Rumours were spreading that the heads of Manchester Libraries were keeping a blacklist of books. Books that were banned from circulation in the city’s libraries. One evening in March 1911, a correspondent for the national newspaper The Daily Dispatch headed over to Manchester Central Library’s Reference library to investigate. His findings were presented in a newspaper article dated March 21, 1911, which is held in the Manchester archives.
The correspondent filled in a slip with the reference number for a rumoured-to-be blacklisted title. He handed the slip over to an assistant.
On his first attempt, he was told the book was in use. The next evening, the book is said to be at the binders. Evening 3, suspecting the older assistants of collusion, the reporter approaches a young clerk. A potential ally. He passes him the slip. The clerk disappears with it and returns with another, older assistant.
‘What do you want this for?’ the assistant asks.
‘To read, of course,’ he replies, surprised. ‘The book’s in the library, is it not?’
The assistant hesitates, then confirms that it is. The correspondent is asked which volume he’d like.
Unaware that there were multiple volumes he asks for the first two.
‘At the binders’, he’s told by the clerk.
Now he’s angry. He finds a different library assistant and asks what’s going on. The assistant points out that the reference number he has written on his request slip has a C before it. It’s a C for censored.
A different article on the blacklist rumours was published in the Manchester Evening News on the very same day.
In this article the existence of a blacklist was vehemently denied by Manchester Libraries Committee Chairman, Alderman Plummer. He commented however, ‘we are not going to circulate books which we consider to be of doubtful quality’.
Charles Sutton, the Chief Librarian, also denied a blacklist. He did admit that there were books which were not issued indiscriminately. Books for adults only. These were kept in a special cupboard. But, he explained, there should be no difficulty in obtaining them.
Tell that to The Daily Dispatch…
Why was a blacklist the talk of the town at this time?
There are some clues among the two heaped folders of letters, newspaper clippings and memos marked ‘Banned Books’ which are stored in Archives+.
A large bulk of this material relates to a single novel, ‘The New Machiavelli’ by HG Wells. It was published in 1911. By then Wells had found fame through a number of highly respected science fiction novels including, ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’.
‘The New Machiavelli’ describes an affair between a married politician and a young female student. The politician leaves his wife and flees to Italy. The relationship is thought to be based on Wells’ own affair with the feminist writer Amber Reeves. It prompted outcry among certain circles on its release.
In a letter from Chief Librarian Sutton to a curious customer, it is stated that four copies of ‘The New Machiavelli‘ had been bought for Manchester Libraries. However, the Manchester Library Committee decided they should not be circulated.
It was not unknown for a library to remove a title from circulation. But the Manchester Library Committee had picked a heavyweight writer and a well regarded novel. An article for The Daily Dispatch published on March 24, 1911, remarked that they had ‘selected a special artist and a special book, and so makes a case that stands out boldly, challengingly, dramatically.’
We are given some insight into the committee’s decision in an article from The Dundee Advertiser. The article recounts a meeting of the Library Association on September 6, 1911 in Perth. Alderman Plummer is the guest speaker. ‘The New Machiavelli’ is still hot news in the libraries.
Alderman Plummer remarked that he, ‘deeply deplored that so striking and powerful a genius as Mr Wells should have been diverted from those original and brilliant speculations, scientific and social by which he first won fame into these unwholesome and stifling by-paths’.
He warned his audience that, ‘they could not evade the obligation to keep an increasingly strict watch upon the class of literature which was pernicious and demoralising in tone and which could not fail to have curious effects, particularly upon the young’.
Plummer continues to argue that it is the duty of the librarian to ensure the moral purity of the library’s literature and so the purity of reader’s minds. Some books were dangerous, capable of corrupting. Sordid subject matter could not be permitted. He remembers longingly and lovingly the ‘pure’ literature of the recently passed Victorian era.
Elsewhere in the archive, we see how library representatives are called upon by customers to weed out ‘nasty literature’ from their libraries. Some customer letters reveal the particular anxieties of the times.
In 1933 H.M. Jones wrote to the Chief Librarian to complain about a library book called ‘Hatter’s Castle’ by A.J. Cronin. She also complains about an encounter she had at Rusholme library upon returning the book. She handed it to the library assistant, remarking unhappily, ‘it’s pure Bolshevism’.
‘That is the kind of book that is liked here’, the assistant replied.
Further correspondence between Jones and the librarian suggests the culprit was never found.
Then there are notes from a telephone conversation between Councillor H Lee and the Chief Librarian in 1937. Lee reports feverishly that the Bishop of Salford has received an anonymous tip off that the Manchester libraries are ‘swamped with Communistic literature.’
Back to 1911. ‘The New Machiavelli’ was in demand. Certainly, it was after the Manchester ban. ‘Alderman Plummer and the Manchester Libraries Committee have put Mr Wells and his work in a fair way to sweep Lancashire’, wrote a reporter for The Daily Dispatch on March 24, 1911.
The Evening Standard reported that Mr John Lane, the publisher of the book, was experiencing record sales. In a newspaper article titled ‘The Municipal Censorship of Books’ one Manchester librarian going by the name Veritas reports the most common customer query of the moment.
‘Have you got that book that everyone’s talking about?’
There are many letters and newspaper articles in support of the Manchester Committee’s decision. There are an equal number expressing indignation. Those critical of the decision accuse the committee of being reactionary, paternalistic and out of touch. Manchester Councillor Will Philips writes ‘the young men and women of to-day are no longer neophytes in the world’s ways. To talk of harmful tendencies of such a book is to close one’s eyes to the world.’ One Evening Standard columnist mocked the prudish and provincial sensibilities of the Manchester bumpkins.
Amid this righteous fury, it seemed to me that there was one conspicuously absent voice.
Towards the end of the mass of ‘Banned Book’ papers there’s a short letter.
A word from H.G. Wells.
‘My dear sir,
Anyone who says that The New Machiavelli’ contains any teaching opposed to the established moral code of England at the present time is simply an outrageous liar.
The book pleads for an outspoken treatment of sexual questions, and for charity towards those who blunder amidst the muddled complexity of the present time. Probably Alderman Plummer is in the position of the dear old lady who recently assured a friend of mine that ‘The New Machiavelli’ was a ‘most licentious work.’ ‘Have you read it?’ pleaded my friend. ‘Certainly not.’
All people are not of Alderman Plummer’s opinion as to its suitability for general reading, and I have recently received from a total stranger a considerable sum of money which he desires me to expend upon copies of this book, to be presented to such libraries and institutions as I may think best adapted to its diffusion.
I shall be pleased to hear from any (properly authenticated) libraries or reading institutions in the Manchester district which are not overshadowed by the disapprovals of Mr Alderman Plummer.
But I warn the curious that much of the book is pretty stiff reading, and that it it singularly lacking in ‘sensuous charm.’- Very sincerely yours,