44a-56 Eldon Street

The Civic opened in January 1878 as the new Barnsley Mechanics Institute and Public Hall.

The new building provided a place for ordinary Barnsley people to access culture, science and the arts, in a way that had not been possible before. It was partly funded by Henry Harvey, a local industrialist and Quaker who believed in education and social reform, along with other local benefactors and public shares. A bust of Henry Harvey is carved above the door of the building on Eldon Street. The building cost around £27,000 to build, almost £11,000 over its original estimate.

There were six shops along Eldon Street, with offices for let above, and a new school of art on the top floor. Behind this was a library, reading room, newsroom, lecture theatre, classrooms and billiard room for the use of members, with a large public hall above. The hall included backstage storage and a band room. Both men and women were allowed to join the institute, with women and boys (under 18) offered a reduced membership fee. In 1878 membership cost 2 ½ pence per week, or ‘less than a pint of beer’.

From the outset, the Public Hall hosted a wide range of performances and events, including concerts, theatre productions, lectures, political events, sales, meetings, charity fund raisers and award ceremonies. Many of these were advertised and reported in the local newspapers. Thousands of people from across Barnsley flocked to the hall to watch big names from London and other parts of the country, as well as local groups and performers. Late trains were even put on for popular performances so that people could get home afterwards.

Henry Harvey died shortly after the building opened and it was later renamed the Harvey Institute in his honour. His brother Charles gifted the building to the Barnsley Corporation in 1890, on the agreement that it became the first free Public Library in Barnsley.

In the early 1900s the renowned promoter Jasper Redfern started to show early ‘moving pictures’ at the Public Hall, alongside live performers, as part of his variety shows.