You’d have thought that freedom of choice and expression along with access to information, were not just a right, but a basic necessity. Like eating and breathing they are the things that allow us to think and function within society. We take it for granted and rightly so, because few people who were born in this country and are alive today will have known any different. Yet it’s less than a hundred years ago that women were given the right to vote; and up until relatively recent times the opportunities for upward social mobility were very much dependent on where you lived and which school you attended.
Paul Hebson is a former footballer who played for the County and later coached the Grasmere football team. He’s the secretary of the Reading Rooms, a social club, which plays an important role as an alternative space for local people, where for a small annual subscription members can get together to play games and socialize away from the bustling hubbub of seasonal visitors.
Formerly a Workman’s Reading Room it was founded by a local woman, Elisabeth Agger in the mid-nineteenth century, as a place where quarrymen and farm workers might retire after a hard day’s work to read books, newspapers and periodicals; and while it’s no longer used as a reading room per sae, a selection of books from the period are displayed in a cabinet inside. Paul and a small committee run the club, and in a village where most property is unaffordable to local people, it’s reassuring to know it can never be sold.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries libraries operated by subscription and newspapers were heavily taxed, which limited circulation to a few thousand units and had the effect of keeping the readership selective. In the aftermath of the French Revolution the authorities were fearful of a similar situation developing here and it was felt by many in government that educating the working classes above basic literacy levels could radicalise them; disrupting the ‘natural order’ leading to social unrest and revolution. The same irrational argument was still being mooted decades later when benefactors like Elizabeth Agger, built and endowed reading rooms in towns and villages up and down the country. They were social reformers; individuals who put their own money and reputations on the line for the common good, and in doing so played a significant role in making books, news and information available to all.
We do take it for granted, but at the same time it’s also worth remembering that it hasn’t always been like this.
Below is an excerpt from Shelley’s poem The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo massacre of 1819 and described by his publisher Leigh Hunt as a flaming robe of verse, it’s publication was suppressed and it didn’t appear in print until 1832, ten years after the poet’s death.
What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which Slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.
Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words, that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free.
The old laws of England—they
Whose reverend heads with age are grey,
Children of a wiser day;
And whose solemn voice must be
Thine own echo—Liberty!
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Next month: Divisions – Featuring Edward 1, Robert the Bruce and the Solway Firth.