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Friday, 20 April 2018

Men At Leisure - Sepia Saturday

Workmen taking a break and playing chess feature on this week's Sepia Saturday's prompt photograph.  One image immediately came to my mind and I turned again to my local history with a profile of  the 19th century Earlston Reading Room and Recreation Room. 

The rules and regulations and codes of behaviour expected make particularly entertaining reading. So do read on!

       Enjoying the Reading Room, c.1960's

Earlston' Reading Room occupies a prominent place in the Market Square, but sadly this once important 19th century building is now unoccupied, unused and presents a dilapidated air, with many of the artifacts of paintings and books still in place but fast deteriorating. 

The Reading Room is to the left of the Corn Exchange with its belfry tower. The photograph predates 1921,  when the pump tower by the trees  was demolished to make way for the War Memorial. 

In the 19th century Reading Rooms were a symbol of  Victorian self-help and the  desire for education.   They were warm, dry and largely free,  where you could read newspapers, and borrow books.   It was thanks to such facilities being available , that many a Victorian  went on to achieve a position  of eminence in a wide range of fields. 

In Earlston, Major Baillie of Mellerstain Estate  was the instigator  In 1852 a meeting was held in the village  to gauge support for a Reading Room  at which the Major offered an initial donation of fifty  books for the library.  His offer was unanimously accepted; a committee was formed of prominent members in the local community,  with Major Baillie as President  and a Librarian duly appointed as manager. 

Major Baillie set down the following conditions:
  • That the inhabitants of Earlston and its vicinity be invited to become members, without distinction  as to religious denomination, or political opinion, and whether they do or do not belong to any abstinence or temperance society.

  • The Reading Room and Recreation Room shall be open every day except Sundays and New Year's Day from 9am to 10pm. 
  • That the newspapers and other publications shall be such as may be generally  useful and acceptableWorks gifted or loaned should be of a good moral tendency and be approved of by the committee.  
  • That no intoxicating liquor be consumed on the  premises on any pretence whatever
  • Members will not be allowed to whistle or sing or make any undue noise or run up and  down the stairs or rooms,  or quarrel with one another  or use bad language to the annoyance of other members.  
The Recreation Room, too, had its strict rules:
  • Members under  sixteen years of age shall not be permitted to play Billiards or Snooker, and any person under that age found handling cues or balls, or touching the table...will be prohibited from entering the Recreation Room for three months.
  • Betting or playing for money is strictly forbidden
  • A fine of £2 will be exacted  for cutting, tearing, or burning the cloth or billiard table. 
  • Players will not be allowed to smoke. They must also see that their hands,  are clean,  Members will not be allowed  to use the billiard table while wearing overalls.
  • Players on no account are  allowed to get  on the table. They must have at least one foot on the floor. 
Seven years later, a  report in the "The Southern Reporter of 7th April  1859 noted:
118 people have availed themselves of the privilege of membership   and that it was gratifying to note the success of this useful institution which affords so many advantages at a very moderate cost. Members have access to the Library of up to 700 volumes, and to the reading room which has a regular supply of daily and weekly newspapers and periodicals, all for the all but nominal charge of 7d per quarter."
Newspaper reports regularly listed items added to the library and they included such erudite titles as Dyers "History of Europe" - 5 volumesBlaikie's "Life of Livingstonn", "The Haigs of Bemersyde",  "Life in Fiji" by C.F.G. Cumming,  "The Life of the Prince Consort", Farrar's "Life of Christ", Marshman's "History of India", and Cameron's "Across Africa".  

In 1877 thanks were given to  "Mr Colesworth of Cowdenknowes for his handsome gift of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and  Transactions of the Geographical Society".

The Reading Room remained a private subscription library, not supported by  any charitable grants  The early subscription of 7d per quarter had risen by 1955  to 10 shillings per annum

Old newspapers were sold each quarter  and events regularly took place for fund raising - these included whist drives, concerts,  and in 1924 "a theatrical and  vaudeville entertainment". 

"The Southern Reporter" of 5th May 1898 reported on a major bazaar:
 "To meet the expenses of considerable improvements to the building and to buy new books. To increase the house accommodation of the librarian and create a larger and better recreation room."  
A CENTENARY CELEBRATION was held in Red Lion Hotel on 17th June  1952 at  which the President the Earl of  Haddington of Mellerstain  presented a framed  copy of the *National Covenan"  with the signatures of the people of Earlston, who signed it  in 1638. at Greyfriars, Edinburgh.  It was also  noted that the Library had a number of valuable possessions including  a lock of Sir Walter Scott's hair and his autograph;  and that the Reading Room had risen from a humble two roomed, thatched building to the impressive building occupying a central position in Earlston Square.


The 1970's saw the opening of a Public Library in the school offering a new free facility to local readers. With the death of long serving  Reading Room secretary, John Weatherly, and all the Trustees, no-one was left to take on the management of the facility. Hence its sorry state today. 

packed public meeting on April 26th 2016  heard a presentation  on the current legal position regarding  the ownership of the Reading Room and  outlined options for the whole community to work together on a way forward. A steering committee was set up to look at revitalizing this once important symbol of Earlston's heritage.
 Earlston Reading Room - April 2016 

 *  The National Covenant
"The signing of the National Covenant has been called the biggest event in Scottish history. In essence it was a document, a contract with God, signed by the Nobles, Ministers and thousands of ordinary Scots, who pledged themselves to defend Scotland’s rights by stating what they would and wouldn't agree to in matters of Kirk and state.  The Covenant demanded a free Scottish Parliament and a General Assembly, free from the King’s interference, and specifically, it demanded the abolition of bishops." (Source BBC Scottish History)

The copy donated to the Reading Room by Lord Haddington in 1952 is now in the care of the Scottish Borders Archive Centre. 


Sepia Saturday gives an opportunity for genealogy bloggers  
to share their family history and memories through photographs.

Click HERE to see how other Sepia Saturday bloggers 
have been relaxing  this wee . 


  1. What an interesting historic building. And that's so great to hear about how it contributed to so many people's lives, as well as the entire community. I do hope it will be given new energy and repair so that the community can use it in a different way. Is it of interest to a historic society I wonder.

  2. That is absolutely fascinating. There are still many of these old clubs and societies around, it makes me want to go out and join them.

  3. It sounds like the old reading room would be a good place for a local historical society.

  4. Fascinating history of this gorgeous stone structure. My childhood library began much like this...with someone giving over a large mansion with a central staircase for this purpose. I loved reading the newspapers, which were draped over large wooden sticks in a rack on the main floor. The building has since been modernized, but I have fond memories of the original wooden structure.

  5. Libraries and reading rooms were an important element of a civilized society. Andrew Carnegie must have known about this kind of reading room as one of his good works in the United States was setting up Free Libraries for the African-American communities in the South. Evidently Major Baillie knew something about the dangers of "pool" leading to trouble right here in River City.

  6. An interesting story. I love getting a glimpse into different times - the little tidbits that we don't learn in history class, but give us a fuller understanding of people and places.

  7. Thank you all for your interest in my post. To answer Barbara’s question, yes my local heritage group Auld Earlston would love to be in there, but there are lots of issues. The building is apparently in reasonable condition, but would need upgrading e.g meeting disabled access legislation, and would need to be self financing. We shall have to wait and see the outcome of current discussions.

  8. Although the Victorians are often thought of as socially harsh,local benefactors (I'm assuming Earlston was initially funded by local landowners & business men?)at least gave things back to their local communities.Unlike today where labour is taken & nothing is ever given back.
    In our 'enlightened' times, such wonderful resources (eg libraries)& other 'social spaces' are forever being closed!


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