John Davies Mullins (Chief Librarian)

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Description:This is an abridged version of his biography from the Handsworth Magazine. The full version is available on this page for download.

Mr John Davies Mullins, whose death at his residence, 32 Wretham Road, Handsworth, on Sunday the 27th ult, has occasioned widespread regret, was born in London in 1832 and was therefore in his sixty-eight year. For the last few years he has been in declining health from the development of paralytic symptoms and in the summer of 1898 felt incumbent upon him to relinquish the position of Chief Librarian to the City of Birmingham after thirty years service in that capacity. A few weeks ago his condition became critical and he passed peacefully away on the evening of the day named.

During the past 12 years of his life Mr Mullins was a resident of Handsworth and albeit he took no active part in the public life of the suburb, he was by no means an unfamiliar figure amongst us. Essentially literary in his tastes and studious in his habits, he will be chiefly remembered for his great work in connection with the Birmingham Free Library. He was appointed to the charge of the old Birmingham Library in Union Street as far back as March 1858, when little more than twenty-five years old and was selected out of 126 candidates. The retirement of Mr George Jabet from the presidency of the institution in 1860 cast the whole responsibility of conducting it upon the young librarian and the faithful work which he performed is still remembered by the book-lovers of that generation.

The year 1860 was an important one in the career of Mr Mullins inasmuch as the amalgamation of the New Library in Temple Row West with Union Street Library at this time gave him an ampler field wherein to exercise his faculty for organisation and systematisation. During the same year the Free Libraries Act was adopted in Birmingham.

In 1861 the first branch library and reading room was opened in Constitution Hill. Measures were then taken to establish a central lending library and reading room with Art Gallery in Ratcliff Place; and for this a librarian of wider experience and attainments was required than had sufficed for conducting the original institution. The building was ready in 1865 and the coveted position of chief librarian of the Free Libraries was conferred by the Town Council upon Mr Mullins. He was not suffered to relinquish his old appointment however, without receiving a tangible acknowledgement of the high esteem in which his services and his personality were held, for he was presented with a handsome writing desk and a purse of £100 by the committee of the Old Library. Mr Mullins became the chief librarian to the Corporation on the 30th May 1865 and thence-forward his history was practically the history of the Birmingham Free Libraries.

The Central Lending Library was opened in September 1865 with 10,000 volumes; the Reference Library was opened a year later with 16,195 volumes, in addition to 2,000 volumes of specifications of patents. The issue of books in the first year amounted to 11,468. The institution was afterwards much enlarged; within eight years from the inauguration three branch libraries and the Shakespeare Library were organised in addition to a small library at Adderley Park, Saltley.

A voluntary arrangement on the part of the staff in 1872 enabled the libraries to be opened on Sundays and Mr Mullins ably co-operated with the committee in bringing the new departures into working without any undue strain on the part of his assistants.

In 1878 the number of volumes in the Reference Library had increased to 44,519 and the issues for that year were 259,144. This was the year preceding the destruction of the libraries by fire, which took place in January 1879, when Birmingham suffered its greatest and almost irreparable loss. At this time Mr Mullins contemplated retirement but he was induced to continue in office and his experience and thorough mastery of the details of the work were invaluable in the reconstruction of the institution. Pending the construction of the new building, a temporary library was opened in the Council House on September 12, 1879, the collection of books, which had by this time been got together as the nucleus of the new library, consisting of 17,000 volumes in the reference library and 12,000 in the lending library. The effort put forth by Mr Mullins to secure this satisfactory result was gratefully acknowledged by the committee.

The new library buildings were opened on June 1st, 1882, by Mr Bright and two years later when Mr Mullins was granted an increase of salary (not the first he had received in acknowledgement of his services) the Libraries Committee declared that “his economical administration of his department has during his term of office saved the finances of the Corporation very large sums in the two points of careful and judicious purchase of books and selection of efficient assistants. They record with great satisfaction that Mr Mullins is recognised throughout England as holding a high place in his profession and has by his administration of your libraries raised the standard of the efficiency of such institutions throughout the country. His election as one of the three vice-presidents of the Library Association and the fact that the benefit of his knowledge and experience is constantly sought by librarians in all parts of the kingdom, are sufficient proofs of the estimation in which he is held.”

The free library movement in Birmingham grew in size and importance from year to year. In order to relieve the central institution more branch libraries were opened and these branches have become extremely popular. Long after his health began to fail Mr Mullins continued his work and when finally he retired on superannuation in June 1898 he received the sincere thanks of the Libraries Committee and the Council for his long and faithful services to the city.

No better testimony to the success of the free library movement is to be found (says the Post) than in a comparison of the first and last years of the institution under the direction of Mr Mullins. In 1865, the year he was appointed chief librarian, the number of volumes was under 30,000 and the issues of books 11,468. In 1898, when he retired, the number of volumes was more than 233,000 and the total issue of books was upwards of one-and-a-quarter-millions. A part of the library to which Mr Mullins devoted a great deal of attention was the collection of manuscripts relating to the history of Birmingham. He was moreover very successful in his method of cataloguing; and the catalogue of Shakespearean editions which he prepared was unique in its completeness and comprehensiveness. He leaves a widow and family of three sons and a daughter.


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Image courtesy of: Birmingham Central Library

Donor ref:Handsworth Magazine L93.1 (LSH) (14/3308)

Source: Local Studies & History Department ,  Birmingham Central Library

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