History of the Reading Rooms

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READING ROOMS - 150 YEARS OF EMPOWERING BILLERICAY'S RESIDENTS

 

This will be a great year for the Reading Rooms - 150 years by initially starting to help the less privileged people of Billericay to learn to read and then over the ensuing years so much more. In the mid 1860's there was a great deal of social unrest in the whole of England with anger at the starvation wages, dreadful living conditions in both town and country.

So it was in March 1864 that a group of wealthy landowners and men from both the professional class and local tradesmen held their first formal meeting and committed to raising funds to help educate and improve the conditions for the people of Billericay. Few ordinary people could read or had access to material that would enable them to learn, but that was to change.

The Committee agreed to raise funds by organising social events, musical evenings, with readings of from books by authors like Charles Dickens with prices of tickets ranging from 1d to 6d so more people could enjoy the event. Their idea was to raise enough money to build the Billericay Reading Rooms which would allow men to have access to newspapers, magazines and books so that they could practise reading, find out what was happening in Billericay and in fact in Essex. This gave 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. If you wanted to improve yourself then the ability to read and learn was no less vital in 1860 then it is nowadays.

When a policeman only earned £54.00 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) and was worth, in present day terms, £84.00. With no access to reading matters how do you learn or practise or find out what was happening locally – the Rooms filled a urgent need for the people of Billericay. The library did not come to Billericay until the 1930's some 70 years later.

If you were poor there were no schools, only perhaps ladies willing to care for children and teach basic addition and a few words - IF you lived in Billericay itself and could also afford to pay them. If you could not read or add up you could only have hope to obtain the lowest jobs or go to the workhouse. The Committee wanted everyone to have the opportunity to learn to read.

It took until 1886, before enough funds were raised to allow the present Rooms to be built and open to the public (men only of course) with books to read and social events for all opening on the lst April, 1887, Funds continued to be raised by social events for the furnishing, new books and magazine. There have been other grants for major refurbishment and, as may be seen from our Home Page recently a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help with our 150th birthday celebrations.

Now 150 years later the Reading Rooms are still used for the same types of events - talks, lectures, learning new skills of many kinds, social events for all and family parties. One of the few secular buildings in Billericay still used for the purpose they were built for so long ago.

The Trustees have planned for a Grand Celebration for the weekend of the 7th, 8th and 9th March with help from four local schools contributing with displays, wall hangings, special projects and many other items relating to the 150 years since the Reading Rooms were envisaged by the Committee. A boast few organisations in Essex can top and so much more. See further information on our home page.

We hope shortly to have photographs of the event, the childrens' work, and perhaps even some of the cakes which sound scrumptious.

 

THE HIDDEN ASSET WITH A RICH AND COLOUR HISTORY

In the 1860’s newspapers ranged from 1 old penny upwards per issue, however with a Labourer earning £36.04d, Policeman £53.94d, and a Teacher £93.76d PER YEAR an old penny (1d)  was a huge amount of money. To buy or even to see a newspaper you had to be well to do or have rich friends who might let you look at their copy.

In 1864 the local squire, Major James Spitty, with friends founded the Billericay Recreational Rooms Foundation, now known as the Billericay Reading Rooms `to educate the working classes’ and `to aid the growth and improvement of the common man’.   They agreed that periodicals, newspapers and books be purchased and placed in the rooms for perusal by all.   With literacy so limited and no public libraries this was one of the few options for people to practise their reading and learn about current events.

The Billericay Reading Rooms, 73  High Street, are one of the hidden assets of Billericaywith buses, trains and parking close by . The early details of the Rooms appears to have been lost but we know that the current building replaced the original in 1886, with the Reading Rooms occupying only part and the remainder being a cottage, now a shop. Even though the Rooms are in the High Street, opposite the Mary Magdalene Church with the large Clock on its tower, most people if asked will say ` sorry I don’t know where they are’. In fact we were recently asked where the Rooms are by someone who works about 50 yards away.

Some of the original Minute Books from 1864, in beautiful copperplate writing, can be seen and read at the Cater Museum across the High Street. These include the costs of the fuel used, fund raising events including public readings of books, probably Charles Dickens as the Rooms had a copy in their library, with musical accomplishments and admission charges of 1d and 3d. Also there is talk of a fine of 6d for every offence of smoking in the Reading Rooms before 6pm or you would be referred to The Committee.

The Rooms held a good selection of newspapers and periodicals including the Times, Daily Telegraph, Chronicle, Punch, Illustrated News, English Mechanics, Building News, Weekly News and Essex Independent. The papers were available to read for a month and then sold to local people to help raise funds. At that time the Reading Rooms was just one room with a cathedral ceiling, with a stove which was only lit in extremely bad weather. They must have read with their hats, coats and gloves on, making turning pages difficult as the paper was so thin and the print so small in a room lit only by candle light or even oil lamp with any heat rising up to the ceiling many feet above.

In the early 1900’s the Rooms were open for ladies only on Wednesdays from 7.30am to 4.30p, but this was stopped in 1906 - the reason was not given in the Minutes. However in the Minutes there are recorded complaints about rowdyism but whether these two things were connected is not known. Moving on to the 1930’s the Rooms were mainly Recreation Rooms with a billiard table, darts and similar pastimes, though how anyone played darts or chalked a cue with thick gloves on is a mystery. The purchase of periodicals and books stopped and the rooms closed for long periods due to lack of finance. Later the books were sold off to raise funds - unfortunately one of the first issues of a Charles Dickens book disappearing at the same time - who knows where this is now? 

Problems with monies continued, with the Committee becoming less active, the rooms less used and they appear to have closed for about ten years from 1951 with apparently no committee meetings held. In 1961 one of the Rooms’ Committee member, Mr. Horace O. Iles advised the local Rotary Club about the problems and it was decided that, as the Rooms were originally built by public subscription, they try to save them for the benefit of Billericay residents as such a valuable asset was to a large extent being wasted.

With Rotary’s help a new enthusiastic committee was formed consisting of local professional people, other interested residents and organisations with the result that monies, including the proceeds of the Billericay Carnival be used to carry out much needed works.

In 1965 the Rooms were registered as a Charity, and a rear extension, a kitchen, toilet and storage rooms were added allowing the Rooms to be used for local events.

Forty years later in 2005 grants were obtained from many sources for a complete refurbishment, to bring the Rooms up to 21st Century standard. 

The rooms now have a whole host of uses, from classes on childbirth to holistic therapy and meditation, for art displays, plant sales, children’s parties and so much more.