“AN ORNAMENT TO THE TOWN” – THE MINUTE BOOK PROJECT
As a historian with a concern in the period and the locality I took a considerable interest in the early Minute Books of the Athenaeum books and soon realised that the narrative they provided cast light on Liverpool in the period, on the minutiae of the organisation of a library and newsroom but also on Georgian Associationalism as the historians have dubbed the Eighteenth Century enthusiasm for creating clubs, for social, educational, and sporting purposes As far as I am aware no similar material on this scale has yet been published. I decided that to transcribe edit and publish the book was a valuable exercise and the Records Society of Lancashire and Cheshire agreed, and decided that the book would be their publication for 2020. I realised very quickly that I needed more professional help in exploring the national significance of the creation and development of the Athenaeum I sought the collaboration of my friend Professor Mark Towsey, an expert on early libraries.
The transcription of the text of the book which contained 76000 words on 374 pages was a long job but not difficult because of the clear handwriting. but the text contained no hint as to the names of the writers.
The first part of the book comprises the meetings which established the club and set up its governance and laws. The ownership of their own premises was an advantage to the Athenaeum, unlike many other organisations who had to hire rooms in a pub The site in Church Street was leased from the Corporation of Liverpool and the ubiquitous architect of the town, John Foster, was commissioned to draw up plans. One of the first tasks of the new the Committee was deciding between alternative designs. The choice was made and Foster drew up the specifications for the new building. The job was put out to tender and, remarkably, Foster’s contracting business won the contract, quoting a cost of £3040 with furniture and fittings at an additional £291.10.
The Committees almost daily meetings were preoccupied with the constructional details and these Minutes cast light on the decor and furnishing of the Athenaeum building and these can be supplemented from plans and drawings We can picture the Coffee Room with its tables and mahogany chairs and an assortment of newspapers, the room illuminated by its Argand oil lamps and heated by fireplaces at either end. We learn that it had stone colour painted walls and green curtains. It had to wait until the 1840’s before a carpet covered the boarded and sanded floor. At the bar the Master of the Room dispensed tea, coffee and soup at prices fixed by Committee. This was organised on a franchise basis and did not prove financially viable. No alcohol was available, probably due to the strong Unitarian influence amongst the hierarchy. As we will see this was very nearly the downfall of the first Librarian.
Once the building and its equipment were complete, ten guineas were given to reward the workers and with beer at 2d per quart should have provided a good party! At the same time the library was being stocked with a collection of classical and religious works, and the standard reference books. These with other purchased from London bought on the advice of prominent scholars. To organise and run the Library Harry Gearing was appointed as the resident Librarian, but his consumption of spirits led to censure by the Committee. He retained the post but lost his accommodation in the building.
With the building complete and open (May 1800) the Committee settled down to a pattern of monthly meetings, to handle routine business with an annual general meeting held in July when changes to the Laws were accepted (usually) accounts approved and elections to the Committee and of officers took place. At the monthly meetings the agenda is usually similar. The purchase of books and newspapers were approved. The papers in particular were a constant source of discussion, as the choice of newssheets was constantly varied and the number of copies was altered, bills were paid, building maintenance ordered. Accounts and finance, then as now, preoccupied them and several solutions to their money problems we made.
Two issues caused much discussion. The first problem stemmed from the fact that corporate governance was something of a novelty, the rugged individuals who made up the membership, more used to competition than co-operation, were not always willing to adhere to the terms laid down by the Committee. A particular problem was the tendency of members to take the papers home with them, thus provoking a torrent of notices, threats and even ejection of the guilty. In 1803 Mr John Kirkman, was expelled but in an indignant letter was able to prove his innocence. The second noticeable feature is the decline in the seriousness and value of the business transacted by the Committee. Secondly in the later years there is a noticeable decline in the attendance of members of the committee, often without enough men present for the requirements of a quorum, despite a halving of the requirement. This may be attributed to a decline in the initial enthusiasm for the Institution
One of the disappointments of the Minute Book is that it records the resolutions made but is almost entirely free of any record of the debates, discussions, and disputes, animosities and associations that must have taken place. Just occasionally we get a glimpse of the personalities. A good example was when Lieutenant Colonel Maxwell complained that he had been defamed in illicit marginal annotations added to the Institution’s newspapers. As we read Colonel Blimps fulminations we should remember that the last duel fought in Liverpool with fatal results was between two members of the Athenaeum.
Another constant irritation was presented by the “Nominees”. These were young men, usually relatives of Subscribers who were admitted to use of the Library. Their sins were legion, they didn’t put the books back on the shelf, it was necessary to remind them of the behaviour anticipated “It is expected, no Gentleman will by promenading or loud conversation interrupt the Attention and study of the readers.” In addition to their boorish behaviour they left the door open making the rooms cold and the candles gutter. It is to the credit of the Athenaeum that they kept open this access to a fine reference library for the youth of the town. It was indeed an ornament to the town.
I have not touched on the broader implications of the Minute Book as an example of Associationalism or its importance as one of the most detailed records of the establishment of a Georgian club, or its social significance in the development of Liverpool’s cultural life.
The origins of this paper lie in the AGM of the Records Society which might have been attended by Athenaeum members but was cancelled in the face of the plague, It is to be hoped that, in spite of the present emergency the book will appear in the not too distant future and the Athenaeum as one of the original founding institutions of the Record Society will be able to arrange some sort of launch. The volume will be available to Proprietors in the Library.