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Sam and Sarah – the story of two of Fleetwood’s greatest benefactors

Now that Fleetwood has its splendid new library in the heart of the town, the old central library in Dock street with its rich past (not to mention steep, stone steps climbed by hundreds of residents) has seemingly faded from memory. It seems only fair to praise the successful cotton merchant who bought Benjamin Whitworth’s Institute building so that Fleetwood could have a free library.

Who was this philanthropist, Samuel Fielden from Todmorden? Mainly through the apathy of residents the Institute had languished, failing to achieve its purpose. Benjamin decided to sell and was prepared to offer the building to the Local Board for only £1200, a figure lower than one he had already received.

The Commissionaires in typical fashion dragged their feet and Mr Whitworth became impatient with their dallying, at which point Mr Fielden arrived.

Recently delving into family history, a cousin of mine has found that Samuel Fielden was a distant relation, which makes me particularly keen to know more of him and his formidable wide Sarah.

My grandfather Jasper Fielden came from Todmorden to settle in Rosendale where he married 19 year old Emma Warswick. Apparently “my” Todmorden Fieldens were raven haired, swarthy of skin and well off, for they dealt in horses.

Certainly the three brothers, Samuel, John and Joshua made large fortunes, all cotton magnates. They followed their father’s tradition, each contributing to the betterment of Todmorden, drainage, town workhouse (the Royal Albert Asylum at Lancaster benefited from the Fieldens), housing for workers, the Unitarian Church and the Town Hall.

In July 1887 a deputation from Fleetwood met Samuel to discover the conditions of his gift. The only stipulation was that the building would be used as a free library, open to all the townspeople. In no way would the recreational side be interfered with. Indeed any revenue from clubs and hiring for special occasions would cover the expense of opening as a library.

In 1850 when the first Public Libraries Act was passed it was optional for a town to adopt it. Interestingly, Fleetwood became one of the first towns to do so and all because of Samuel Fielden’s generosity.

At a meeting held on 23rd August 1887, Dr F Hall seconded by Mr S Carson moved that the Public Libraries Act be adopted.

When it was declared that the library should prove self-supporting and that it would entail a rate of only one farthing in the pound, joy was unconfined!

With Samuel Laycock, Lancashire’s dialect poet as curator and renamed Fielden Free Library (the first librarian was Martha Mason who stayed 40 years) Mrs Sarah Fielden opened the new venture. She brought with her a cheque for £100 to buy books, maps and scientific equipment. Lancashire’s laureate composed a hymn for the gala occasion and despite pouring rain, hundreds of children sang it lustily.

The “Fleetwood Chronicle” reported that Samuel Fielden was unwell and could not attend but his biographer, Brian Law, attests that Sam hated to be thanked for good works. “He loved to do goo, he hated to be thanked for it,” said friend and Unitarian minister Arthur Fox. It is noteworthy that Sam and Sarah were absent at the grand opening of Todmorden Town Hall, to which they had contributed.

Sam and Sarah, both strong characters, were private people who loved their home, Centre Vale, where together they planned philanthropy. Their only child was John Ashton Fielden, born 1859. Amongst their friends were William Gaskill and his wife Elizabeth Gaskill, novelist, known for her fearless championing of oppressed mill workers.

Sarah and Sam attended the Unitarian Church in Todmorden contributing to its upkeep and the minister’s salary. One of Sarah’s interests was the school she established at Centre Vale where she demonstrated an innovative approach to education. Both were patrons of Owens College, Manchester which became the Victoria University of that city and is now the biggest university campus in Europe.

As for Fleetwood, Sam invested in property there, bought a lifeboat and Sarah carried on all the good work after Sam’s death in 1896, financing the Seaman’s Rest in Dock Stree (1899) and the Cottage Hospital when she said, “In helping Fleetwood we were helping a two trying to help itself.”

The author of this article, Catherine Rothwell, is eighth cousin to “Honest John” Fielden MP, who got the Ten Hours Act (1802) through Parliament – prohibiting children from working any longer than ten hours a day. Who might you be descended from?

First published in Life in Fleetwood issue 59, autumn/winter 2003.

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