(Many thanks to Carolyn Oulton (Canterbury Christ Church University) for sending through an overview of her paper from the ‘Institutions as Curators’ workshop, along with tables showing some of the data that’s she’s working with in exploring the records of the Folkestone Free Library.)

Folkestone Free Library and Museum. Image from the collection of Alan F. Taylor, sourced from this webpage.

From ‘Boy’ to ‘Britain’: Popular Fiction and the Folkestone Free Library 1881-1902

From at least the 1860s holiday reading offered new opportunities for the economies of seaside towns.  The Folkestone Free Library was established in 1881, in a town seeking to market itself as both a fashionable and a popular resort.  The acquisition of sensation and other popular novels by women authors was an obvious move.

But while other local libraries advertised the sale of tourist cases, local views and ‘the new books for the season’, the free library never quite got its act together.  Its first catalogue had separate headings for literature (by which it meant Thackeray) and ‘novels and fiction’ (just about everyone else).  While Wilkie Collins was collected from 1881 and Ellen Wood from 1882, her 37 novels include some that are primarily religious in focus; Marie Corelli’s 1895 The Sorrows of Satan first appears in 1902, while New Woman fiction was happening but only just and almost always late.  Of the two library copies of the 1896 catalogue, one has uncut pages between ‘Boy’ and ‘Britain’ and between ‘Clyde’ and ‘Confessions of a Thug’.  In the middle lie two of the 19th century’s most popular authors, ‘Braddon’ and ‘Collins’.

An important scene in the 1905 Kipps by H. G. Wells is set in the Folkestone Library, although he is ostensibly describing the study of the upwardly mobile Cootes when he casts a withering eye on:

no worse an array of books than you find in any public library; an almost haphazard accumulation of obsolete classics, contemporary successes, the Hundred Best Books (including Samuel Warren’s Ten Thousand a Year), old school-books, directories, the Times Atlas, Ruskin in bulk, Tennyson complete in one volume, Longfellow, Charles Kingsley, Smiles, a guide-book or so, several medical pamphlets, odd magazines numbers, and much indescribable rubbish – in fact, a compendium of the contemporary British mind (130).


Folkestone Free Library Statistics 1888-1905

1888-89 29,197 17,567 Suggestion that non-rate payers (including tenants and a number of women) be allowed to join is rejected
1889-90 23,295 107,687
1890-91 21,696 Voluntary rate introduced
1891-92 27,593
1892-93 28,954
1893-94 40,187


Borrowing rights extended to residents over 15
1894-95 50,427 32,159
1895-96 55,706
1899-1900 57, 350 37,755 2126 vols issued

398 books bought, 434 donations

1901-02 61,582 40,119
1902-03 62,469 May 1902: removal of obsolete volumes
1903-04 [Figures not included in Hannavy’s analysis]
1904-05 82,664 3,274 readers (10% of the population)

Based on J. L. Hannavy, The Libraries of Dover and Folkestone.  Thesis approved for Fellowship of the Libraries Association. 1968.


Popular writers in the Folkestone Free Library Catalogue

Author Number of titles Acquisition Loss / removal between 1896 and 1902*
Mary Braddon 26 1881-1902 1
Rhoda Broughton 4 1902 0
Wilkie Collins 20 1881-1902 0
Marie Corelli 10 1896-1902 0
Sarah Grand 3 1896-1902 0
Rider Haggard 20 1890-1902 0
Robert Louis Stevenson 12 1890-1896 12
Stanley Weyman 11 1896-1902 2
John Strange Winter 22 1890-1902 0
Ellen Wood 37 1881-1902 1 (essay series)
Emma Worboise 44 1882-1902 1

*Catalogues between these dates not found or not extant.