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History of Libraries in the Port Talbot District

Photo from Neath & Port Talbot Life by David Roberts

The Cambrian newspaper for July 11th, 1902, carries an interesting first reference to the establishment of a free library in the town, stating that “Mr Carnegie, of millionaire fame, has been busy as of late with grants of money for the establishment of free libraries throughout the land. He has now got as far as Bridgend, and now someone suggests that Aberavon should make a representation to be included in his free library net, as if Aberavon’s rates already were not more than one could bear. Apart from a site, and the cost of building upon it, there is the establishment and maintenance charges, which would mean a 2d or 3d rate. Aberavon’s rates are now about the highest in the country, and it is time to put the ‘drag’ on unless the town is to be denuded of its population”. (Ironically, press statements today place local rates as the highest in the country, so that history does appear to repeat itself.) However, it was not Aberavon, but Margam Urban District Council which was to take up the challenge. The principle instigator was Cllr. William Lewis, J.P. (1863-1941) who was to become the first Labour Chairman of the council in 1911. A dedicated, caring and well-read man, he wrote to Andrew Carnegie to solicit his aid in establishing a free public library in the district. He also appealed to Miss Emily C. Talbot for her support and the land to build upon. He was eventually successful on both counts, but initial discussions and meetings in 1902 were not fruitful. There was some local opposition, and proximity of the successful Victoria Institute added doubts as to the necessity of another library. Two public meetings on the subject were held prior to the adoption of the Public Libraries Act by the Margam Council on the 14th March, 1904.

        Long-drawn-out discussions and further council meetings took place before any substantial moves forward during 1911-12. Miss Talbot generously provided a site in Taibach, on the main road near the east bank of the Ffrwdwyllt. The conveyance and deed of gift stipulated that the land could never be used for any other purpose than that of a library and residence for a librarian or caretaker. Miss Talbot, as donor of the sites for several pubic buildings in the area, had similar clauses in all relevant documents, ensuring that such land or buildings were for public use in perpetuity. Miss Talbot also gave the sum of £100 towards the purchase of books. The Carnegie U.K. Trust provided £2,500 towards the cost of the building, with the Council raising further funds through rates.

        Plans for the new library, in the classical style, were drawn up by John Cox, the District Surveyor. Built of dressed Pennant stone, with facings, balustrades and portico of Bath stone, the building work was carried out by local contractor Vaughan John, at the cost of £2,306/17/6d. Work stated on the site in June 1914, and Councillor Lewis laid the foundation stone at a ceremony on the 18th July, 1914, with a large and enthusiastic crowd present.  He was presented with a handsome inscribed ceremonial gavel made especially for the occasion. The contract for the furnishings and fittings was undertaken by John Nicholas, the old-established Port Talbot Sawmills and Joiners Works. Completion should have been by the summer of 1915, but was delayed until June 1916. The opening ceremony was performed by Councillor William Lewis. The commodious building comprised an entrance hall, juvenile library, reference and a magazine room, and a closed access lending library downstairs. A ladies’ reading room, librarians’ office and large lecture hall were upstairs. The lending library did not open until January 1917. The Chief Librarian was David S.J. Hughes (1875-1957), a native of North Wales with family origins in Brecon. He married Violet Preston, daughter of Captain James Preston of Richmond House, Taibach. The Librarian’s first report refers to the supply of books by Mr Day for stocking the library, and tabulation being completed for circulating the books. In 1921 the Borough of Aberavon merged with Margam Urban District Council, and within three years the new Borough Libraries department had taken up responsibility for part-time libraries in the old institutes at Bryn and Cwmavon.

In its early years the lending library at Taibach was operated by closed access. This means that readers could only choose books from an Indicator Board displaying the titles available, or the choice dictated by individual librarians. Books were issued to readers by means of a small serving hatch in the wall of the lending library. In 1928 the Council decided that readers should be given their own choice, but it was not until 1931 that the Open Access system was introduced. David Hughes retired as Borough Librarian in 1941, having introduced many improvements to the library service. He was succeeded by his deputy, David Eaton (1887-1976), a native of Cwmavon who had joined the staff in 1926. He took an active part in local cultural affairs, became Secretary of the Port Talbot W.E.A. and a member of the Gorsedd of Bards. He is best remembered as an enthusiastic local historian, writing numerous articles and giving lectures. He was President of the Port Talbot Historical Society from 1959 until his death. David Eaton was responsible for establishing a local history collection at the Central Library, encouraging local historians and others to donate books of Welsh and local interest. One of those early donors was the late J. T. Jones, MBE, and later deposits came from the personal libraries of Martin Phillips, James O’Brien, Lemul Jones and Moses Thomas.

        During the Second World War the local libraries played an important part in the social and educational life of the town. Book issues increased considerably whilst Mr Eaton and his staff in their Civil Defence roles had to take turns at fire watching at the main library. In his report for November 1940 Mr Eaton commented that “Owing to the uncertain movement of troops, I am very chary in allowing them to join the library. Many books have been lost as soldiers are neglecting to return them to the library prior to leaving town.” Provisions were later made for the loan of books to service personnel stationed locally. In 1942 numerous unwanted books were given to the library as part of the war salvage campaign. Most of these were to be pulped for paper salvage. However, some rate and antiquarian volumes were saved, notably a 1637 book of Bible commentaries by the Rev. Gervase Babington, bearing the handwritten name of Sir Leoline Jenkins (1625-85), from whose library it may have originated. David Eaton retired as Head Librarian in December, 1951, greatly respected for his excellent achivements.

        Miss Eirlys Richards (later Mrs Jock Martin) succeeded Mr Eaton as Borough Librarian. Miss Richards had worked for many years in the libraries department, latterly as Deputy Librarian. She continued to improve the services offered. Unfortunately, her tenure was blighted by two issues. Firstly, the Library Association threatened to blacklist the Authority for its salary grading and non-appointment of a Chartered librarian, which tainted Port Talbot for many years. More importantly and sadly, Miss Richards was responsible for destroying a part of the local history collection at Taibach Library, by cleaning out a storeroom of early local newspapers, together with other important local material, which was consigned to the dustbins. Her name was anathema to local historians for years. Miss Richards retired on her marriage in 1956, after 34 years service. Her successor was Miss Dorothy Mainwaring, B.A., A.L.A., the daughter of Councillor Tal. Mainwaring. Miss Mainwaring was the first Chartered Librarian to be appointed as Chief Librarian in Port Talbot. During her term as Librarian, she encouraged the Council to consider building new branches, stating in one report of 1957 that “The arrangement of books and shelving at the Central Library is particularly poor. The need for a new Central Library and Branch Library is vital in a town of Port Talbot’s size and growing importance.” Miss Mainwaring was popular with staff and readers, and sought to introduce several improvements to local libraries. Sadly she died at an early age in 1958.

        The last borough Librarian of Port Talbot was Donald Penning, F.L.A. (1913-86); born in Liverpool, he spent his formative years on the Isle of Wight, becoming a Chartered Librarian in 1942 whilst serving with the R.A.F. He served overseas in India, Australia and Burma. He was considered by many to be somewhat idiosyncratic, but nevertheless, during his management of the libraries Mr Penning succeeded in building one of the best library services in Wales. He was Librarian from 1959 to 1974. During this period Port Talbot saw new libraries built at Sandfields, Baglan and Cwmavon, with a book fund which grew from £4,000 in 1959-60 to £20,000 in 1973-74. Changes and improvements were made to Taibach Library, and suggestions were made in 1959 to appoint a Reference Librarian. This post was filled for many years by Mrs Gwerfyl Fowler as Reference Assistant, but it was not until 1967 that the first Reference Librarian was appointed in the person of Miss Sally Roberts, B.A. (Hons.), A.L.A. Unfortunately, this key post was recently deleted from the library establishment. The borough libraries gave a great boost to local cultural life during this period, organising Literary Dinners, poetry readings, art and local history exhibitions, children’s quizzes and storey hours, and other popular events. The library was also closely linked to the formation of the Port Talbot Society of Arts in 1970, the Port Talbot Literary Group and two successful art festivals in 1972 and 1974. Donald Penning retired from his post with the onset of local government reorganisation in 1974.

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