fingers before placing a quick kiss on his cheek.
‘It’s going to be a big success, Papa,’ she said. ‘I know it will.’
‘She’s right, sir,’ Parsons added. ‘It’s bound to be. Just imagine…a library, here.’
Historical note: The advertisement for that first meeting on August 9, 1768 ran in both Leeds papers, and read in part that “a Library of this Nature will be an Honour to the Town, and a capital Advantage to the Inhabitants, especially in future Time.” One hundred and four people agreed to subscribe and the library opened on November 1 that year in a room above Ogle’s shop. Whether Ogle (or his daughter) was the instigator doesn’t matter in the cause of a good tale. But Mary Ogle became the librarian after her father died in 1774.
The library also occupied other premises before finding its home on Commercial Street, where it’s been since 1808. These days the Leeds Library is the oldest subscription library in Britain, still a wonderful place for meeting, learning, and reading. And very much an honour to the town. Read more about it here.