The Library Men of WW1

During WW1 11i members of staff from Belfast Public Libraries enlisted in various regiments of  the British Army. Over two hundred letters were exchanged between these 'library men' and the Chief Librarian between 1914 and 1919.​

The letters were written as a condition of employment in order to receive the half-pay that Belfast Public Libraries continued to pay to their staff during war service. The collection also includes various administrative documents relating to the men and Belfast Public Libraries.

Click here to read the letters from The Library Men of WW1


Chief librarians

George Hall Elliott was the Chief Librarian at the outbreak of war, until his death on 23 January 1917. He was replaced in this post by John Bewick Goldsbrough. The Chief Librarians often read these letters aloud to library staff and they contain many references to other staff members.​​



The 11 'library men' came from a range of backgrounds and religious denominations. Most were born in Belfast but others originated from Ballycastle, Dungannon and Newcastle-upon-Tyne (see biographies).


After the war​

Some prospered after the war, like Major Thomas Coulson, who wrote several books including ‘Mata Hari: Courtesan and Spy’, which was published in 1930 and made into a film.

Others were left with extensive injuries making it harder for them to settle back into employment and civilian life. One member of library staff, William Brown who had enlisted in August 1917, was killed in France on 12 August 1918.


Writing styles​

Some of the writers were more prolific than others. Unfortunately a few letters are missing, as are some of the cards and photographs referred to in the letters. Their writing styles vary from the factual to the almost poetic, such as Fitzsimons’ description from 1919 “All the terrible scars of war have been camouflaged by nature - the shell holes and trenches are ablaze with poppies”.

In this unique collection of letters 'the library men' have given us their own individual accounts of the Great War, beginning with life in the training camps, the brutal reality of trench warfare right through to demobilisation and eventual return to civilian life. 


Who were the library men of WW1?


iThere were two other members of staff mentioned in these letters, Simpson and Scilley. Their letters are not held by Libraries NI.​


Belfast Public Libraries Senior Library Staff in the yard of Belfast Central Library in 1909.

Back row- William Moore (Assistant Librarian), John McCausland (Assistant Librarian), David J.H. Simpson (Branch Librarian Ballymacarrett), William Rowan (Chief Assistant Reference Department), Albert Moore (Branch Librarian Donegall Road),
D.J. Lavery (Assistant Librarian), John Scott (Assistant Librarian), Wilfred Gorfunkle (Assistant Librarian).

Front row- Elizabeth Corr (Typist), Thomas Coulson (Branch Librarian Falls Road), John B. Goldsbrough (Chief Assistant, later Acting Chief Librarian), George H. Elliott (Chief Librarian until his death in 1917), Robert Gourley (Chief Assistant Lending Department), Albert E. Atkinson (Branch Librarian Oldpark), Jane Miller (Assistant in charge Reference Department).