The first library available for public use in Newcastle was housed in St Nicholas’ Church and dated back to the latter years of the 16th century.
The first record of a librarian occurs in 1677 when the Reverend William Nicholson, curate of St Nicholas’, was appointed to the post at a salary of £3 per annum.
By the 1720’s the library had approximately 300 volumes until January 1736 when Dr Robert Thomlinson, rector of Whickham, announced his intention of leaving his library to St Nicholas’ Church in a letter to the then Mayor of Newcastle, Walter Blackett. He initially endowed the library with 1600 of his books with the promise of the remainder on his death.
A small Classical structure was built to house the library; it was attached to St Nicholas’ Cathedral in a quiet spot at the back of the building, which can still be seen today. It is not known who designed the building, possibly Daniel Garrett or Thomlinson himself, but it is a fine example of Palladianism. The façade has five equal bays, separated by Ionic columns. The ground floor, which housed the vestry, is rusticated and unusually, the entrance is not centrally placed. The second floor which housed the old library has large pedimented windows and the top floor where Thomlinson’s collection was housed has smaller windows embellished with cornices. It was opened to the public in October 1741 with an endowment from Sir Walter Blackett of £25 per annum to fund the librarian’s salary and an annual income of £5 endowed by Thomlinson to be spent on the purchase of books, which were to be selected by himself during his lifetime, and afterwards by his trustees.
Thomlinson and Blackett were responsible for the stringent rules of the library, which were enforced with varying success by the appointed librarians. Books would have been chained to prevent them from being stolen!
On Thomlinson’s death in 1748 his books and bookcases were moved to the new library. There were over 7,000 volumes (including the earlier gift) of mainly 17th and 18th century books. The collection was a typical library of an 18th century man of letters. Often Thomlinson recorded in the books when and sometimes where he acquired them from and how much he paid for them.
The first librarian appointed to maintain the collection, the Reverend Nathaniel Clayton, performed his duties so well that not a single copy was missing on his death but after him the care of the collection was very patchy. The users complained about the lack of proper opening hours, the dearth of new books, the absence of a catalogue and the condition of the books themselves.
In 1829, the local bookseller, Emerson Charnley, catalogued the library at his own expense, but his work was inadequate and incomplete. Many books disappeared – in 1834 a solicitor’s clerk was transported for 7 years for stealing 174 volumes of books – and there were even rumours that some had been sold for waste paper!
By 1880 when the new free public library had been established its librarian, W.J. Haggerston, was commissioned to report on the Thomlinson library. He estimated that at least £400 would be required to restore it to use as the majority of the books needed rebinding. A considerable amount of cheap rebinding was carried out and is now in a worse condition than the original leather bindings. Several years were spent haggling about the location of the collection, but eventually, in 1885, 4351 volumes of Thomlinson’s Library were finally handed over the public library (the books of the old St Nicholas’ Library remaining in the church).
The entire collection has now been catalogued, with both author and subject catalogue, and details of all the 18th century books have been sent to the British Library for inclusion in the Short Title Catalogue of 18th Century Books.
Currently, a conservation programme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund is underway to preserve at least part of this unique collection. Environmentally controlled conditions in the new City Library (due to open in Summer 2009) will provide a safe storage and display area for all these valuable books and ensure that they will be available for many years to come.