The Watt Library of today is a direct descendent of one of Greenock’s most notable and historic institutions, the Greenock Library which was founded on 1st January, 1783. Indeed, it is reckoned to have been one of the first subscription libraries in Scotland, pre-dating Stirling’s Library, Glasgow, by 8 years and Paisley Library by 19 years.
At that time Greenock was expanding rapidly with the development of shipbuilding, sugar, shipping and, rope and sail cloth industries.
The population had gone from only 800 at the start of the 18th century to 3,850 in 1755 and an estimated 12,000 in 1783.
Over the next 40 to 50 years the Greenock Library continued to grow and changed premises several times. The Library’s growth was helped by a large number of donations of single works as well as several important donations of money or books to form special collections. In 1816, James Watt donated a sum of £100 to “form the beginning of a scientific library” and the following year the widow of William Spence presented her husband’s mathematical collection to found a mathematical library “for the use of students of the town of Greenock.” By 1831, the collections had grown to some 6,000 volumes with a membership of about 200.
The James Watt Club was formed in Greenock in 1813, and following the death of Watt in 1819, they suggested erecting a memorial to him, by 1826, £2,000 had been raised. Sir Francis Chantrey was commissioned to execute a marble statue of the inventor and on 3rdMarch, 1828, his eldest son James, offered £2,000 to build a new building to contain the statue and “the books and properties of the Greenock Library.” When the relevant estimates were finally submitted it was found that the costs of £4,100 for the main building and £660 for the wings greatly exceeded the original amount put forward by John Watt junior. However, on hearing this, Mr Watt confirmed his generosity by agreeing to meet the increased costs for the building.
Meanwhile, there was considerable difficulty in establishing a suitable site on which to locate the Watt Monument. The original intention had been to situate it at Watt Place(a lane off Cathcart Street) but this was later considered unsuitable. Similarly, it was suggested that a very appropriate site in the same area would be the terraces beside the Old Mansion House (i.e. just below the present Well Park), but then it was agreed that the costs of adequate foundations for a building there would be prohibitive. By 1833 “The Greenock Advertiser” was stating that the site for the proposed Watt Monument was almost certain to be West Blackhall Street, opposite the foot of Jamaica Street, although Sir Michael Shaw Stewart had offered any suitable piece of ground at his disposal. The question of the site was not resolved until 1835, by which time letters were appearing in the “Advertiser” questioning the delay. Finally, a site in Union Street was offered by Sir Michael, and this was gladly accepted by the Library Committee.
The designs for the Watt Monument building were drawn up by the architect Sir Edward Blore, a notable exponent of the Gothic revival style of architecture. Along with William Patterson, he had designed Abbotsford House in 1824 for Sir Walter Scott, which holds a Chantrey bust of Scott. On Tuesday, 25th August, 1835, a large congregation attended a service in the Mid Kirk in memory of James Watt, after which, it was reported, that one of the largest concourses of men ever seen in Greenock, marched from Cathcart Square to the Watt Monument site in Union Street. Here, although unwell at the time, Sir Michael Shaw Stewart laid the foundation stone, having the inscription “To receive and preserve for the contemplation of succeeding generations, a marble statue dedicated by the inhabitants of Greenock to the memory of their illustrious townsman James Watt, and to afford accommodation for a Scientific Library founded by him (in 1816), and for the Public Library of Greenock.” Unfortunately, subsequent details of the construction of the building are elusive. However, a paragraph in the “Greenock Advertiser” of 29th June, 1837, informs us that “The transfer of the books of the public library, from the Hall of the Masonic Lodge, to the elegant saloon in the Watt Monument is now in considerable forwardness.”
For one reason or another, the £1,700 white marble statue by Chantrey was not delivered from London until 1838, when it arrived onboard the Greenock built sailing ship WILLIAM NICOL, on 19th September, under the charge of Captain Thomas Kincaid. A Mr Smith, sent from London by Chantrey, supervised its erection. It is what is technically called an eight foot figure, and the posture is exactly the same as that of Watt’s statue in George Square,Glasgow. The figure is of statutory marble, and weighs upwards of two tons, and the pedestal, which is of Sicilian marble, weighs almost three tons. The inscription on the front of the pedestal is from the classic pen of Lord Jeffrey. On the left of the pedestal is a shield containing the arms of Greenock, and on the right emblems of strength and speed. On the back is an elephant, in obvious allusion to the parallel drawn by Mr Jeffrey between the steam engine and the trunk of that animal, which was equally qualified to lift a pin or to rend an oak.
The building however, had been open to subscribers of the Greenock Library from the previous year, providing a permanent home for the collections after 54 years in a variety of premises. At this time, only the central portion of the building was completed, although this contained the library, a hall, committee rooms and a separate house for the librarian in Kelly Street. With increased costs, it was some years before the wings were added, at a cost of £1,000, and following fund-raising by the Watt Club. Even then the remaining debt on the building was not cleared off until 1852 when a ladies’ bazaar raised £936 19s 3d. for the building.
Installed in its splendid new premises, the Greenock Library entered a period of rapid growth. At the transfer, the librarian was the Rev John Dunn, teacher of languages at the Grammar School who had first been appointed in 1807. Mr Dunn’s original salary was £15 15s per annum, plus one half of fines received. However, in 1810, Mr Dunn expressed his “delicacy in levying the fines when half went into his own pocket”, and this practice was stopped! By the time Mr Dunn resigned in 1839 his salary was £30.
Mr Dunn was succeeded by James Black, also a language teacher, who, after four years, was succeeded by his wife. Mrs Black remained librarian for the next 25 years, and throughout this period was greatly respected as the “keeper of the books and dispenser of literature.” For many years after her retirement she was remembered for the wonderful parties she frequently gave at the library.
By the time the eighth catalogue of the Greenock Library was published in 1844, the library had extended to about 8,500 volumes. Details of the exact number of subscribers are not available for this period, although it does not appear that membership increased proportionally with the stock. Indeed, in 1860, when the subscription was raised from 13s to 25s for Annual Subscribers, membership was 178. At the same time, the introduction of a 2nd Class Annual Subscribers, at 6/6d, were entitled to “the use of one volume at a time of books which had been in the library for a year”, possibly accounts for an increase to 209 members. Over the next 10 years, membership fluctuated, going down to 158 in 1867. During the Second World War. the membership peaked at 1,104.
Due to falling numbers the Library closed on 31st December, 1973, when it was taken over by the Greenock Corporation and renovated. The building re-opened to the public on 11th December, 1974, re-organised for its specialist function of local history and archives. The stock includes newspapers, books, maps, photographs, census returns from 1841-1901, etc.
There is a small collection of books for home reading, which continues the tradition of borrowing books first started by the Greenock Library back in 1783.
Some of the earlier material held by the Greenock Library is still kept at the Watt, but most of the older books, which have no particular local interest, are now kept out of public access. However, it is the intention of Inverclyde Council to continue a library service from the Watt for the foreseeable future.