History of the Reading Rooms
THE HISTORY OF THE BILLERICAY READING ROOMS
SINCE THE 11TH MARCH, 1864.
The first official meeting of the Billericay Reading Rooms was held on the 11th March 1864 chaired by a Rev. G. L. Hansen, with Mr. M. F. Robertson - Head Master at local Grammar School, as Secretary, and Mr M. Keaveny - Workhouse Governor, as Treasurer when it was agreed that a Committee should be formed including Rev. E. L. Cutts, William Carter - Surgeon, R. L. Williams - Solicitor, and Mr. Salter - Iron Founder, and they would meet four times a year. The original Minute/Accounts may be seen in the Cater Museum on request.
The group grew to include local shopkeepers, and tradesmen who together with other members agreed to raise funds locally to build the first Billericay Reading Rooms as there a huge need `to educate the working classes’ and `to aid the growth and improvement of the common man’. This was at a time of huge unemployment, poverty, and discontent in the area and throughout England.
The Committee and members agreed to raise funds byorganising local social events, musical evenings, with public readings of books by authors like Charles Dickens with prices of tickets ranging from 1d to 6d for the wealthy. They wanted to raise enough money to build a Reading Rooms where men could have access to news, trade papers, and books to practise reading.
This would give them an opportunity to find new and better jobs perhaps outside Billericay (no job agencies only word of mouth) thereby improve the way of life for themselves and their families. The Public library did not come to Billericay until the 1930's some 80 years later. With no access to reading matters how do you learn, practise or find out what was happening – the Rooms would fill an urgent need to educate the people of Billericay.
When a policeman only earned £58.94 a year to keep himself and his family even 1d for a newspaper was too expensive for the ordinary people of Billericay. In 1864 a £1. was made up of 240d (pence), in present day terms, £84.00.
The current building replaced the previous building in 1886, funded by public subscription. These were not only to fund the building but also the running costs and the provision of the papers, and books.
The Reading Rooms was just one room with a cathedral ceiling, a stove which was only heated in extremely bad weather and lit by candles or oil lamps. The coming of the Free Public Libraries changed things and in the 1930’s the Rooms were used for recreation, billiards, and darts. Soon the Rooms fell into disuse.
Money for upkeep became a problem but with the help of the local Rotary and other Groups, a new enthusiastic committee was formed and in 1965 the Billericay Recreation Rooms Foundation, a charitable trust, was formed. In 2005, 2014 and 2015 additional grants were obtained from many sources for a complete refurbishment to bring the Rooms up to 21st Century standards.
In 2016 The Trustees decided that the name should be changed to The Reading Rooms, to reflect the many activities that now take place in the Rooms.
The main hall, with kitchen, is used for lectures and events for groups including the Workers Education Association, BASIS (the Blind & Sight Impaired Society), Meditation classes, plant sales, art displays, Ballet for babies and young children, cake decorating classes, children’s parties, fund raising events for charities, Weight Management classes, meetings of the Billericay District Residents Association, Annual General Meetings for local organisations and many other events.
In addition we have our Committee Room seating 12 or so, which is used for smaller events by companies and the private people for meetings, baby showers and similar events.
The Foundation is managed by Trustees and committee members who represent a cross section of the local residents and regular users of the premises. If anyone would like more information about the history of the Rooms the Committee would be delighted to hear from you.
If you are considering hosting an event, and have not yet been to visit the Rooms why not give us a ring to arrange to come and have a look?