by Marie Andrews
IN NITON PARISH CHURCHYARD, a red granite memorial covers the grave, unmarked for sixteen years after his death, of the man whose life was dedicated to turning that key for the ordinary man in the street.
Here lies Edward Edwards, chief pioneer of public libraries, his last poverty- stricken days made bearable only by the kindness of Niton people who barely knew him.
Born in London in 1812 he first visited Niton as a young man and returned again and again as if to a haven between the vicissitudes of his chequered career. In long walks over the downs and beaches of the Island he renewed his energies for the task he had set himself. Although no records of his schooling are available, he was always studious, serious and a passionate lover of books and writing. As a student he used the British Museum almost every day for a year. This seems to have been the beginning of a course of study calculated to prepare him for his life's work and he became so well-informed that, at the age of only 23, he was called before a parliamentary committee investigating the administration of the British Museum and its library. The evidence he gave with the confidence and authority of intensive research was worthy of a man many years his senior.
His knowledge of French, German and 17th century literature was extensive and at 24 he was already a pamphleteer on matters of public interest — universities, especially London, whose charter was then being discussed; the reform of the Royal Academy — a letter in this connection from Niton in 1839 was forty-four pages long; and on the British Museum where he was then employed as an assistant in the printed books department. There he helped to formulate the 91 rules for the development of a new catalogue, commencing with the Civil War tracts formed under Charles I and the Commonwealth. These consisted of 30,000 pieces and embraced 54,000 titles and references. Conscientiously and minutely detailed, this work took him several years. He considered the catalogue the 'eye' of the library.
In 1846'he began the immense task of collecting library statistics in Europe. He incessantly advocated the unrestricted access of the public to literary, artistic and scientific institutions supported by public money, arguing that it was the right not only of the privileged few but of all who wished to learn to be given the opportunity of doing so. He attacked the low salaries of the British Museum library staff; at the time even the Chief Librarian earned only £500 a year, and his efforts did, in fact, effect some improvement.
Unambitious for himself, asking only that all his work should result in free libraries for the people, he collaborated with two members of Parliament, William Ewart and Joseph Brotherton. His efforts behind the scenes and his years of painstaking study laid the firm foundation for the Bill which, with Ewart's legislative experience and charm, and Brotherton's dogged energy and drive, was successfully put through the House. This resulted in the Museums' Act of 1845 and the Libraries Act of 1850. In extensive correspondence between Ewart and Edwards it is obvious that Ewart asked the questions and Edwards supplied the answers. The speeches and committee work of the two MPs were based on the information and suggestions made by Edwards, quietly labouring in the background. And in 1852 the first free library was opened in Manchester with Edward Edwards as its first librarian.
William Ewart wrote to him, 'I must say that you and I have great reason to rejoice at the result of our exertions. Have we not planted for posterity?' Yet, for the years of work and devotion to the cause of free libraries, and the production of pamphlets, often printed at his own expense, the only traceable amount of payment he received was £65 altogether, paid at odd times by Ewart.
Under rather unhappy circumstances he left the British Museum — his salary just over £ 164 a year. A colleague there wrote to him: 'There are those at the present time who can, and do, appreciate your indefatiguable labours in the great and glorious cause of popular education but it is the future generations who are now being brought under culture who will have the greater cause to thank you.' As principal librarian in the Manchester Municipal Library his salary was £200 a year. Scholar, man of letters, with no precedent of a previous free library to use as a model, he had to organise every minute detail — shelving, furniture, lighting, heating, stationery forms and the directing of an often un-cooperative committee. Ordering the books and compiling the catalogue was a long and exhausting business; six weeks after the opening and in need of a holiday, he again came to Niton.
At the end of 1854 his detailed personal accounts showed eight shillings to carry over into the New Year; at the end of 1855, having sent £32.12 shillings to his mother, he had 2/11 d to carry for- ward into 1856.
Although he had no private means, and always gave far more value in work and effort than was rewarded monetarily, he was invariably generous to his mother and two unmarried sisters, never allowing them to know of his own financial difficulties.
He was undoubtedly a complex personality, a man of strong contrasts. In the cause of free libraries he would speak fearlessly to those in authority, confident in his extensive study of the subject, arrogant perhaps, even scornful of those less knowledgeable who stood in his way, yet in old age humble, almost servile. He loved children and managed somehow to subscribe to several charities for those in need. Of his own childless marriage little is known. His wife sometimes visited the Island with him — Niton, Shanklin, Colwell Bay — and they worshipped at 'a little church on the Ventnor Road' probably St Lawrence.
After seven years in Manchester the difficulties of his temperament caused another disagreement with the library committee and he resigned. In later years — too late — it was admitted that they had not fully realised his worth and had been intolerant.,p>The rest of his life was devoted to his own literary work, supplementing the erratic rewards received from compiling catalogues in private libraries, some of the Oxford colleges and the Bodleian; one of the happy periods of his life.
His major works, including 'Memoirs of Libraries;' 'Libraries and Their Founders,' and the 'Lives and Founders of the British Museum' made him the historian of the National Library and a valuable reference for all histories of libraries.
Finally granted — when he was over 70 — a pension of t80 a year for which, having been refused once, he would not personly have applied again, he moved to Niton. He lodged in a house called Sea View on the Undercliff; although ailing and deaf, he still wrote pamphlets which he had printed privately.
Even when Ks' rent was reduced he found it difficult to manage and many of his books were sold to pay debts. Still determined that the Island should have a free library he pasted a leaflet in his remaining books: 'Bequeathed to the Mayor and Corporation of Isle of Wight, as a very Humble but Most Willingly Offered Nucleus (in anticipation and hope), of their future Free Town Library, to be hereafter (as Testator humbly trusts) supported by a Library Rate ... with earnest prayers for its speedy foundation, steady growth and permanent usefulness.'
He refused ever to be photographed but was described as 'above middle height, with white bushy hair below a bald pate, long whiskers and a florid face' and to 'somewhat resemble Macaulay.' The frock coat and silk hat he always wore became very shabby. Although he was eccentric, he was always courteous and formal. He would walk for miles around the local villages and the people got used to the stooping, scholarly figure, reading as he went, talking or singing hymns to himself.
When at last, homeless and distressed, he dragged himself up Barrack Shute towards the Manse, the Rev John Harrison, Baptist Minister at the time, and Mrs Harrison took him in until other accommodation could be found for him. In November, 1885 he told Mrs Harrison that he was 'going to Freshwater and might not be back for several days.' Three days later, wild-eyed, weeping and covered in straw, he was brought back to the Manse in a cart.
A shepherd had found him in the roofless round 'Salt Cellar' the unfinished lighthouse on St Catherines Down, where he had been for three bitter days and nights without food. He was severely frost-bitten, his nails and fingers gashed where he had clawed the ground in agony of mind. Possibly only the warmth of sheep sleeping closely round him at night had saved his life. To Mr Harrison he explained only 'as I saw you with your wife and children I felt I could not bear to live and I paced the down and slept under the stars.'
The last months of his life were spent at St Catherines Lodge, near the Manse. He was found in bed on the morning of February 7th 1886 peacefully composed in death, his hands crossed on his chest as if he had willed himself to die. The story of his life and writings, successes and failures can be read in 'Edward Edwards' the book by Thomas Greenwood. How ironical that the library copy from which some of these references are taken should have lain on a public library shelf, un- datestamped, presumably unread for 34 years.
Footnote: Island lending library figures
(with the exception of Shanklin and Sandown
who issue their own) are for the last three
1967/70 – £1,077,515
1970/71 – 1,143,895
1971/72 – 1,227,991.