‘Living-in’ at the Public Library

Detail from the entrance to the former Pitfield Street library in Hoxton, showing the inscription to library benefactor  John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911). In the 1890s, Edwards contributed buildings, books and money towards the development of  a public library provision in Shoreditch in east London.  He also supported numerous other library projects across east London and in his native West Country.
‘Through the medium of W.C.Plant, Chief Librarian…[John Passmore Edwards] most generously handed over to the Shoreditch Library Commissioners the sum of £4,250 being the whole amount paid by them for the purchase of the Library Buildings, Librarian’s House and large plot of Ground adjoining.’ (1) This detail, from the entrance to the former Pitfield Street library in Hoxton, shows an inscription to Edwards (1823-1911) who financed numerous library projects across east London and in his native West Country. Photograph Michelle Johansen, December 2013

Most of London’s rate-assisted or free libraries were constructed during a relatively lively period of expansion between c.1888 and c.1905.(2) Each new institution was announced with great fanfare, in the form of a well-attended opening ceremony. Local media coverage of these celebratory public events was extensive. Alongside detailed descriptions of the library building itself, journalists sometimes included a reference to the size or character of the library flat or apartment. Likewise, when documenting the appointment of a new chief or head librarian, library committee minutes from the period might mention that the salary was ‘inclusive of’ residence, rates, fuel and light.(3) Or administrative records might otherwise pass incidental remark upon the librarian’s flat or house, as in the extract from the 1892 note ‘To the Press’ printed under the photograph above. It was small clues of this type that first alerted me to the intriguing phenomenon of ‘living-in’. Curious to discover more about the practice, I turned to the floor plans of new free libraries printed in specialist contemporary journals such as the Library or the Builder. Here I found concrete and conclusive proof that accommodation for the librarian frequently formed an integral part of the new build.

Library diagrams and drawings also yielded valuable data on dimension and layout. Published in 1889, the floor plans of the new Battersea Library in south London indicated that the librarian’s apartments were spread across three floors and included a dining room and a drawing room, as well as separate larder and pantry areas.(4) The floor plans of Clapham Library, also in south London, show that the library was constructed upon an 8,000-square-foot site; and almost the whole of the second floor of the building was given over to the librarian’s residence.(5) At Edmonton Library in north London, the librarian’s apartment was spread across two floors, with ‘a separate entrance…provided for him at the end of the news-room.’(6) At the new building at St Martin-in-the-Fields in the West End of London, it was reported that ‘the top floor is to be fitted as a residence for the librarian.’(7). Armed with these ephemeral scraps of evidence, I was able to state with confidence that some metropolitan public librarians started their careers living above or alongside their library premises. But was it possible to comment more precisely on numbers and locations?  Was it realistic to try to ascertain how widespread was the practice of ‘living-in’ in London’s libraries c.1900?

The former Shoreditch Public Library on Kingsland Road in east London. Chief Librarian William Plant 'lived-in' blah in the 1890s
The former Shoreditch Public Library on Kingsland Road in east London. Chief Librarian William Plant (1858-1929) occupied a purpose-built apartment adjoining the building from the moment of his appointment in 1892. Photograph Michelle Johansen, July 2013

To answer this question, I paid close attention to the table of data gathered by the Borough clerk in West Ham in east London around 1906. The clerk’s managers had requested guidance on appropriate salary levels for their library employees so – in an early version of comparator analysis – the clerk had circulated a survey to chief librarians across the Greater London boroughs, asking for information on salary levels and other minutiae of library administration. The more precise respondents were careful to point out where salary figures in their region had been modified by the issue of residency. In other words, they stated the amount their librarians received alongside such invaluable qualifications as with house, fuel and light or with house, coal and light or with apartments, &c.(8) These qualifications made it possible to specify which London library buildings included accommodation for the chief or sub-librarian around 1906 – up to a point.

Spa Road Library_8
The entrance to the chief librarian’s residence (white door) is clearly visible to the left of the main library entrance (green doors) in this contemporary photograph of the former Spa Road library in Bermondsey. John Frowde (1856 -1924) lived here with his family from the moment of his appointment as chief librarian in 1891. On 23 January 1892, the ‘South London Press’ published an article on the Spa Road building, which mentioned Frowde’s accommodation: ‘The whole of the second floor is exclusively occupied by the librarian’s apartments, forming a complete residence, with baths, larders, stores, coal lift, and every residential convenience.’ Little wonder Frowde was reluctant to move out of the library apartment following his retirement as chief librarian in 1922; his governors granted him special leave to remain in the flat until he had found suitable accommodation elsewhere. Photograph Michelle Johansen, November 2013

The problem is that not every London public library was represented in the West Ham survey findings and not all library residencies were explicitly announced in the table of returns; that is, while some respondents took the trouble to mention residency, others did not. Allowing for inconsistencies in the West Ham data – and mapping the findings from this source onto my discoveries elsewhere in local studies archives across the city – I have been able to establish that, of the 30 or so main library buildings in London c.1906, at least 20 were managed by a chief librarian who lived over or alongside the library premises. Of the 50 or so smaller branch libraries, at least 20 were run by a resident sub-librarian. To provide an idea of the geographical spread of the phenomenon of ‘living-in’, it is worth pointing out that librarians occupied accommodation in libraries from Shoreditch, Whitechapel, West Ham, Limehouse, Poplar, and Leyton in the east, to Fulham, Chiswick, Chelsea, Hammersmith, Paddington, Ealing and Richmond in the west; and from Southwark, Lambeth, Camberwell, Woolwich, Bermondsey and Battersea in the south, to Harlesden, Willesden Green, Walthamstow, Kilburn and Stoke Newington in the north.

Inevitably, each of these 40+ librarians experienced a different version of ‘living-in’. Some occupied purpose-built accommodation in new library premises while others were given converted rooms in existing buildings; but it appeared that all enjoyed a relatively deluxe domestic experience. ‘Relatively’ in three senses. First, their library flats were spacious and well-equipped, compared to the type of dwellings they might realistically have been able to rent on the open property market: even senior public library posts in London only came with a salary of between £120 and £220 in the 1890s. Second, the library buildings they occupied were grand in architectural terms, relative to the surrounding built environment. This was especially the case in areas such as Limehouse, Shoreditch and Bermondsey. Third, in lifestyle terms, occupying well-appointed apartments with easy access to the beautifully-designed and fitted-out learning institutions they managed represented a giant step forwards, or upwards, for a cohort of subaltern professionals from relatively modest or humble social backgrounds. The typical Victorian chief librarian was the ‘bookish’ self-educated son of a working class or artisan father. As an aside, it is interesting to note that all chief librarians in London at this time were men.  

Describing the plans for a public library in Chelsea in west London in 1889, the writer of a Library journal article pointed out that the architect’s designs for the building included: ‘a commodious and handsome residence for the librarian.’(9) It appeared that the designers of London’s late-Victorian public library buildings – many of which were prestige or flagship constructions, bearing the name of their benefactor in elaborately worked scrolls or tablets over the main entrance (see the Pitfield Street example at the top of this post) – had been generous in apportioning space to the residential librarian. Perhaps too generous. By 1907, the author of an instruction manual aimed at library architects was advising a more economical approach: ‘where…the architect has to include accommodation for a librarian he should avoid making this unnecessarily commodious, and should not provide more than five or at most six rooms in addition to bathroom, closet, and the necessary offices.’(10) For many among the first generation of chief librarians in London, this recommendation arrived too late to disrupt their comfortable inhabitant arrangements. Although the convention of providing a flat for the librarian as part of a new library building programme had been quietly shelved by the First World War, this set of librarians remained very much at home in their ‘unnecessarily commodious’ accommodation right up to the time of their (often unwilling) retirement in the 1920s.

(1) ‘To the Press’ circulated by the Shoreditch Library Commissioners, 30 November 1892 Out Letters from the Chief Librarian, 1891-1894, Hackney Local Studies Archive

(2) This post uses up some of the scraps leftover from a chapter contributed to a book on residential institutions in Britain, published in June 2013. I gave a talk on the subject at a conference in 2010. My research into the neglected phenomenon of ‘living-in’ remains an ongoing project so all insights into the subject (including anecdotes and suggested corrections to the text) are welcome in the comments section below.

(3) 2 October 1889, ‘Commissioners of Public Libraries and Museums of the Parish of St Giles: Minutes 1888-1898’, Volume 1, 1888-1893, Southwark Archive 2775-7

(4) The Library, First Series, Vol.I, 1889, pp.141-2

(5) F.J.Burgoyne, ‘Library Construction. Architecture, Fittings and Furniture,’ (London, 1897) in Richard Garnett (ed.), The Library Series (London 1897-99), pp.204-5

(6) As (5), pp.211-12

(7) The Library, First Series, Vol.I, 1889, p.211

(8) ‘Tabulation of returns obtained by the town clerk as to the salaries &c. of librarians in Greater London,’ London County Borough of West Ham, 1906 (facsimile copy held in London Collection, Bishopsgate Institute & Archive)

(9) The Library, First Series, Vol.I, 1889, pp.274-5

(10) My italics. Amian L. Champneys, Public Libraries. A Treatise on their Design, Construction and Fittings (London, 1907), pp.110-1; see also Walter A. Briscoe, Library Planning (London, 1927)

Books, Buddhism and Bath House Lofts – the Changing Face of Bermondsey

‘It was rather sad to think that when people spoke of a public-house they always thought of a place for the sale of drink. He was glad that all through London public houses were now rising up for the supply – not of alcohol, but of literature.’ (1)

Sir John Lubbock, opening of the Spa Road library,1892 

'a chaste and classic design. The decorative features are chiefly to be found on the front elevation and the eastern end of the structure...Busts of Shakespeare, Milton, Virgil, and other fathers of the glorious literature to be found inside, form the keystones of the window arches between the second and third floors...Above these will be seen...the dove of peace...surmounted by the ancient arms of Bermondsey, supported by allegorical figures of Temperance and Industry.' 'A Wonderful Model of Bermondsey Public Library,' 1 May 1900, Southwark Recorder and Newington Gazette
‘The decorative features are chiefly to be found on the front elevation and the eastern end of the structure…Busts of Shakespeare, Milton, Virgil, and other fathers of the glorious literature to be found inside, form the keystones of the window arches between the second and third floors…’ (2) Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013

In late-Victorian London, new public libraries were ‘rising up’ rapidly on high streets in the north, south, east and west of the city. Often described as the universities or polytechnics of the people, they aimed to provide access to books and learning for all:

‘Adjoining the Town Hall [in Spa Road] is the excellent Free Library, the importance of which…will become more manifest in the future. We regard the Free Libraries in general as furnishing the most efficient means for the higher education of the people. The education given in the Board Schools appears in most instances to foster a taste for reading, if we may judge by the avidity with which newspapers and periodicals of all kinds are read by the youth of the working class. This is an excellent sign and should be taken advantage of by those who are anxious to secure the elevation of the people…The fact remains that the youth of the working class  have now learnt to read and to enjoy reading, and therefore it is incumbent on those who are competent to advise to see that this is directed into a worthy channel. For this purpose the Free Libraries will, we believe, prove of inestimable value.’ (3)

Free libraries were especially welcome and well-used in working-class metropolitan areas. When the Spa Road library opened in 1892, domestic housing and semi-industrial activity co-existed side-by-side in the surrounding streets. Bermondsey men worked in the region’s hair and glue factories. Otherwise they were employed along the south Thames waterside as porters or sailors, or in the building trade as bricklayers, plasterers or labourers. Earnings were irregular; wives and daughters supplemented the family income making shirts or dresses or washing clothes. Nobody kept a domestic servant and first-hand testimony suggested that local children were a rough-and-ready bunch: ‘nearly all the same type…you had to drag yourself up.’ (4)

One way to ‘drag yourself up’ was through painstaking study and spare-time self-education – often in the new free libraries. These were magnificent public spaces, usually purpose-built and fitted-out to the highest standard:

‘The [Bermondsey] library is one of the most complete and best lighted in London. The principal entrance, in the centre of the building, emphasized by an Ionic portico, leads to a spacious hall and staircase 15 ft. wide; on the right is the newspaper reading-room, 41ft. by 33ft., in which, on handsome stands, are provided upwards of 80 English, Scotch, and Irish newspapers…The stone stairs consists [sic] of central and return flights, and terminate in the large first-floor landing, paved with marble mosaic…’ (5)

'The library is one of the most complete and best lighted in London. The principal entrance, in the centre of the building, emphasized by an Ionic portico, leads to a spacious hall and staircase 15 ft. wide; on the right is the newspaper reading-room, 41ft. by 33ft., in which, on handsome stands, are provided upwards of 80 English, Scotch, and Irish newspapers...The stone stairs consists [sic] of central and return flights, and terminate in the large first-floor landing, paved with marble mosaic...The reference library is 41ft square with a domical roof in the centre, supported by four Corinthian columns; it is well lighted by the clerestory at the base of the dome, also by the windows in the side walls.' 'Bermondsey Public Library,' 23 January 1892, South London Press
Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013
V.S.Pritchett (1900-1997) worked as a clerk for a Bermondsey leather merchant in the early-twentieth century. Pritchett afterwards became a critic and novelist, an upwardly mobile career path trodden by many ‘bookish’ working and lower-middle-class men and women in the first half of the twentieth century – a boom period for literary and print cultures in Britain. His memoir A Cab at the Door (1968) recollected his time as an office boy in Bermondsey:

The men in the warehouse despised the “shiny arsed clerks with their four ten a week.” Sometimes Bermondsey life would break in on us. The kids would climb up the wall and, hanging onto the bars of the office windows, would jeer at us. A clerk would be sent to drive them off, but they picked up stones and threw them at him or spattered our windows with horse manure. But often the clerk could not get out because they had tied up the door with rope. If a boy was caught and got his ears boxed, the mother would be round in a minute, standing in the office and shouting she wanted “the bleeding f*cker” who had hit her Ernie.’ (6)

Pritchett’s testimony indicates the tensions that could exist between the lower-middle-class black-coated worker and his unskilled labouring neighbours. The latter sometimes resented, mistrusted and disliked their self-improving contemporaries, which dislike occasionally found expression in acts of vandalism or violence.

The gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ appears greater than ever in Bermondsey today. It is perhaps most visible in the built environment in and around the Spa Road region, located at the heart of an ambitious local regeneration scheme. Although not directly part of this scheme, the changing use of the one-time library building sits comfortably within an ongoing unofficial programme of gentrification in SE1 and SE16. After closing as a library in 1989, the premises were used as office space and a ‘One Stop Shop’ advice centre by Southwark council for some twenty years.

(Photo: Michelle Johansen,November 2013)
Photo: Michelle Johansen, November 2013

In 2009, the former library building was bought by a Buddhist organisation and extensively refurbished as:

‘a unique place for people to unwind from the stressful pace of inner city life. The many meditation classes and more specialised courses are offered at low cost and the use of the shrine room for personal practice as well as group meditation is free of charge. With regular meditations and prayers, the activities of the centres are dedicated to peace, harmony and happiness in the world.’

This description is taken from the Kagyu Samye Dzong website where the links between ‘then’ and ‘now’ at Spa Road are explicitly announced: ‘We are delighted to have returned this handsome building to its original use as a peaceful place of learning.’ Not precisely returned

Where the links fail to connect completely surround the matters of access and audiences. The Spa Road library was a community space for education that was freely open to all. As a Buddhist Centre, the learning delivered on the premises has a narrow appeal and is targeted towards a specialist user-group; but the beautiful building is at least loved and looked-after today. The original foundation stone is intact and well-maintained, and flowers add splashes of colour in the basement area and on the original railings.

Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013
Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013
Photo: Michelle Johansen, November 2013
Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013

Alongside the former library, the one-time Bermondsey Town Hall is also undergoing extensive refurbishments. Inside and out, developers are transforming the building into the Bath House Lofts, residential accommodation for London’s elite commuting classes. In the words of one local estate agent:

‘Bath House Lofts is a Grade II listed building, with the opulence of the past, regenerated for the future. Located in this thriving regeneration area, and offering individually styled apartments, double height ceilings, mezzanine areas to selected units and an impressive foyer area with concierge. Located with easy access to all amenities including the City, West End, Canary Wharf and Greenwich.’ (7)

Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013
Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013
Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013
Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013
Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013
Photograph: Michelle Johansen, November 2013

As these photographs indicate, the building has been sympathetically restored with many of the original architectural features maintained. Yet only those with deep pockets will have the opportunity to enjoy them. A space that was designed in the late nineteenth century as a monument to ambitious and idealistic civic intent has been reconfigured in the early twenty first century as private living quarters for a wealthy and privileged few. What would Pritchett’s Bermondsey ‘kids’ or those ‘“shiny arsed clerks with their four ten a week” have made of the three-bedroom flats costing upwards of £800,000 on sale today in the deluxe and ‘lofty’ Bath House Lofts?

Notes to the text

(1) ‘Bermondsey Public Library,’ 23 January 1892, South London Press

(2).’A Wonderful Model of Bermondsey Public Library,’ 1 May 1900, Southwark Recorder and Newington Gazette

(3) Edward Clarke, Bermondsey. Its Historic Memories and Associations (1902), p.257

(4) Thea Thompson, Edwardian Childhoods (1981), p.28

(5) ‘Bermondsey Public Library,’ 23 January 1892, South London Press

(6) V.S. Pritchett A Cab at the Door (1968), p.58

(7) http://www.zoopla.co.uk/new-homes/details/30476610 Last accessed on 1 December 2013