Among the social amenities of Alcester in the 19th century was a Reading Room and as with most such institutions it was instituted by the local establishment. The details have been found in the minute books of its committee, which were among the effects of the late Aubrey Gwinnett.
The room, with an attendant smoking and games room, occupied the site which is now the 'Girl Friday' greetings card shop on the High Street. It was not open to the public but those paying a membership fee were admitted; such members were proposed and elected at committee meetings. The minutes start in 1889, following a public meeting in the Town hall to promulgate the idea. The papers on view in the Reading Room were the Birmingham Daily Post, Birmingham Times, Graphic, The Times, Daily News, Punch, The Field, Athenaeum, Tit Bits, Redditch Indicator, Stratford Herald, with later additions of the Daily Telegraph and Moonshine.
No doubt the shopkeepers and merchants of the town popped in daily to keep up with the news and sometimes played backgammon or chess; no cards or gambling were allowed. One gets the impression that this amenity in the middle of the town was a sort of gentleman's club. Ladies could use the facilities but only until 6 p.m. The committee allowed members to buy papers after a day or two in use, at half price.
In 1891 the contributing members numbered 80, including 'country gentlemen', viz, those within a one mile radius of the town. For a few years all seemed to go well but by 1895 there are signs of deterioration: the membership was slipping; Mr. Badger (proprietor of the Alcester Chronicle) refused his subscription and was threatened with a solicitor's letter; the disorderly behaviour of some members is reported.
In October 1897 it was agreed to expel rowdy members and at the Annual General Meeting there was a poor attendance and only a balance of 4/2d. By 1898, there was still noise in the games room (the cause: dominoes) and the landlord would come to no proper agreement with the committee.
At a special general meeting, someone expressed annoyance ('It certainly is not a reading room') and the decision was taken to discontinue using the premises and then re-construct the organisation. Eventually the Reading Room moved over the road, where a room in the Corn Exchange was rented: it stayed until November 1926 but the membership was but a shadow of its former self and the finances poor.
As Aubrey Gwinnett noted at the end of the minutes: "Alcester Conservative Club opened shortly after and the Reading Room soon closed.
Autumn 1994 Index