‘Life’s Poor Play is Over’ for David Chalmers

In 1881, David Chalmers started work as a junior assistant in his local ‘free’ library in Newcastle in north-east England. Chalmers was fourteen years old. After seven years practical training in public library work in the Newcastle building, in the summer of 1888 he secured a senior assistant position at the library on Knight’s Hill in West Norwood in suburban south London. (1)

At that moment, public libraries were being established across London. Skilled staff were needed to manage these new institutions. Because library development had taken place at a faster rate elsewhere in Britain, London chief and deputy appointments in the late nineteenth century invariably went to candidates from outside the city – librarians who had already acquired hands-on experience of delivering a public library service aimed at a general readership in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool or Cardiff. By the 1890s Birmingham and Newcastle Libraries, in particular, were recognised as centres of excellence in terms of  staff training. As the Newcastle Evening Chronicle expressed it on 24 December 1890:

‘Newcastle is evidently a favourable nursing ground for aspiring public librarians. In recent years, quite a crop of young men who have received their practical training and experience in that city have succeeded in obtaining positions of responsibility and trust in various parts of the kingdom.’

During his career at Newcastle, Chalmers had attended the leaving presentations of several colleagues (based at Newcastle or neighbouring South Shields) who were moving onwards and upwards within the profession. In 1882, Charles Baxter was appointed chief librarian at Kingston in south west London; in 1887, Thomas Everatt secured the chief’s position at nearby Darlington (Everatt was to move again to Streatham in south London in 1891); in 1887, Lawrence Inkster became chief of Battersea, in south west London; in 1887 Frank Burgoyne was appointed chief of Lambeth in south London; and so on.

In September 1888, Chalmers also left Newcastle. He was rejoining Frank Burgoyne who had been deputy librarian at Newcastle from 1879 to 1884. Not only would the two men work together in Lambeth but they would also share the library accommodation provided at West Norwood. As described in a previous post, in the late-Victorian period a flat for senior library staff was generally included in the plans for a new library building. Just twenty-one years old, Chalmers appeared on the brink of a promising career as a London librarian. Certainly he would have felt himself well-placed to emulate his Newcastle contemporaries in securing a top position in the city before too long; perhaps he might privately have congratulated himself on his ‘important appointment in a newly-opened library in the South of London’ (2), particularly given his relatively humble origins: Chalmers was the illegitimate son of a single, working-class mother. During the 1880s, he had worked and studied hard in his free time to equip himself for library work, using the region’s active mutual improvement movement as a space within which to educate himself informally – yet assiduously.

One month after David Chalmers started work at West Norwood, the south London and Newcastle local papers carried the news of his sudden and untimely death. Library accommodation at this time offered a comparatively deluxe living experience and the latest technologies were frequently included in the fit-out. The ‘new patent bath apparatus’ built in at the Knight’s Hill premises had seemingly caused Chalmers some problems as he went to take a bath one weekend morning early in October 1888 (3). The coroner found at inquest that he had poisoned himself with the gas fumes used to heat the water. It was believed he must have mishandled the mechanism that controlled the hot water, turning the gases to ‘on’ rather than ‘off’ as he finished his bath and almost immediately being overcome by the noxious fumes. Burgoyne found his colleague’s body too late to revive him.

Chalmers’ Newcastle friends were shocked at the sad news as it reached them. They wrote an ‘In Memorium’ letter, which has survived in the archive at Newcastle City library, and ends with the quotation: ‘Tired, he sleeps and life’s poor play is o’er.’

This note is reproduced with the kind permission of Newcastle City Library from 'Newcastle Library Cuttings, Vol. 1'.
This letter of memoriam is reproduced here with the kind permission of Newcastle City Library from Newcastle Library Cuttings, Vol. 1.

(1) This post sets out some early findings of a research trip to Newcastle City Library, funded by a James Ollé Award. The findings will eventually form the basis of a publication on regional identity and networks in the late-Victorian library world.

(2) ‘Sad Death of a Newcastle Man in London,’ Evening Chronicle, 9 October 1888

(3) As (2) above. I have written more fully about library accommodation elsewhere.