Charles Goss and our library

Before Charles Goss arrives

Bishopsgate Institute’s first chief librarian, Ronald Heaton, was appointed in 1894 to arrange the library and finalise plans for a public programme of lectures and classes. The well-educated son of a Yorkshire clergyman, Heaton was just twenty-six years old when he took charge of William Rogers’ new educational scheme.

Heaton expected that he would spend a good part of each working day cloistered in his office, developing the research projects he’d started as a student at Cambridge University. Instead his time was fully occupied with routine matters such as cataloguing new library stock and liaising with booksellers.

The staff he supervised weren’t, after all, middle-class graduates but a team of inexperienced teenage boys recruited from local schools. This reflected best practice in the London public library sector. Women did work in the relatively refined settings of academic, business or private libraries, but their more "rough and ready" public library counterparts were typically staffed by men. Young candidates were preferred, partly because they were cheaper and partly because the job was physically demanding.

Charles Goss and his librarian comrades on a summer trip out of the city in 1921.

Credit: From the SPL Archive.

Ronald Heaton made progress in some areas. For example, he started collecting books and maps on the City’s history that today form part of our London Collections. But, for the most part, our first chief librarian was hopelessly unsuited to the management of an innovative learning and cultural institution in a busy urban setting.

Every single weekday from 1895, hundreds of men and women from all kinds of backgrounds crowded into the newsroom (now our Upper Hall) and reading rooms (still in use as a public reading room and reference library). At a time when most homes still possessed very few books, it was unimaginably exciting suddenly to have free access to a wide choice of reading matter.

Apart from managing these library spaces, Heaton was expected to organise lectures and classes. But how was he supposed to carry out any scholarly research alongside these duties? By 1897, it had all become too much for our first chief librarian and he handed in his notice.

A new librarian is recruited

Heaton’s resignation left Bishopsgate Institute in a precarious position. Within roughly two years of the opening date, the scheme was suddenly without a figurehead (our founder William Rogers died in 1896) and without a manager. It was vitally important that the Institute governors appointed an experienced public librarian to succeed Heaton. Fortunately, they found the perfect replacement.

Charles Goss c.1900. Goss was famous in the library world for his extravagant moustache.

Charles William Frederick Goss (1864-1946) was an altogether different type of character to Heaton. Our second chief librarian was confident, energetic, and fully committed to the democratic learning principles that underpinned Rogers’ original scheme. Goss personally understood the value of informal adult education to working people from non-privileged backgrounds because (unlike Heaton) this was his own background.

Goss was the son of a plasterer. He grew up in a crowded part of inner south London, in an unsettled, chaotic household. His mother couldn’t read or write. His older sister entered the workplace as a domestic servant and Goss left school at the age of thirteen to start earning a living as an office boy before entering the library profession as a junior assistant.

Bright, ambitious and hard-working, Goss was an enthusiastic autodidact. In his spare time, he taught himself to speak French and German. He attended talks and lectures on science, natural history, literature, and history. He joined groups and societies that encouraged his interest in self-education, and equipped him with a broad general knowledge. He even toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist during his twenties, and was a regular contributor to both the regional press and professional journals.

These extra-curricular activities made Goss a competitive candidate for the vacancy at Bishopsgate Institute in 1897. But it was his practical library experience that helped him stand out from the other applicants. By the time Charles William Frederick Goss was appointed our second chief librarian, he had accumulated more than ten years’ experience of library work in three different municipal libraries (Birkenhead in North-West England, Newcastle in North-East England and Lewisham in South-East London). He had also dramatically reinvented himself in personal terms.

More than four decades at Bishopsgate Institute

During the 1880s and 1890s, Goss gradually rewrote his early life story. He did this so that it better matched his emerging self-identity as a knowledgeable bookman and respectable member of an expanding lower-middle-class fraction in late-Victorian London. But our chief librarian never completely forgot his struggle to obtain an education in his youth.

This struggle made him sympathetic to the challenges faced by others from similar backgrounds. Immediately after he took charge at Bishopsgate Institute in 1897, Goss implemented measures to support working and lower-middle-class readers undertaking informal programmes of self-education in their spare time. For example, he extended borrowing times for lending library users and introduced subsidised access to lectures in our Great Hall.

Charles Goss’s working-class origins also informed his collecting policy. He remained in charge of our library for more than four decades. During that time, he built significantly on the London Collections first started by Heaton. He also began amassing materials on the history of trade unionism and the early labour movement, including the library of the Victorian radical activist and politician George Howell.

Goss successfully secured these records under the metaphorical nose of a broadly conservative governing body by concealing their exact content and character. Our outwardly respectable chief librarian was determined that the records of working people who fought to obtain a more democratic and just society in the nineteenth century would be preserved for future generations. We uphold and develop this important aspect of our acquisitions heritage today, through our world-renowned special collections on a range of radical subjects, including trade unionism, political protest and housing campaigns.

In 1895 Goss was a founder member of the Society of Public Librarians, a campaigning and social group that aimed to empower municipal librarians. The group met regularly at Bishopsgate Institute from 1897 until 1930. As their bookplate suggests, books and the acquisition of knowledge were key to members’ collective identity.

Credit: From the SPL archive.

Discover the origins of the Institute by learning the little-known story of Reverend Rogers of St Botolph’s Church on Bishopsgate.

Learn more about the building and design of Bishopsgate Institute by getting to know our architect Charles Harrison Townsend.