IF there is any wonder why most of the poor stayed poor in the 19th century you have only got to look at the cost of borrowing a library book. Today public library membership in Worcestershire is free, but in the mid-1800s it wasn’t.

When the city’s first public library in Pierpoint Street closed in 1877 after getting into financial difficulties, a copy of its rule book dated 1860 was discovered. And viewed from a modern perspective it makes eyewatering reading.

For a start membership was twenty one shillings a year. For those who don’t remember or are too young to know, there used to be twenty shillings in one pound sterling, which would make an 1860 pound equal around £155 in 2023.

So twenty one shillings would be some way north of that, before you had even borrowed a book. For those who didn’t fancy stumping up that amount there was a six month membership fee of twelve shillings and a quarterly of seven shillings.

Misdemeanours were equally costly. There was a one shilling fine (about £8) for breaking the various rules and an additional two shillings and sixpence (around £20) for loaning someone else the book you had borrowed.

A subscriber living within three miles of The Cross could borrow four books at a time, while those living farther afield could have six for up to 30 days.. There was a one shilling (£8) per day fine for each overdue book.

The plus side was that Worcester Library has always been well stocked. The first public library in the city was set up by the Presbyterian Society in Angel Street in the 1790s. By 1829 it had a collection of 5,500 books, which were the property of its 180 shareholders.

However when one of Worcester’s prominent citizens Matthew Pierpoint decided to sell his elegant town house and gardens around that time and a new avenue was created across the land (today’s Pierpoint Street) there was the opportunity to create a new library worthy of a cathedral city.

Built in 1831 the handsome property was ornamented by four fluted pilasters and it had a dome lantern to give adequate light to the library, which was on the upper floor.

Financial problems led to part of the building being let to the local law and the medical societies, both of which installed their own libraries there. The lower room was occupied by the Worcester News Room, not the editorial department of the local paper for the current title did not exist then, but an adjunct of Berrow’s Worcester Journal owned by Mrs A Deighton.

Unfortunately after Worcester City Council adopted the national Public Libraries Act in 1868 it brought extra monetary pressure on the Pierpoint Street Library, which could not cope. In 1877 the trustees were ordered to quit and two years later the building was sold.

It was finally demolished in 1960 after the elegant front had become badly scarred by time and neglect and an office block now stands there. For many years Worcester’s public library was housed in the Victoria Institute building about 200 yards away in Foregate Street, now it has been moved to the golden glitter of The Hive at the bottom of The Butts.

A bit flash, but at least the books are free.