On Saturday 20 May, as part of Glebe Library’s 20th anniversary celebrations, actors Lyn Collingwood, Elaine Hudson and Kim Knuckey gave a PowerPoint presentation. This is the edited script:

When Glebe became a municipality in 1859 the big end of town felt an obligation to raise the literacy level of their humbler neighbours. They held a meeting in the University Hotel to discuss establishing a local School of Arts. Where would it be? The Bishop of Sydney offered a piece of land on condition that a cleric be the trustee. That idea was rejected. There was talk that the government would give them a site ‘near the creek’ but the School of Arts ended up renting rooms in the University Hotel, open for a few hours a week. It had a small library. William Burne was elected the School’s first Secretary.

Enthusiastic members of the School of Arts committee included wine and spirit merchant Percy Charles Lucas (he helped open up Jenolan Caves where the Lucas Cave commemorates his father). Books were donated by Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Sir Daniel Cooper, and judge Edward Wise who saw education as a means of uplifting the underprivileged and supported the Sydney Ragged Schools and the Working Men’s Book Society. We don’t know what books Cooper and Wise gave but we do know the contribution of politician John Campbell, Glebe’s representative on the Legislative Council, – ten volumes of the Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Council!

It was going to be hard work arousing working-class interest in the Glebe School of Arts. Sydney University’s Dr Woolley had some ideas on attracting young unmarried people by offering gardening and botanical studies, tea and coffee making facilities, music classes, a conversation room and a ‘smoking room’. It is a patent fact that people do smoke and, good or bad, nothing will prevent them. If the public house is the only place where smoking is allowed, people will go to the public house. Let us put our bodily shoulders to the wheel and we will perhaps eclipse the old lady in Pitt St. CHEERS

(That ‘old lady’ was the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts which had its own building and a large library.)

George Wigram Allen of Toxteth Park pledged money: ‘When the collector comes around I’ll be ready with my mite. CHEERS Fellow Methodist Jabez Bunting reminded the meeting that Allen had already been a generous benefactor and had paid 5 guineas for life membership:

‘The library is small but good. All that is necessary is that the people should come forward. A thousand pounds is nothing. CHEERS AND LAUGHTER Why, if a site is granted I myself will undertake to collect the £1000 in six months. CHEERS

A thousand pounds! Why, the President has promised £100 and Mr George Wigram Allen £50. CHEERS

This was quite a short speech from Jabez who loved the sound of his own voice. At other Glebe meetings there were cries of ‘time!’ ‘shut up!’ ‘lie down!’. Jabez eventually resigned in a huff from the School of Arts committee.

Apart from the Church there were other groups who wanted to push their own views. Napoleon Levell put the case for buying books on military training for the ‘protection of hearth and home’:

‘There is a necessity that volunteers should be enrolled for defensive purposes, it should also be remarked that every man should have a certain amount of training in military tactics, with a view to the accomplishment of this purpose, it was intended by the members of the Glebe School of Arts that every useful publication calculated to promote this object should be purchased and laid upon the table of the institution.

But this laudable proceeding cannot be adopted owing to the non-attendance of even a sufficient number of the committee to form a quorum.’

In October 1860 a public meeting heard the School of Arts first annual report. The year had been marked by factions and squabbling, the committee had broken the lock after the Secretary refused to hand over the library key. Most of the records were missing. After Mr Walker bemoaned the apathy of his ‘end of town’ in realising his vision of the college and club of the working man, the Treasurer W T Pinhey read the balance sheet:

‘During the year as much as £70 has been received, but all that reached me has been £15.10.0. I mention this because I do not wish it to go forth that so important a suburb as The Glebe has during the year raised only the small sum of £15.10.0. I might also say that of the money spent by the late Secretary no account has been kept. The balance sheet shows receipts £15.10.0; expenditure £14.11.0; leaving a balance of 19 shillings.’

What’s this little boy borrowing? Something by Cornelia Spencer. She’s gone out of fashion and unlikely to be rediscovered. None of her once popular children’s books are in today’s library catalogue. And… who is this child? (Source: Annual Report of the City Librarian 1963)

Glebe’s first School of Arts folded after 18 months. The life members didn’t get much for their money, and committee member Ambrose Thornley was left to find ways pay off its debts. To add to Glebe’s chagrin the Balmain School of Arts was flourishing and about to move into its own building.

The next attempt to bring reading to a wider circle came with the opening in 1880 of the new Glebe Town Hall housing the Glebe Municipal Free Library and Reading Room with £200 from the government and 100 books. A year later the Evening News asked – who selected the books?

‘Many of the books are said to be more suitable for a clergyman than for general circulation among the ratepayers. No less than seven works relating to the Life of Christ are provided for the benefit of members, and unless the tastes of the Glebeites are materially different from the ordinary run of people, it is estimated that fully one half of the books will never be removed from the library shelves.’

And they weren’t. The £200 was spent. For a time local residents were allowed to take books home; but because a by-law was revoked this practice was stopped and the volumes mildewed on the shelves. There was some interest in the newspapers donated by their proprietors but not everyone was left to read in silence:

‘I should like to call the public attention to a matter of disgraceful conduct allowed to be carried on nearly every night by a few well-dressed roughs, at our Public Free Library, Glebe. Instead of coming to the room to look at papers, they come straight in, and plump down at the table to talk about their own silly, disgusting nonsense.’

By 1906 attendance had dwindled so much that the Glebe Town Hall library closed.

By 1923 a revived but modest Glebe School of Arts, its main activity billiards, had been operating from various temporary addresses, its last a hall in Derby Place. In 1924 it finally got its own building – at 191 Bridge Rd. The ‘Glebe School of Arts and Literary Institute’ sounds highfalutin’ but was devoted to neither of these pursuits. It was dominated by its six billiard tables. There were games rooms where draughts championships were held, and a lecture room upstairs where lady members could hold meetings at no charge. Vice president of the Glebe School of Arts was E A Boyle a billiards champion and billiards referee. In 1927 the Evening News carried a headline ‘Books or Billiards?’

The Council gave money every year for the School of Arts to buy books but who knows where the money went? In 1933 the School of Arts was raided by police. They found people playing a fruit machine. The young manager, despite his assertions that they could exchange chits for library fees, was fined £5 for allowing gambling on the premises. The School of Arts kept going with billiards and snooker. Champion Horace Lindrum played there and it was the venue for 21st birthday parties, wedding receptions and protest meetings such as the 1950 banning of the Communist Party by Prime Minister Menzies. Over the years the building grew shabby and abandoned vehicles were a feature of its grounds.

In 1956 the Bridge Rd School of Arts was turned into a branch of the City of Sydney Public Library at a cost of nearly £22,000 to serve Glebe’s population of 20,000. It was opened in September by Sydney Lord Mayor Pat Hills. In November 1956 the Duke of Edinburgh flew over Sydney in a helicopter and visited South Sydney Police Boys Club, Victoria Park Swimming Pool, the Kent St parking station – and the newly opened Glebe Public Library. 

His Royal Highness, Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, shown inspecting the Glebe Branch on the occasion of his visit on the 30 Nov. 1956 (Source: City of Sydney archives)

Librarian Miss S Parsons was keen to make the children’s library welcoming, and held children’s parties and film evenings there. An experiment to encourage reading at the Glebe Police Boys Club proved no match for the attractions of boxing, wrestling and jiu jitsu and the small collection of books went up in flames with the rest of the clubhouse in 1962. There was also a mobile library van for the aged and infirm, and book stations at schools and kindergartens such as Hilda Booler.

The Glebe branch on Bridge Rd lasted until 1995 by which time the non-stop traffic outside meant no parking. Plus no disabled access and the roof was leaking. Where to move it?

There was a vacant block of land overgrown with weeds on the corner of Wigram Rd and Glebe Point Rd where the Children’s Hospital used to be.

Benledi, a homeopathic hospital from 1915, had closed in 1989. What about knocking it down? A heritage order stopped that, although the red brick admissions building in front was demolished. The NSW Government planned to sell Benledi to Corrective Services as a facility for women about to leave prison. The proposal divided the community.