Leadhills Reading Society Promotes Literacy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As part of a wide range of reforms of the local lead-mining industry, the creation of the Leadhills Reading Society, a kind of subscription library, helped make the town’s lead-mining company a model for the rest of the industrial world. Miners and their families could check out and read the library’s books, and then reflect on what they read. The reading society thus promoted both literacy and critical thinking.

Summary of Event

The town of Leadhills is located high in the mountains of southwestern Scotland in the middle of an area that has been mined for lead and other minerals for more than six hundred years. The village was originally called Hopetoun, which was also an appropriate name. Great hopes inspired the reforms Labor;reform instituted by the Scots Mines Company Scots Mines Company in the 1740’s. [kw]Leadhills Reading Society Promotes Literacy (1741) [kw]Literacy, Leadhills Reading Society Promotes (1741) [kw]Society Promotes Literacy, Leadhills Reading (1741) [kw]Reading Society Promotes Literacy, Leadhills (1741) Literacy;Scotland Libraries;Scotland Leadhills Reading Society [g]Scotland;1741: Leadhills Reading Society Promotes Literacy[1060] [c]Education;1741: Leadhills Reading Society Promotes Literacy[1060] [c]Social issues and reform;1741: Leadhills Reading Society Promotes Literacy[1060] [c]Philosophy;1741: Leadhills Reading Society Promotes Literacy[1060] Stirling, James Locke, John Ramsay, Allan

Lead miners Mining;lead in this area had been serfs until 1695. Later, some of the miners were recruited from local prisons to fill labor shortages. The work was dangerous and difficult, and most of the men were a rough-and-tumble lot. A basis for reform within the lead-mining industry in Leadhills already existed in the system of “bargaining” that had developed earlier. Work was done according to specific contracts negotiated with small groups of miners. This system put a higher premium on individual intelligence and initiative than did, for example, the larger-scale operations being run at the same time by the coal-mining companies.

The central figure behind the reforms was James Stirling, a Scotsman whose original genius was in mathematics. He attended Oxford University and became a colleague of Sir Isaac Newton. Stirling had lived in Venice, Italy, for many years and worked with mathematician Nikolaus Bernoulli at the University of Padua. He returned to London and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London, but his career as a mathematician was frustrated by political complications. When Stirling was only seventeen years old, his father was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1708. Archibald Stirling was acquitted of the charges, but the association seems to have followed his son. James Stirling never received an academic appointment commensurate with his talent and accomplishments in mathematics.

He accepted his fate with good grace, however. Much to the surprise of his associates in London, he left the city in 1735 to take a position as agent for the Scots Mines Company in charge of their operations in Leadhills. He was to receive £120 per year, and he soon proved to be well worth this sum to the company and to the men working in the mines.

Stirling brought a mathematical rigor to operations in the Leadhills mines and regularly inspected the daybooks or journals of the overseers. He used the increased information flow to improve safety conditions, and he limited underground shifts to six hours to help slow the potential for lead poisoning. He introduced pensions, sick days, and a charity fund for emergency relief. A physician and a schoolteacher were brought into town for the benefit of the community. Workers and their families were encouraged to build their own houses and reclaim ground in the area for the cultivation of gardens. With the cooperation of the earl of Hopetoun, they also acquired limited rights to transfer the property they developed to other employees of the company. The liquor shops in the village were closed, and drinking was tightly controlled.

Stirling’s reform led directly to the founding of the Leadhills Reading Society, the first subscription library in Britain. Members paid a set fee to join and then yearly or monthly dues to remain in the club. The original Leadhills club charged five pence to join and four pence in annual dues. The library eventually developed a recreational dimension, but at first it focused on occupational and moral education. Education;libraries Along with the miners, the local schoolmaster and the minister were among the original twenty-three members. The society was governed by regular meetings, and the annual general meeting selected a secretary, treasurer, librarian, and three inspectors. The librarian kept records of circulation and the inspectors kept track of the condition of the books. The length of time a member was allowed to keep a book depended on the book’s length.

A committee of twelve was selected to buy books. At first, the selection tended to be largely religious in nature and included Henry Scougal’s Life of God in the Soul of Man (1677), Hugo Grotius’s The Truth of the Christian Religion (1683), Louis Ellies Du Pin’s church history (1718), Gilbert Burnet’s An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1699), and Matthew Henry’s The Communicant’s Companion (1704). Professional Education;workers Working class;education of and technical materials were also circulated through the Reading Society. These were intended to increase understanding of the lead-mining business and improve job performance underground. Indeed, mining in Leadhills came to define the cutting edge of the technology.

The Reading Society grew and matured, leading to the acquisition of more fiction and poetry. One of the most popular writers in this vein was hometown prodigy and poet Allan Ramsay, a precursor to great Scottish poets such as Robert Ferguson and Robert Burns: The Gentle Shepherd (1725) is his best-known work. The son of a former Leadhills mine manager, Ramsay moved to Edinburgh at a young age and founded a circulating library there called the Easy Club around 1720. He is generally considered to have been a major inspiration to the Leadhills Reading Society, and for a time it even bore his name.


The preamble to the original rules drawn up in 1743 to govern the Leadhills Reading Society begins with the following words: “We, subscribers, having agreed to form Ourselves into a SOCIETY, in order to purchase a Collection of Books, for our mutual Improvement, [do set forth] certain ARTICLES, to be observed by us, for the Establishment and Regulation of this our Society. . . .”

The key concept in the preamble was “mutual improvement,” Education;Scotland which explains the reading society’s philosophy. Self-improvement, even in collaboration with others, was a radical idea at the time, marking a historic shift in the ways individuals thought of themselves and their place in the world. According to traditional medieval ideology, one’s place was fixed at birth. The only form of improvement possible was to accept one’s position in the great chain of being that had been ordained by God. To question the social hierarchy Social reform;and reading[reading] or imagine rising within it was treasonous or, worse, blasphemous.

Perhaps the most important philosopher of the Enlightenment to articulate this change in thinking was John Locke. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) he described the individual as a blank sheet of paper—a tabula rasa Tabula rasa —upon which anything could be written. In other words, through experience and education individuals could improve themselves and grow intellectually, providing the means for contributing to society according to one’s learned abilities and not merely according to one’s place in the social hierarchy. The Leadhills Reading Society was an early attempt to put this fundamental Enlightenment ideal into practice.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. New York: Norton, 2003. A history of libraries as well as the forces in history that try to destroy information and communication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Michael H. History of Libraries in the Western World. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. A general survey of library history, originally published in 1984.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Dover, 1959. Originally published in 1690, Locke’s work sets forth a philosophical basis for educational reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tweedle, Charles. James Stirling: A Sketch of His Life and Works, Along with His Scientific Correspondence. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1922. An older, still valuable biography of Stirling, perhaps the only one of its kind.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vincent, David. The Rise of Mass Literacy. Cambridge, England: Polity, 2000. Vincent examines how eighteenth century ideas about literacy and reading were practiced in the nineteenth century.

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Categories: History