Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Vino and Venison: Kendal’s Reading Associations in the Eighteenth Century

Depiction of Kendal’s main street, the east side of Stricklandgate, in the nineteenth century. ‘Part of Stricklandgate, Kendal’, oil on canvas, © Kendal Town Council.

Although all the libraries in the Books and Borrowing database are Scottish, just across the border, the northwest of England was also home to a thriving and active network of print associations. In Westmorland, located in present-day south Cumbria, by the early nineteenth century this included libraries, booksellers, book clubs and reading rooms. Although much of this activity centred around the market town of Kendal, reading associations existed in much smaller localities, with Ina Ferris referring to a ‘network of book buying and exchange’ existing between booksellers in Kendal and book clubs in villages such as Sedbergh, Ambleside, Kirkby Lonsdale, Grasmere and Orton.[1] Kendal, despite its relative rurality, could boast that it was home to a number of reading institutions in the early nineteenth century, including a book club (Kendal Book Club) founded in 1761, a reading room (Kendal Coffee Room) founded in 1779, a subscription library (Kendal Library) founded in 1794, a second subscription library (Economical Library) founded specifically for artisans in 1797 and a Mechanics’ Institute founded in 1825.[2] Unlike in the case of most of our Scottish libraries, entertainment other than books, including food, drink and dance, formed a major part of the associational experience for Westmorland members and especially for those in Kendal of higher social classes.[3]

The most prestigious and famous of Kendal’s reading associations in the eighteenth century was the Kendal Book Club which, despite the name, kept a library of books which it auctioned off every four years.[4] The main draw to membership in this club may not have been bibliographical, but social, with the club hosting two dinners for its members and the local community each year. The larger and grander of these was the ‘Venison Feast’ held in September at either Moot Hall or White Hall, the town’s chief civic buildings, and attended by members of the local aristocracy, elected and civic officials and those from the professional classes from the surrounding area.[5] The dinner’s venison was supplied by the Earl of Lonsdale who was frequently a dinner attendee himself, as William and Dorothy Wordsworth may also have been, both of whom read from the book club’s collection.[6]

William Wordsworth (1770-1850), by Robert Hancock, 1798, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

These events were regularly the subject of articles in the local newspapers, with the Westmorland Advertiser reporting in 1811 that at the recent Venison Feast ‘the dinner and wines were excellent, and the utmost conviviality prevailed’, with the meal followed by an evening ball ‘where the company tript it on the light fantastic toe until an early hour’.[7] These dinners were of some fame, the Leeds Independent referred to the Kendal Book Club as the ‘Venison Book Club’ and as well as being occasions for dance, drink and food, they served an important purpose in bringing together members of Kendal’s discordant political factions in a neutral sociable setting.[8] In this sense, they were of a political value in that they helped to manage civic relations in between turbulent and divisive electoral periods, credited with ‘tending to soften and smooth away that party asperity which the best of us are but too apt to cherish’.[9] Occasions in which book club members could raise a toast to the King, the Lord Lieutenant and even ‘Mr. Holme, the Librarian’, as well as sing together the national anthem, Rule Britannia and Auld Lang Syne were occasions which convinced ‘by experience, that our neighbours are not destitute of the kindly feelings of human nature, notwithstanding their being guilty of being Yellows or Blues’.[10]

Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), depicted in Ashley P. Abraham, Some Portraits of the Lake Poets and Their Homes. (Keswick: G.P. Abraham, 1920), p.12

It is likely that members of the Kendal Book Club also patronised the other elite reading institutions in the town, such as the reading room and the subscription library. Indeed, the two institutions enjoyed a close connection. Although neither of the Wordsworths were a member of the Kendal Coffee Room, they were frequently signed into the space by an acquaintance, Thomas Cookson, who was, and as such were able to make use of the selection of newspapers and periodicals stocked within it.[11] Kendal’s subscription library, founded in 1794, sometimes held its general meeting at the Coffee House, but its members were also known to formally meet and drink together in Kendal’s taverns and inns.[12] The library lacked a permanent premises of its own and stored its books, said to number 5,000 volumes in 1851, in a rented room in the town centre.[13] Again, neither of the Wordsworths seem to have been a member of the Kendal Library but they would have been able to access its books through Cookson who was.[14] The library included members who lived beyond Kendal, attracting subscribers from Stainton, Newton, Burton, Windermere and Ambleside.[15] In Kendal, within these more selective reading associations, sociability and drink combined with books in a manner, according to Keith Manley, that did not occur with as much regularity as in Scotland.[16] In the northwest of England however, the circulation of print combined with the swilling of tankards and the feasting of venison to enliven the library experience.

[1] Ina Ferris, Book-Men, Book Clubs, and the Romantic Literary Sphere (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p.123. On the Sedbergh Book Club, see Keith A. Manley, ‘Rural Reading in Northwest England: The Sedbergh Book Club, 1728-1928’, Book History 2 (1999), pp.78-95.

[2] Cornelius Nicholson, The Annals of Kendal, 2nd ed. (London, 1861), p.278; Keith A. Manley, Books, Borrowers, and Shareholders. Scottish Circulating and Subscription Libraries before 1825: A Survey and Listing (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, 2012), p.72; Ferris, Book-Men, p.123.

[3] Mark Towsey, ‘First Steps in Associational Reading: Book Use and Sociability at the Wigtown Subscription Library 1795–99’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 103.4 (2009), p.480.

[4] Ferris, Book-Men, p.116.

[5] Westmorland Advertiser and Kendal Chronicle, 21 September 1811; History, Topography, and Directory, of Westmorland… (Beverley: W.B. Johnson, 1851), p.296.

[6] Duncan Wu, Wordsworth’s Reading, 1770-1799 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), II, p.268; Ferris, Book-Men, p.116.

[7] Westmorland Advertiser, 21 September 1811

[8] Westmorland Gazette, 17 January 1824. For elections in Kendal and Westmorland in the early nineteenth century, see William Anthony Hay, The Whig Revival, 1808-1830 (Basingstoke. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp.66-88.

[9] Westmorland Gazette, 17 January 1824. I am grateful to Helen Corlett for this reference.

[10] Westmorland Gazette, 17 January 1824.

[11] Other acquaintances of the Wordsworths were also introduced to the Coffee Room, including the poet Charles Lloyd in 1824 and John Thelwall in 1829. Wu, Wordsworth’s Reading, p.268.

[12] Westmorland Advertiser and Kendal Chronicle, 9 January 1813; Westmorland Gazette, 10 January 1824.

[13] Westmorland Advertiser and Kendal Chronicle, 31 December 1814; Kendal Archive Centre, WD/K/192, Kendal Library minute book, 5 November 1794-28 December 1824, 5 January 1821.

[14] Kendal Archive Centre, WDX, 140/90, Notice calling a general meeting of the Kendal Library, 15 December 1826.

[15] WD/K/192, Kendal Library minute book.

[16] Manley, Books, Borrowers, and Shareholders, p.120.