Mr John Pink: Founding Father of Cambridge’s Public Libraries, 1833-1906


Cambridge civic legend Mr John Pink is the man responsible for creating the public library service that perhaps today we take so easily for granted. This article from the British Newspaper Archive was published shortly after his death in 1906.

Mr Pink had spent over 50 years as our town’s public librarian. In that time he also began the collection of daily newspapers and other interesting historical items in what today we call The Cambridgeshire Collection. With so few of the newspapers having been digitised, having the original paper copies alongside the microfiche collection created by another civic legend, historian and librarian Mike Petty MBE, Cambridgeshire has this substantial local historical resource. Both Messrs Pink & Petty are featured in this short history of Cambridge’s public libraries from the Friends of Cambridge Central Library – also on Facebook here.

Interestingly, it has been the people of the rural county that (anecdotally) have made use of the resources to publish local history books on their towns and villages. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, we are yet to see a substantial modern day history of Cambridge the town in print. John Pink Cambridge Librarian FriendsOfCentralLibrary

Hero: Cambridge public librarian John Pink

I did a name search for John Pink in the British Newspaper Archive and discovered that he got married in 1855 to Miss Adelaide Jones.

550915 John Pink librarian married at StCs site

The Downing Street Chapel is likely to have been a non-conformist church – though I can only guess its location is on the site that St Columba’s Church – the Presbyterian/URC is now on, is possibly where it was. St Columba’s was also the place where another civic legend Dr Alex Wood of Emmanuel College and Cambridge Labour Party worshipped and preached.

The newspapers have a number of tales of Mr Pink having to deal with local rogues and rapscallions – hauling some of them before the courts to deal with things like theft, being drunk in the library, and vandalising books.

790726 John Pink equal rights women library users

Mr Pink also made sure that women knew they had equal rights in our public libraries at a time Cambridge’s colleges were losing their marbles over the prospect of women making a success of both Newnham and Girton Colleges. It would not be until after the Second World War that Cambridge University finally granted women equal rights regarding degrees.

Transcript of the Cambridge Independent Press report of Friday 30 November 1906


“It is with sincere regret record the death of Mr John Pink, who had been Librarian the Public Free Library at Cambridge for more than half century. Mr. Pink was 73 years of ago, and had been in an indifferent state of health for some time, being troubled with asthma, a complaint which attacked him more seriously each winter, and latterly he had said he suffered from an affection of the heart.

“He still kept to the work the Library, in which he had been engaged practically all his life, though there were lapses caused by his illness and his enfeeblement became more apparent, until few weeks ago he had to take to his bed again, and death occurred on Friday, at his residence in Panton street.

“Mr. Pink was the oldest public Librarian in England, and he had a remarkable record, in that be had held the post of Borough Librarian for over fifty-one years. He was born in Cambridge in 1833, a house which stood on the site now occupied by the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Trumpington Street, and his whole life was spent among books, for as a youth he entered a bookseller’s shop in Market Street as an assistant, and at twenty-two, on the Public Libraries’ Act being adopted in Cambridge, he received the appointment of Librarian.

“Cambridge, in fact, can claim the credit of being one of the pioneers of the Public Free Library movement, being the seventh borough to adopt the Act which was passed in 1850. Now there are between 400 and 500 public Free Libraries in the country. Although Mr. Pink naturally took a great deal of interest in local affairs from his position here, his life has been uneventful, though none the less useful, of course, because it has been spent practically within the walls of the Library.

“In his own particular branch of the public service he has carried on a quiet but pre-eminently useful work, building up and developing the Library from the small thing it was when he took charge half a century or so ago to the large and important institution it is today. Mr. Pink was elected librarian in April, 1855. There were thirteen candidates for the office, six of whom were selected for voting purposes, and Mr. Pink received the appointment by the casting vote of the Chairman of that time, the Rev. Dr. Cookson.

“As Mr. Pink himself has said, had the Mayor been in time take the chair at the meeting he would probably have given his vote to Mr. Thomas Gross, the old stage coachman, as it was known at the time that the Mayor was in favour of his election. But chance had it otherwise, and, looking on the record of the late librarian, one cannot help thinking that it was a fortunate chance for the Library movement in Cambridge—whatever the worthy stage coachman might have been in the post.

“In June of the year of his appointment the Library was opened as a reference library, with about 1,500 volumes. The opening of a public library free to all comers was then a novelty, and little understood. The books provided were learned and antiquated, in every way adapted for the student, but in no sense popular, except, of course, the writings of Scott, Lytton, Hook, and Defoe.

“Not a single periodical was admitted. In those early years the movement for providing recreation and enjoyment in reading, and improving the intellectual tastes of the people, struggled painfully along, and the Library Committee in their first annual report confessed to their disappointment that such advantages as the institution afforded had not been more generally accepted. On the other hand, readers were not satisfied with the provision made, and complained of the depressing surroundings.

For the first two or three years things did not go well, and Mr. Pink had a somewhat anxious and worrying time, but on the amendment of the Libraries Act, enabling the authority to increase the rate for the equipment of the Library, there was a great change in the prospects of the institution. New books were procured, a new interest was created in the institution, and from that time onward, under the able superintendence of Mr. Pink, the record has been one of progress and success. The measure of that success may be judged to some extent by the statement that whereas in that first year the Library possessed 1,500 volumes, it now has over 52,000.

“The first year’s issue was 19,796, and. at the present time, it is over 123,000. Mr. Pink has placed on record in several brochures, the first of which was published over twenty years ago, the steps in the rise and progress of the Library. He wrote its history from 1855 to 1897 on the occasion of the opening of the Mill-road Branch, on June 2, 1897, and he celebrated his jubilee as Librarian and the meeting of the Libraries’ Association at Cambridge last year, with another booklet, to which he gave the title of “After Fifty Years,” and which contained an interesting retrospect of the Cambridge Library in the fifty years from 1855 to 1905.

“It is not necessary for us to go into the history the Library at any great length now, though, as we have said, it represents the life work of Mr. Pink. He watched over its fortunes when it was in business in a small way in the Old Meeting House of the Friends, in Jesus-lane ; he was with it when it moved into the new rooms provided for it in 1862, and it was his work in its development which caused the Corporation to see the necessity of providing more accommodation for it by building the new Reading Room in 1881.

“He would smile as he spoke of old times, and brought to mind the great fight that was fought back in the sixties over the question of providing newspapers in the reading room. The question was warmly debated by the Library Committee upon three occasions, but each time the motion was defeated. Then followed an agitation among the inhabitants, and a memorial (some sixteen feet long) very numerously signed, was presented to the Town Council. The discussion which followed was amusing, but not edifying, as Mr. Pink would say. The statements made, the fears expressed, and the alarm such an innovation was expected to create have not been and were never likely to be justified. The Council at length gave its consent, and voted £50 a year to provide the newspapers. Newspapers were placed in the reading room for the first time in April, 1880, and we are told that, as a result, “ life was infused into an almost lifeless institution,” a larger public quickly availed themselves of the privileges provided, and from that starting point public opinion in Cambridge has steadily grown in its favour.

“It may be mentioned here that the proprietors of the Cambridge Independent Press and of the Cambridge Chronicle have the credit of first placing newspapers in the Library. Through Mr. Pink, many new features have been introduced from time to time for the development of the Library, and generally to increase its influence.

“This was generously recognised by the Library Committee when they presented him with an illuminated address on vellum on completing his fifty years of service last year.

“It is due your initiative.” they said, “that the Cambridge Free Library was the first to place a large number of books in its reading room to which the public have unlimited access, a new idea which has been adopted in all parts of the world.

“The boys and girls of the town have also cause to be grateful to the man who has supplied their schools with books for general reading, and has put at their disposal a special reading room on the Mill-road, of which they have shown marked appreciation. And it is not the Borough alone which has cause to thank you for your energetic administration of your office.

“The neighbouring parish of Chesterton has for long enjoyed most of the advantages of the Library, which have been open also to inhabitants of the county. The position held by Cambridge in the opinion of Library administrator is shown by the visits of inspection paid by those engaged in such work in all parts of the world.”

“The scheme of branch libraries was an important development and Mr. Pink was particularly proud of the Mill Road Library, which he claimed to be one of the best branch libraries in England. Mr. Pink has been supported in his work at the Library by a zealous and efficient staff, and when he has been incapacitated by his recent illnesses, the work of the Library has gone on smoothly and well under the assistant librarian, Mr. W. A. Fenton.

“It may be added that perhaps the only work with which Mr. Pink identified himself in the town outside library matters was of a religious character. He was a strong Nonconformist, and a regular attendant at St. Andrew’s-street Baptist Chapel. He was one of the founders of the Victoria Road Congregational Sunday School in Chesterton, which has just celebrated its jubilee.

“An interesting circumstance in this connection may be mentioned. A few weeks ago quantity of old papers and manuscripts, which belonged to the late Mr. Scroby, of Park Terrace, were being turned out with a view to being consigned to the flames, when among them was discovered a minute book of the old Independent Chapel in Downing-place, and in this was an entry showing Mr. John Pink, Mr. Wm. Bond, Mr. Scroby, and another were appointed a Committee to try and arrange for the starting of a Sunday School in the Chesterton district. They canvassed the district, obtained promises of a number of scholars, and the school was opened.

“Mr. Pink leaves four sons and two daughters. On Monday the Library Committee held a special meeting, when there were expressions of regret, and a vote of condolence was directed to be sent to the family.


“The funeral took place on Wednesday afternoon. The first portion of the service was held at St. Andrew’s Street Chapel, the Rev. Charles Joseph officiating. The hymns sung were Captain and Saviour of the Host,” and For all Thy saints.” As the coffin was borne from the chapel the Dead March in Saul was played. The Mayor (Alderman O. Stace) and the following members of the Corporation attended the funeral : Aldermen A. S. Campkin, Matthew, W. P. Spalding, Councillors W. Durnford, P. H. Young, H. O. Whibley, E. J, Colyer, H. J. Linsey, the Town Clerk (Mr. J. K. L. Whitehead), the Borough Surveyor (Mr. B. Wareham Harry), the Borough Accountant (Mr. Wilfrid C. Gait).

“The following members of the Library Committee were also present Councillor Professor Sorley (chairman), Alderman Peck, Councillors Newton J. Gatling, A. Maltby, E. Field, T. Coulson, J. Black, W. Christmas, Dr. Bansall, Messrs. F. Piggott (vice-chairman), R. Bowes, C. J. Smart, J. B. Foster, W. T. See, O. P. Fa veil, and J. H. Bullock. Others present included Mr. A. C. Mansfield, Mr. Norman, Dr. Stokes, Mrs. Sheldrick, Mr. F. J. H. Jenkinson (University Librarian), W. K. Vawser, G. W. Gray, Oswin Smith, Miss Bitton, and Mr. A. E. Steam.

“The library staff, Messrs. J. H. Robinson, W. A. Fenton, W. Tyrrell, A. E. Humphrey, 8. Williams, Molt, G. Butteress, and Langrin were also present the funeral.

“The chief mourners were : Messrs. J. S. Pink, Arthur Pink, Frank Pink, and W. Pink (sons of the deceased), Mr. E. Pink (brother), Mrs. S. Pink (daughter-in-law), Mr. Finn (son-in-law). Miss Nellie Pink (daughter). Mrs. Finn (daughter), Mrs. Frank Pink (daughter-in-law), Miss Alice Pink (niece), Mr. Sowden, Mr. Griffin, Miss Moore, Mrs. Griffin, Mrs. Hodgson, Mrs. Southwell, and Mr. F. Waters. The interment was at the Histon Road Cemetery.

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