Whitehaven Library

Whitehaven Library

Pat W. Bell:

My father, Daniel Hay, was Whitehaven’s librarian (and yes, the library was renamed after him). We lived on the job so to speak for years in the house on top of the library – climb out of the kitchen window and you were on the roof overlooking the dome of the main library.

My brother’s pram/my bike etc were in the area behind the front door of number 1, Catherine Street at the bottom of the stairs – I remember the cellar with the coal and coke needed to heat the library and our house. The passage upstairs that had our box-room/the pipes for the heating etc was definitely weird. The kitchen had a bell box so we could see who had rung which bell and the pantry – well – it had more area than the house.

My friend David was the cleaner’s son who lived in the cottage next to the library and the museum. I loved that moth-eaten lion in the museum. When I was 16 I worked for the county library in the area behind the children’s library and part of their contract was that they would keep the shelves in order in the children’s library.

Living in the library house No 1 Catherine Street – a very discrete doorway next door to Bobby Pratt’s yard and the annex to the Grammar School, set back so it wasn’t obvious from the street and didn’t distract from the visibility of the library frontage.

Ring the bell and then wait ages and hope that someone in the library house noticed the bell signal in the kitchen moving and then that someone would run along the passage and down the flight of stairs and open the front door. This took time, lots of time, and quite often the caller had become fed up and gone away, much to the disgust of the individual who had run along the passage and down the stairs. Once through the door you were in a vestibule – just large enough for an old fashioned English pram (if you were good at manoeuvring) with a door facing you that led down to the cellar.

To me that was an enchanting doorway – dark, mysterious, a very narrow curving staircase, black as the ace of spades – and if you didn’t put on the light you stood a good chance of pitching head first down a flight of very narrow, curving steps or getting coated with black coal/coke dust from the wall which you were obliged to hug if you wanted to walk on the wider edge of the steps. Once down the area was huge (to me at any rate), dimly lit by a small light globe and the daylight coming through the thick glass cover over the coal chute. This shut was the only way the coalmen could empty the bags into the cellar. It was set in the pavement between the house doorway and the library front entrance. If the coal was dropped in first then it had to be moved before the coke was dropped in – the coal was for the house fires and the coke for the furnace that warmed the library.

Back in the vestibule there was a very imposing flight of stone stairs on the right of the front door. First there was two steps, then a square platform and the rest of the staircase curved up out of sight, There was one more square platform and then a straight flight up to a very long stone landing. Directly at the head of the stairs was a small wooden door in the long passage wall that led to the library house internal front door. This door opened to reveal miles and miles of pipes – part of the library’s heating system. Half way down the right hand wall of the passage was a door leading to a very large box room – up a step and into a room full of bookcases and books – an overflow from the library below – plus a few odds and ends – I know one of my finds there was a cardboard writing desk which had a very imposing blue feather quill pen and an small glass inkwell – the pen is long gone but I still have the inkwell and it is one of my most prized possessions. I remember finding my old metal doll’s pram here too and looking at it with disgust.

Further along was what I regarded as the front door – a glass panelled one that tried to shed some light into a very dark passage. Immediately on the left was a shallow wooden staircase, off a short passage, that led to the bedrooms, with a cupboard let under the stairs that I remember held our eggs during the war years – in a bucket preserved in isinglass that you had to chip them out of before you could use them. Coming round that short passage the next door led to the toilet – quite the most impressive I have ever seen – a huge cedar door (like the others on this level it was above size, red cedar and clear varnished – these doors were later, to me vandalized by the next tenant who painted them). This toilet door led to a room, no other way to describe it, with a red polished floor and a step up to the toilet floor – this toilet level occupied exactly half the space in the room. There was a black quern stone that acted as a door stop. I accepted this size as a norm till I moved to a council house at around age 10 which was a rude shock to my system – but I loved it – it was so warm and cosy – the council house I mean.

The next door in this short passage was to a large cupboard that held our coats and heaps more. Back in the passage proper it lead directly to the kitchen with doors on the right hand side that lead to the sitting room and the dining room. These were huge rooms with double sets of windows, a fireplace in each, a huge cupboard to the side of the fireplace and bell pushes that activated a summons in the kitchen. To me these bells were fun but then I never lived there when there were servants (and I suppose at one time there must have been though I don’t know where they could have lived unless they were day servants). Both these rooms had fireplaces that were used all the time I lived there.

The kitchen was a huge room – here was the fireplace that heated our water, there was a rack that came down from the ceiling on ropes where we dried/aired our washing and best of all from my point of view a secret door. You had to empty the pantry and the back swung out to give access to yet more library heating pipes – I thought it was just the best. After the war this room had an airing cupboard added to the right of the fireplace (if you faced it, the pantry being on the left) after the house hot water heating system was upgraded – and boy did it need it – the hot water was diabolical – it was cold, cold, cold. Then through the kitchen was the scullery – another pantry and a cupboard that held coal, brooms, etc. There were 2 sinks – one shallow and one deep and the place had more mice than you could count. The best feature of the kitchen to me was the big window – you could raise it and get out onto the library roof – understandably my mother wasn’t keen because if you got too close to the edge you fell over into Bobby Pratt’s yard. However this was the library house drying yard and our clothes line was here as was a dome letting light into the library and roofs that had a skylight into the local collection (I could yell through this to get my father home for a meal but he had to go down into the library, through the reading room, out onto the street and then down to our front door and up to the house via the street – I never could understand why). During the war this window had a huge blackout curtain that my mother tried to enliven with red and green braid round the edges.

Back to the staircase – it led, via two flights of curving stairs to yet another landing/passage. Immediately on the right was a linen cupboard then down the passage with the bathroom on the left – another huge room with a black and white floor, a washbasin opposite the door and huge, I mean huge, iron bath that I never, to my knowledge had a warm bath in. This bath was immense, iron, and given the water and heat restrictions we had I never remember having a warm bath in it (to me the bathroom of 143 Calder Avenue was heaven on earth – you could open the airing cupboard door and warm the room – small- before you wanted a bath, the water was hot and there were no restrictions on the amount of hot water you could use – and this at ten years old – 50 years down the track I still love a warm bathroom and unlimited hot water and I’ve made sure I get it).

During the war I remember sharing the main bedroom (not much different to bedroom 2 except for the fact the nursery opened off this room) with my mother. The window was a dormer window, the room had a fireplace and a cupboard to the right of the window – only thing I remember here was my mother searching me for head lice and fleas (the fleas – or so she said – brought home by our evacuees who also occupied the house during the war).

After the war I had the second large, very large bedroom – the only thing in my cupboard being my father’s kilt. The furniture looked very small – as all the house furniture did till we moved to a council house – my window faced the short road between the Grammar School Boy’s entrance and the Kelly house garden (the only one on this part of the street) to the Drill Hall. I spent many hours when I should have been in bed peering through my dormer bedroom window down to the drill hall listening to the Army band and catching glimpses of khaki uniforms. I remember life in the library house as being very quiet – till my brother arrived. It must have been very demanding for my parents – heaving coal up flights and flights of stairs, nowhere really to dry clothes, millions of mice – no kidding. Nowhere for children to play – and in fact no children to play with (my playmates were David Graham and his friends and they were all older than me – and here I would like to pay tribute to boys who had a girl foisted on them who was a pain – because I was, and also to the Library cleaner, Mrs. Graham whom I remember as a little (as in stature) woman who had to clean the library, the museum, stoke the furnace etc. When I think back it is women like Mrs. Graham who deserve a medal – they are the unsung heroes/heroines of the war/post war years. After my brother arrived my father made strenuous efforts for us to move to give him a more normal life e.g. a garden not trips to the park and eventually he managed to make a swap with an incoming council officer who took on the Library House and let us have his council house at 143 Calder Avenue.