"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies... The man who never reads lives only one." – George R.R. Martin 

While The Lightbox is temporarily closed, we've recruited the help of Rosemary and Richard, two of our beloved Heritage volunteers, to discuss topics relating to the home. 

We may be slowly easing out of lockdown, but several of us are still turning to reading. The fine weather may have tempted others to gardening, but then why not read in the garden?! 

Early Days 

Writing began with clay tablets in cuneiform script in Sumeria about 2600 BC. This writing is largely concerned with business and then in ancient Egypt the tomb inscriptions focussed on the after-life.  Reading for pleasure came later: it required, obviously, literacy and also leisure. In the Roman Empire there were domestic libraries and public libraries, notably the large library at Alexandria, which included literary and historical works.  

Until the invention of printing in the west, about 1450, reading was circumscribed by the means of production of books – one at a time in manuscript.  Book production and readership was concentrated on monasteries, and was thus mostly theological and devotional.  The coming of printing at a period of religious and cultural change meant an influx of news and opinions and literacy to some extent caught up.  

At Loseley House, near Guildford, there was probably the first British lay printed library, in 1556, and the chained library at Guildford Royal Grammar School, dating from 1573, has a claim to being the first public library in the UK  

Among the Woking authors we mentioned in a previous blog post was Lady Margaret Beaufort, and she was shown reading her prayers.  At that time few people could read and for a woman to do so was even rarer.  As substitutes the walls of churches were painted brightly with improving or doom-laden scriptural themes, and relics of these can still be seen in Pyrford and Byfleet churches.   

Almost all the Guildford books were theological, and religious topics were popular with those who could read.  People also read for instruction, everything from medicine to astronomy, and starting with re-telling of folk tales and epics, took to reading literature, although even by 1850 the British literacy rate was 67% for men and 51% for women, reaching 90% in the mid-twentieth century.  

Nowadays, with more leisure time, people read for pleasure, and for information – cookery books have proven to be especially popular!  (Did you know that Delia Smith was born in Woking?). The coming of the internet may have reduced reading of non-fiction books, but novels remain popular.  


In Woking one of the longest established of all shops was Elton’s – originally in Chertsey Road. It started as a subscription library (The Lightbox has a book from that library) and bookshop in 1901. It diversified into stationery and the last, West Byfleet branch, closed a few years ago. Nancy Leigh ran a bookshop in Chapel Street for many years, and there was also E.J. Finneron’s bookshop in Chertsey Road which sold many books to the British Museum library to replace wartime losses.  

A newspaper advert for Elton's bookshop

There has always been a presence of Christian bookshops in the town – the Berean Bookshop in an upper room of the High Street, one in Goldsworth Road, and still remaining, the Origin Bookshop in Christ Church. Of the chains of bookshops, Methven’s came and went in Commercial Way, Waterstone’s is well established in The Peacocks and WH Smith stocks a good general range.  Much missed is the second-hand market, represented by Brian Hartles in Goldsworth Road and Walter Speight on Thursdays in the market – but you can still find second-hand books at The Lightbox and at charity shops in the town, notably in the British Heart Foundation store. 


Libraries came slowly to Woking. As Woking grew, there was some pressure for a public library and in 1902 Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born American philanthropist offered the Council £5000 to get a library off the ground. The proposal was rejected as being unnecessary and expensive. 

By 1923 there was a little more sympathy towards a library, and when the Roman Catholic Church vacated its tin chapel in Percy Street, the first library came in 1928 partly linked to Surrey County Council’s library system, but with (unique in the country) Woking Council providing staff salaries, building and reference stock and the County Council the lending stock. 

Woking's first library, after its move in 1934, on Commercial Road

The stay in Percy Street was brief and in 1934 the library moved to another former church, the Wesleyan Church in Commercial Road (now Côte Brasserie) vacated in 1906 and used by the County Council in the following years. In these cramped quarters the library ran a pioneering picture loan service for works by local artists. Spot the library posing as a town hall at the start of the 1965 film “The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery”.   

In 1975 the library at last moved to purpose-built quarters facing the Town Square. It was rebuilt in 1991 all on one floor on Jubilee Square. The library’s services now include not only books, but also DVD loans, story-telling for children and it has a number of computers with which users can access the internet. 


One of Woking’s largest employers in its time was the printing works of Unwin Brothers in Old Woking.  The original mill had been converted to a paper mill in 1838 – conveniently a branch of the River Wey flowed underneath to provide the necessary water, and two printing firms came to Church Street Old Woking in the early nineteenth century.  

 Unwin’s was the largest of the two printing firms, coming to the mill in 1896 when their works in Chilworth burned down. They printed a variety of books not only for Allen and Unwin, their linked publishing arm, but also for many other publishers. They closed in 2007 on moving to Chessington, and the building has been converted into apartments. 

The original site of Unwin Brothers' printing firm


In earlier years, Woking news would be found in papers covering wider areas of Surrey, but in 1894 The Woking News began publication, followed shortly by the Woking Mail; they merged in 1897 to form the well-known Woking News and MailWithout radio or television early local papers would record news from all over the country, and readers in northern England and Ireland could read of incidents in Woking, and vice-versa.  

Takeovers over the years found the News and Mail as part of the Surrey Advertiser group, then to the Guardian Group, which in 2011 sought unsuccessfully to offload it to Times Mirror. It was feared that the News and Mail might be at an end but it was rescued by a former Guardian manager who relaunched it from Knaphill

Woking News - first issue facsimile

During lockdown, it has been a welcome sight to see free copies of the ‘News and Mail’ being delivered to local households.   

The ‘Surrey Advertiser’ has meanwhile rebranded its Woking edition as the ‘Woking Advertiser’, but nothing else remains of the newspapers and even free papers of more recent years.  The ‘Woking Review’, at first an organ of the Chamber of Trade and Commerce, from 1933 is nominally incorporated in the ‘News and Mail’; the ‘Woking Herald’ lasted from 1928 to 2003, ‘Woking Opinion’ just from 1952 to 1957, and the ‘Woking Informer’, from Trinity Mirror group folded in 2010. 

Book Groups 

There are several book groups around Woking. The Lightbox runs a Book Group on the last Thursday of the month, as part of Lightbox Lates. We hope soon to be welcoming its return, as well as the return of several other book groups around town.  

Are there any libraries or book groups that you’re looking forward to returning to? And which books have you enjoyed during lockdown? 

For more fascinating stories from Rosemary and Richard browse our blog.