Literary Institutions : St Nicholas' library

Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead. Originally published by Mackenzie and Dent, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827.

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Eneas Mackenzie, 'Literary Institutions : St Nicholas' library', Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827), pp. 490-496. British History Online [accessed 24 June 2024].

Eneas Mackenzie. "Literary Institutions : St Nicholas' library", in Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827) 490-496. British History Online, accessed June 24, 2024,

Mackenzie, Eneas. "Literary Institutions : St Nicholas' library", Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827). 490-496. British History Online. Web. 24 June 2024,


About the latter part of the reign of king Henry VIII. Bibles and other religious books were chained in the choir, and other convenient parts of churches, where the parishioners might come and read them. There seems to have been a library of this description in St. Nicholas' church. It is not known when the books were removed into a separate apartment; but it appears, in the register of burials in this church, that a person was buried, January 12, 1597, "before the library door." This library door was the entrance into the old vestry of the church, which was a small low building of two stories, not reaching so high as the leads of the church. The first floor was occupied as the vestry; and the floor above contained the books, with all their old and curious iron chains attached to them, and which were separated from many of the books by the librarian in 1826. This library seems to have been under the patronage and control of the corporation of Newcastle, by whom the Rev. William Nicholson, curate of St. Nicholas', was, in 1677, appointed librarian, with a salary of £3 per annum. The connexion of the corporation with this establishment is also proved by the form in which Mr. John Cosins, draper and alderman of Newcastle, bequeathed books to it:—"Also," it is expressed in the will, "I do give and bequeath unto the said mayor and burgesses one hundred volume of books; sixty whereof to be in folio, and the rest in quarto—so many thereof to be taken out of the number of my own books as the ministers of the town shall think meet—the rest to be bought and provided by my executrix, such as the said ministers shall agree upon and appoint under their hands; which said books I will shall be added to the library of St. Nicholas' church." Mr. Cosins' books not being approved of, £90 were given as an equivalent, with which choice books were purchased. Previous to this time, various valuable works had been presented to the library; and subsequently, in 1720, Nicholas Fenwick, mayor of Newcastle, and in the following year, Nathaniel Ellison, D. D. vicar, made valuable presents to this library, which at that time contained upwards of 300 volumes, some of which, it has been said, "are not to be found either in the famous library of the late king, or in the British Museum." Forty-one of the books, the greater part of them single volumes, have been valued by competent judges at £582, 5s. 6d. Amongst these is a fine manuscript copy of the Bible, very neatly written on vellum, with many beautiful illuminations, which appears to have belonged to the church at Hexham. Brand supposes it must be upwards of 600 years old. It wants a few leaves, and seven large illuminated capitals. Another work, "The Boke named the Royall," printed by Richard Pynson, is so extremely rare, that the edition has not been described, or even mentioned, by Dibden, in his Typographical Antiquities.

Mr. Nicholson, the librarian before mentioned, was succeeded by the Rev. Nathaniel Clayton, curate of St. Nicholas'; and in 1696, when the Rev. Charles Stoddart became assistant curate of this church, he was, at the same time, made librarian. The corporation, in 1734, bestowed this office upon the Rev. William Thompson, under curate of St. Nicholas'; and, as the library had been much increased by bequests and donations, the salary was raised to £11, 7s. 4d. per annum.

This church library being further augmented by 1600 books presented by the Rev. Dr. Thomlinson, Walter Blackett, Esq. built a handsome fabric, in the modern style, upon the scite of the old vestry, for their reception. On the front is the following inscription:—" This Library was built by Walter Blackett, Esq. for the Books of the Rev. Dr. Thomlinson and other benefactors, 1736." Mr. Blackett, afterwards Sir Walter Blackett, Bart, also endowed this establishment with a rent-charge of £25 per annum, for a librarian. Dr. Thomlinson likewise bequeathed to the corporation of Newcastle, for public use, all the residue of his books (except the duplicates of English books), to be put into this library; and purchased a rent-charge of his friend, Sir W. Blackett, of £5 per annum, to be a perpetual fund for the purchase of new books. The principal regulations under which this library exists are contained in the following codicil to the will of its great benefactor, Dr. Thomlinson:—

"Whereas I, the Rev. Robert Thomlinson, doctor of divinity, have made and duly executed my last will and testament in writing, bearing date the 18th day of this instant November, in the year of our Lord 1745; Now I hereby ratify and confirm the same. And whereas my worthy and generous friend, Walter Blackett, of Wallington, in the county of Northumberland, Esq. hath, at his own expense, built over the vestry of the church of St. Nicholas, in Newcastle upon Tyne, a handsome fabric, consisting of two stories, for the reception of my books and those of other benefactors, and has endowed the same with a rent-charge of twenty-five pounds a year, to be paid to a library-keeper, to be named and appointed in such manner as I shall, by any deed or will attested by two or more credible witnesses, direct and appoint: And whereas I have, by an instrument under my hand and seal, duly appointed the Rev. Nathaniel Clayton, bachelor of divinity, to be the first librarian, on such conditions as therein mentioned: And whereas I have put into the said fabric or library above one thousand six hundred books; and, for the increase of the said library, have purchased of the said Walter Blackett a rent-charge of five pounds a year, to be a perpetual fund to supply the said library with books. Now I hereby give and devise unto the said Walter Blackett, and the Rev. Thomas Sharp, doctor in divinity, and archdeacon of Northumberland, all the books which I have already put into the said library aforesaid; and also all the residue and remainder of my books, except duplicates of English books, in trust, to be placed in the library aforesaid, for such uses, intents, and purposes, as are mentioned and expressed in the orders and statutes of the said library, made, appointed, and subscribed by the said Walter Blackett and me. And also I give and devise unto them my said trustees as many of the twenty-four presses in my study at Whickham as can be placed in the upper and lower library, in trust, to be placed therein; and according to the power and authority to me given as aforesaid, I hereby direct and appoint that each librarian, or keeper of the library aforesaid, after my death, shall from time to time be elected, nominated, and appointed, and also removed and displaced, by such person and persons, and in such manner as is hereinafter mentioned; that is to say, that the said Walter Blackett, for and during his natural life, shall from time to time have the sole nomination and appointment of the library-keeper or librarian of the library aforesaid; and also full power and authority, for just cause, to remove and displace the present or any other librarian, and elect, nominate, and appoint another in the room and place and stead of him who shall be so removed. And after the death of the said Walter Blackett, that the heirs male of the body of the said Walter Blackett shall from time to time have the like power of election, nomination, and appointment of such library-keeper, and also the like power, for reasonable cause, to remove and displace the same, and to elect and appoint others in the room of such who shall be so displaced. And I hereby direct and appoint further, that failing the said Walter Blackett and the heirs male of his body, then the mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne aforesaid for the time being, the archdeacon of Northumberland for the time being, the vicar of Newcastle upon Tyne for the time being, and the lecturer of St. Nicholas' church aforesaid for the time being, or the majority of them, shall from time to time have the election, nomination, and appointment of such library-keeper; and also shall have the power, for just cause, to remove and displace the same, and elect, nominate, and appoint others, in the room and place of those who shall be so removed. And if at any time the four trustees should be equally divided, then the mayor of Newcastle to have the casting vote. And my mind and will further is, and I hereby direct and appoint, that after the death or removal of any librarian, another librarian shall within twenty days be chosen from and amongst the then licensed curates of the churches of St. Nicholas, All Saints, St. John's, and St. Andrew's, in Newcastle upon Tyne aforesaid, preference being given to those of St. Nicholas: And in default of making such election of a librarian within twenty days in manner aforesaid, then my will is, that the rector of Whickham for the time being, the rector of Ryton for the time being, and the rector of Gateshead for the time being, or the majority of them, shall have power to elect, nominate, and appoint such library-keeper for that turn only: and afterwards each librarian or library-keeper of the said library shall from time to time be elected, nominated, and appointed, and also removed and displaced, by such other person or persons, and in such manner, as herein before mentioned, and not by the said rectors of Whickham, Ryton, and Gateshead; it being my mind and will that the said rectors shall not have the election, nomination, and appointment of the library-keeper at any time other than when default of making election of a librarian within twenty days shall happen; and that then the said rectors shall have the election for that turn only, and shall have no power to elect afterwards until the like default shall happen again. And my mind and will is, that each librarian shall give such security, and be subject to such rules, orders, and regulations, as are already made and ordained, or shall hereafter be made or ordained for that purpose by the said Walter Blackett and me. And it is my mind and will that the said Walter Blackett, during his life, and the archdeacon of Northumberland for the time being, shall be visitors jointly of the said books; and after the said Walter Blackett's death, that the heirs male of his body, together with the archdeacon of Northumberland for the time being, shall be visitors; and failing the said Walter Blackett and his heirs male, that the mayor of Newcastle aforesaid for the time being, and the archdeacon of Northumberland aforesaid for the time being, jointly, shall be visitors for ever. And I do hereby declare, direct, and appoint that the business of the said visitors shall be to visit the said books once a year at least, and to examine the catalogue of books, and see that all the books are there, and to correct and rectify all abuses, and to hear and determine all complaints, and to punish the breach of the said rules, orders, and statutes. And my will is, that the time and manner of visiting be according to the statutes or rules aforesaid. And it is my mind and will, that this be, and be deemed and taken to be, a codicil to and a part or parcel of my said last will and testament. In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal, this 20th day of November, in the year of our Lord 1745.—R. THOMLINSON, (L. S.)"

"Signed, sealed, published, and declared by the above named Dr. Robert Thomlinson, as and for a codicil to his fast will and testament, in the presence of us, who at his request, and in his presence, and also in the presence of each other, have set our names as witnesses.—ROBERT CHAMBERS. CUTHBERT TAYLOR. GEORGE DODS."

The Rev. Nathaniel Clayton, B. D. who was appointed librarian by Dr. Thomlinson, discharged the duties of that office with great punctuality and affability; and the library was a place of great resort for the literary gentlemen of the town. Previous to Mr. Clayton's death, the library was examined by the catalogue, and not one single book was found wanting. His successor, the Rev. Richard Brewster, A. B. was appointed librarian September 24, 1750, when the library began to be neglected. The Rev. John Ellison, A. M. succeeded to this office December 20, 1756; but after the year 1788, the Rev. Atkinson Hird, the under curate of St. Nicholas', became his deputy. The various duties, however, that Mr. Hird had to perform, left him no time to devote to the library.

On May 12, 1788, the late Mr. William Charnley, bookseller, wrote to Dr. Sharp, the archdeacon of Northumberland, hoping that he would "apply to the vicar and Mr. Mayor, and not let so valuable a collection of books any longer remain useless to the public, and liable to be entirely spoiled." Dr. Sharp having neglected to notice this letter, Mr. Charnley addressed the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of Durham on the subject. These letters being published, the matter was discussed in several communications to the editor of the Newcastle Advertiser in 1789, and in which the writers mostly agreed in charging the librarian with a total neglect of his duty for twenty years past, and with not purchasing any books during that time with the £5 he had annually received. This public censure produced some effect, and the library in the upper room was occasionally opened from 9 to 12 o'clock in the morning: but as "the public neither knew when to go, what power to use when there, nor what books the library contained," a gentleman of Newcastle addressed a letter, dated May 7, 1801, to Dr. Barrington, bishop of Durham, begging his lordship's interference, and the publication of the rules and catalogue. His lordship returned a polite answer; but it seems he had no authority to redress the abuses complained of.

In 1803, the Rev. Joseph Wilkinson became librarian; and, during his time, the library was, as usual, completely neglected. In the Catalogue of the Library of the Literary and Philosophical Society, published in 1811, the following note was given: "N. B. The library of the late Dr. Thomlinson is open every morning, holidays excepted, from half past nine to twelve o'clock." The committee of that Society at this time offered to be at half the expense of printing the catalogue, the other half to be raised by private subscription; but this, it is said, was prevented by some of the trustees! On Mr. Wilkinson's death in 1813, the present librarian, the Rev. John Barnet, was appointed. Two years afterwards, Mr. Alderman Cookson, senior, laid the disgraceful state of this library before the corporation. The building, he said, might as well be without a roof, for any water it prevented from coming upon the books; and as for windows, there was hardly one in decent repair in the place. This induced the corporation to pass a resolution to repair the building, put in new windows, paint the presses, and bind and otherwise repair the books; but this generous offer was strangely neglected by the trustees. In the first edition of the History of Northumberland, published by Mackenzie and Dent, vol. ii. page 738, it is observed that, in consequence of the public indignation being excited, the library "was partially opened, though every artifice was used to render the visits that were made as disagreeable as possible." In order also to close the library against the public, and against all general utility, a set of rules was made and hung up by somebody in the library, containing some absurd restrictions on the lending of books to persons requiring literary assistance in writing a work. Such additional regulations were not necessary, as the original rules were sufficiently obnoxious to literary men in modern times, as will appear from the following copy of the thirteenth statute in Dr. Thomlinson's library:—"That every one that comes to study in the library shall first subscribe his name to observe the following orders and rules contained in a book prepared for that purpose, namely: 1. That he will not abuse the fabric, books, or furniture in the library, wherein he is admitted to study. 2. That whenever he comes into it, he must immediately apply himself to study modestly and in silence. 3. That he will not in his own person take away or change any book or books, or any title-page, leaf, print, map, or index, contained in them; that he will not tear, cut, write, interline, blot, mark, or any ways injure or abuse them or any part of them. Neither, fourthly, will he employ or connive at any person or persons so doing, but will do every thing in his power to prevent such abuses, and make information within three days, to one or both of the visitors, of every offender or offence against the above particulars that come to his knowledge. If any one shall refuse to subscribe to the observance of these rules, or after subscription shall transgress them, and shall not make such satisfaction for any injury done by him, as one or both of the visitors shall adjudge reasonable, the librarian must not suffer him to study or stay in the library." This attempt to make every one that visited the library a spy upon his neighbour, and the prohibiting readers, by another regulation, from using pen and ink, could only be conceived or tolerated at a time when the proper management of public libraries was not well understood. Yet, even in our day, the librarian of this institution ventured to make the following absurd rule:— "It is requested that every person who comes to study in this library come in a white shirt and white neckcloth!" (fn. 1)

That the librarian has no right to make and enforce new rules, must be generally admitted; and it may even be doubted whether Dr. Thomlinson himself legally possessed such powers. This foundation was always understood to be the Corporation Library; its principal benefactors were the corporation, and the mayors and aldermen of the town; Cosins' bequest was to the mayor and burgesses; Thomlinson's monument says his bequest of books was to the corporation of Newcastle; the corporation paid the librarian; and the gentleman appointed librarian, in the codicil of the doctor's will, had been previously appointed by the corporation of Newcastle. Sir Walter Blackett was permitted by the corporation to rebuild the library and vestry, to hold the books presented by Dr. Thomlinson and those of other benefactors: it is also to be remarked that the doctor gave 1600 volumes unconditionally; at least, there appears no documentory evidence to the contrary. Considering these facts, it may fairly be asked by what right the doctor resumed control, by testamentary legislation, over what he had freely given; and trammelled, by new conditions, trustees, rules, and statutes, a foundation which belonged to the mayor and burgesses of the town ? He, indeed, nominated as chief trustee, with the casting vote, the mayor of Newcastle for the time being; which, in the midst of his well-intended, but ill-judged desire to re-model the rules, shewed some deference to the original establishment.

About the year 1819, T. W. Beaumont, Esq. M. P. who is charged with the payment of £25 a year from Sir Walter Blackett for the librarian, and £5 a year for books from Dr. Thomlinson, withheld the money, because it was not properly applied; but it appears that he was so importuned on the subject, that he ordered the money to be paid, merely to get rid of a teazing correspondence. The corporation also, in 1822, withheld the £11, 7s. 4d. which they had regularly paid the librarian since the year 1734; and it is understood they continue to refuse paying this salary, on the just ground that the library is neglected, and has long ago ceased to be useful to the public. It is further alleged, that the £5 per annum, bequeathed for the purchase of new books, have not been applied to that object; and that the room immediately above the library, which contained most of the old valuable books, is seldom opened to visitors, and for a good reason, as it has been publicly stated, without contradiction, that "many a basketful of old books had been sold for waste paper!"

After this library had been visited by George Forster, Esq. mayor, and the Rev. Archdeacon Singleton, in 1826, some progress was made in cleaning the books, which are in a most miserable condition; and Mr. Charnley, bookseller, obtained permission to arrange and print a catalogue, with the rules and statutes, for sale, at his own risk. By the catalogue, the public would discover what books the library contained; and by the regulations, the proper hours of attendance, which are said to be from 10 to 12 o'clock in the forenoon, and from 2 to 4 in the afternoon, every day, Sundays excepted. But, after all, this library will never become extensively useful while it is kept by a curate, who has various other duties to perform during the library hours, and who considers the cash paid him as librarian merely as a make-weight to his salary. The place in which it is kept is also inconvenient; as neither the beadle nor any of the other servants of the church have any interest in keeping the apartments clean, or being attentive to visitors. (fn. 2)


  • 1. Some letters on the abuses of this library appeared in the Tyne Mercury and the Durham Advertiser, in the years 1820 and 1821. In the former year, Mr. Robert Nichol circulated a hand-bill, apprising the public of the precise time the library was (or ought to be) open for inspection. About this time also, a small anonymous pamphlet appeared, entitled, "The Rights of the Public to the valuable Library at St. Nicholas' Church, Newcastle, duly considered. Printed for the Author, and sold by John Sykes." In 1824, Mr. John Bell, surveyor, printed 27 copies of an 8vo. pamphlet, containing the codicil to Dr. Thomlinson's will, and several letters which had been previously published on matters relative to the library. But the most able review of the subject is contained in four letters, signed Tim Tunbelly, which appeared in the Newcastle Magazine for 1823, and which have furnished the writer of the above with many valuable hints. A copy of Thomlinson's will, that belonged to the late Alderman Hornby, was presented by Miss Hornby to the Antiquarian Society, at their anniversary meeting in 1827.
  • 2. Another public library was lately commenced in this town, and, after a trial, given up. On December 1, 1819, a few religious gentlemen met at Mr. Finlay's, the bookseller, in Mosley Street, to consult on the formation of a Theological Library. This meeting adjourned until the 15th of that month, at which time the members met at the Cordwainers' Hall, in the High Bridge, the Rev. John Tyson in the chair, when the rules of such an institution, prepared by the provisional committee, were received and accepted. The intended institution was designated, "The Newcastle upon Tyne Theological Library, into which the writings of all authors, admitting the authority of divine revelation, shall be admissible, except such writings as advocate the peculiarities of Socinianism, or Unitarianism." To admit such books would be, it was conceived, "a compromise of the blessed, but awfully important interests of religion." The subscribers again met at Fletcher's Long Room on March 22, 1820, when officers were elected, and it was resolved to commence the library immediately. The society was governed by a president, a treasurer, two secretaries, and eight male members. Each subscriber paid either ten guineas for life, or one guinea annually. Mr. Finlay was the first librarian, and was succeeded by Miss Anna Bell, when the books were kept in a room above Mr. Thomas Bell's shop, in Union Street, where attendance was given for five hours during three days in the week. The library was subsequently removed back to Mr. Finlay's premises in Mosley Street. Three annual meetings were held; but the institution did not prosper. Only 55 members in all were procured, and these paid their subscriptions very irregularly. Some affirmed that it was ruined by the adoption of the exclusory principle. However that may be, its warmest patrons were obliged to relinquish the scheme, and to agree to the sale and division of the library.