East Ham Public Library opened in east London on 2 January 1899. More than 1,400 borrowers’ tickets were issued within a fortnight of the opening date. By the end of the month, chief librarian William Bridle (1868-1927) was growing concerned about the dwindling numbers of books remaining on his library’s shelves.
On 27 January 1899, he submitted a report to his library committee managers that included the following urgent appeal for more stock:
The result of starting with an insufficient supply of books is that within a month I have had to refuse further admittance, and practically close the Library to all but the fortunate 1,500 readers who were able to make early application [for tickets], thereby causing disappointment, even disgust, among the large numbers of people who are now patiently awaiting their turn to become members [of the lending library]. To meet our pressing needs, the stock of books should be doubled at once. We cannot do less than this and keep faith with the public. We are, by our action in opening the library, inviting them here, and we must be prepared to keep pace with their increasing demands.
This story of immediate, almost unmanageable, demand for reading matter was repeated in new public libraries across London at the turn of the twentieth century. From Hither Green in south-east London to Chiswick in west London to Willesden in north-west London to Lambeth in south London, chief librarians struggled to keep pace with borrowers’ needs. Many became resourceful in their efforts to secure additional stock. Some librarians circulated begging letters to local businesses or authors for books and others got up fund-raising events to secure money to buy additional stock – all to ‘keep faith’ with a reading public whose appetite for literature appeared limitless.
‘Tyneside has never since loomed so large in the library map as it did then [in the 1880s]. London was awakening to the call of the public library and the North-East rained librarians on the opening posts. Inkster at Battersea – appointed in July 1887 – Burgoyne at Lambeth, Welch at Clapham, Everett at Streatham, all, curiously enough, neighbours, formed a sort of settlement on that side [of the] Thames, with much social to-and-froing amongst the members of it.’ (1)
The impetus behind this informal cross-regional professional network can be traced back to the influential figure of William Haggerston (1848-1894), chief librarian of Newcastle Public Library in the north-east of England from 1879 to 1894.
By the 1890s, Haggerston was viewed as an energetic chief librarian with a particular aptitude for training promising junior librarians, some of whom went on to enjoy long and successful careers outside the North East:
‘Mr Haggerston was very helpful to his assistants, and about a dozen of them hold prominent positions in libraries in London, Birmingham, Croydon, Norwood, Belfast, Darlington and other places. Many of these gentlemen have testified to the valuable assistance which the…librarian had rendered them. It was well known by his assistants that Mr Haggerston was always ready to speak a good word for them, and whenever his influence would benefit a young librarian…[the Newcastle chief] was never averse to giving the needful aid.’ (2)
I have blogged about the so-called ‘Haggerstonian Geordies’ for the Four Nations blog. Following a research trip to Newcastle last year, I have also started to document my library findings on pinterest as part of an ongoing programme to reconstruct and analyse the careers of around fifty chief and deputy librarians in late-Victorian Britain, with an emphasis on the London experience.(3) The occupational lives of the first generation of library managers in the capital reveal much about wider trends; for example they provide an opportunity to explore social and geographical mobility among the working and lower middle classes at a micro- or human scale, including the informal and submerged professional network that stretched from Haggerston’s Newcastle library in the North East to London libraries such as Lewisham, Battersea and Clapham in the South East.
The Libraries Act of 1850 had allowed local authorities or vestries to establish free libraries using moneys from the rates; but as the quotation at the start of this post suggests (‘London was awakening to the call…’) London was slow to respond to this opportunity and only began to open rate-assisted libraries in meaningful numbers in the 1890s. Newcastle and, to a lesser extent, other major metropolitan centres such as Birmingham and Liverpool were able to ‘rain librarians’ on London by this time because they had already trained up dozens of young librarians in their better-established library services. Put simply, London’s new free libraries were able to fish for qualified managers from a well-stocked national pool and a significant majority of the capital’s first chief and deputy librarians were both born and trained outside the city. Here were ‘incomers’ from Swansea, Worcester, Liverpool, Wigan, Weymouth, Hereford, South Shields and elsewhere. The implications of this for our understanding of cross-cultural exchange between British regions c.1900 are intriguing – and will be explored another time, along with the above-mentioned ‘social to-and-froing’ that took place between the cohort of Newcastle-trained chief librarians who had seemingly formed a sort of settlement on the south side of the Thames.(3)
(1) ‘Obituary of Laurence Inkster’, Library Association Record, July 1939, p.398
(2) ‘Death of Mr W. J. Haggerston,’ 5 May 1894, Newcastle Library Cuttings, Volume 1, p.45, Newcastle City Library.
(3) This research trip was funded by a James Ollé Award from the Library and Information History Group, part of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.
In 1881, David Chalmers started work as a junior assistant in his local ‘free’ library in Newcastle in north-east England. Chalmers was fourteen years old. After seven years practical training in public library work in the Newcastle building, in the summer of 1888 he secured a senior assistant position at the library on Knight’s Hill in West Norwood in suburban south London. (1)
At that moment, public libraries were being established across London. Skilled staff were needed to manage these new institutions. Because library development had taken place at a faster rate elsewhere in Britain, London chief and deputy appointments in the late nineteenth century invariably went to candidates from outside the city – librarians who had already acquired hands-on experience of delivering a public library service aimed at a general readership in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool or Cardiff. By the 1890s Birmingham and Newcastle Libraries, in particular, were recognised as centres of excellence in terms of staff training. As the Newcastle Evening Chronicle expressed it on 24 December 1890:
‘Newcastle is evidently a favourable nursing ground for aspiring public librarians. In recent years, quite a crop of young men who have received their practical training and experience in that city have succeeded in obtaining positions of responsibility and trust in various parts of the kingdom.’
During his career at Newcastle, Chalmers had attended the leaving presentations of several colleagues (based at Newcastle or neighbouring South Shields) who were moving onwards and upwards within the profession. In 1882, Charles Baxter was appointed chief librarian at Kingston in south west London; in 1887, Thomas Everatt secured the chief’s position at nearby Darlington (Everatt was to move again to Streatham in south London in 1891); in 1887, Lawrence Inkster became chief of Battersea, in south west London; in 1887 Frank Burgoyne was appointed chief of Lambeth in south London; and so on.
In September 1888, Chalmers also left Newcastle. He was rejoining Frank Burgoyne who had been deputy librarian at Newcastle from 1879 to 1884. Not only would the two men work together in Lambeth but they would also share the library accommodation provided at West Norwood. As described in a previous post, in the late-Victorian period a flat for senior library staff was generally included in the plans for a new library building. Just twenty-one years old, Chalmers appeared on the brink of a promising career as a London librarian. Certainly he would have felt himself well-placed to emulate his Newcastle contemporaries in securing a top position in the city before too long; perhaps he might privately have congratulated himself on his ‘important appointment in a newly-opened library in the South of London’ (2), particularly given his relatively humble origins: Chalmers was the illegitimate son of a single, working-class mother. During the 1880s, he had worked and studied hard in his free time to equip himself for library work, using the region’s active mutual improvement movement as a space within which to educate himself informally – yet assiduously.
One month after David Chalmers started work at West Norwood, the south London and Newcastle local papers carried the news of his sudden and untimely death. Library accommodation at this time offered a comparatively deluxe living experience and the latest technologies were frequently included in the fit-out. The ‘new patent bath apparatus’ built in at the Knight’s Hill premises had seemingly caused Chalmers some problems as he went to take a bath one weekend morning early in October 1888 (3). The coroner found at inquest that he had poisoned himself with the gas fumes used to heat the water. It was believed he must have mishandled the mechanism that controlled the hot water, turning the gases to ‘on’ rather than ‘off’ as he finished his bath and almost immediately being overcome by the noxious fumes. Burgoyne found his colleague’s body too late to revive him.
Chalmers’ Newcastle friends were shocked at the sad news as it reached them. They wrote an ‘In Memorium’ letter, which has survived in the archive at Newcastle City library, and ends with the quotation: ‘Tired, he sleeps and life’s poor play is o’er.’
(1) This post sets out some early findings of a research trip to Newcastle City Library, funded by a James Ollé Award. The findings will eventually form the basis of a publication on regional identity and networks in the late-Victorian library world.
(2) ‘Sad Death of a Newcastle Man in London,’ Evening Chronicle, 9 October 1888
(3) As (2) above. I have written more fully about library accommodation elsewhere.
‘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
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)
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.
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.
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)
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
Inspired by the concept of speed dating, writer Alan Gilbey is pioneering a ‘speed history’ approach to retelling London’s past. In unusual and atmospheric East London locations, historians, writers and actors share stories of local characters or incidents with small audience groups, often using props and costumes to add drama or an element of surprise to proceedings. Every five minutes, Alan rings his bell and the audiences move on to hear another tale told. Across three nights in April and May, this innovative approach to public history is taking place in and around Bishopsgate Institute’s historic library. As part of the Bishopsgate event, I tell the story of the so-called ‘Battle of the Books’, a bitter dispute that split the public library world in the 1890s.
This is the second time I’ve been involved in speed history with Alan. During the ‘East End Back Passages’ walking tour around Shoreditch in December 2012, my story used the experience of chief librarian William Plant of Shoreditch Public Library as a way in to a wider narrative of learning, class and culture in Victorian Britain, taking in silver trowels, streams of bunting and a trip to Monte Carlo on the way. I’m posting my five-minute Shoreditch story, together with a photograph of Plant with his friends and colleagues in the Society of Public Librarians (1895-1930). The photograph was taken during a society summer outing to Kent in 1922 and is reproduced with kind permission of the Bishopsgate Institute and Archive. With public library provision especially vulnerable in a climate of spending cuts, the true story of the Shoreditch Library opening ceremony assumes a particular poignancy and significance. Read the story – and the next time you find yourself alongside one of London’s Victorian public library buildings, pause for a moment to re-imagine the scenes around the time ‘your’ library first opened to the public…brightly-coloured streamers and bunting…brass band music…large crowds of cheering men, women and children…and a shared sense of progress and optimism.
The Shoreditch Public Library
In 1850 the Libraries Act was passed. It allowed local governments (at that time known as vestries) to use money from the rates (or local taxes) to fund the building of public libraries, free at the point of use, where all might have ready access to newspapers, books and informal learning. London was notoriously slow responding to the Act: some thirty years after it had been passed just two rate-assisted libraries had been built, in Westminster and in Wandsworth. For a variety of reasons (including the 1870 Education Act and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 1887) the late-1880s and 1890s witnessed a boom in library building programmes across the capital and by 1914 there were more than one hundred main and branch library buildings in London. There was an air of novelty, excitement and anticipation surrounding these new so-called ‘universities of the people’ and one way to get a sense of this is by describing the fanfare or ‘ta-dah!’ of the public library opening ceremony when thousands of local people would come out onto the streets to celebrate each new library launch. Library buildings and nearby trees and railings would be festooned with flags, banners and bunting. Brass bands played jolly tunes before and after the ceremony – often performing at the head of a procession of the local ‘Great and the Good’ as they paraded from the Town Hall to the Library to launch the proceedings in grand style.
The Shoreditch Library Opening celebration was scheduled for May 1893. Eager to book a big-name guest, the new chief librarian William Plant (below, top left) invited the Prime Minister William Gladstone to officiate on the platform. His approach was unsuccessful. Finally, Plant wrote to John Passmore Edwards, a self-made publisher and keen supporter of the library movement. Edwards had financed a number of public library projects in the East End, including at Shoreditch where he had paid the full construction costs of the library premises. Edwards had also officiated at dozens of library opening ceremonies – later in the 1890s he was to open not one but two library buildings in East London in a single day – but he was unable to take the platform at Shoreditch. Instead he proposed a politician friend, the Duke of Devonshire.
On the one hand, then, we have William Plant living and working in a free library located on the obscure fringes of the notorious East End. Surrounded by builders’ rubble, he regularly worked on late into the evening to prepare the library for public use. He fretted over the gilding of the words ‘Shoreditch Public Library’ on the front of the building; he bartered with booksellers ton gain the best price for books for the shelves; he oversaw repairs to the joints in the hot water pipes; he grew anxious about delays to the laying of a new cork carpet; and he expressed concerns about the efficiency of the monogrammed mat purchased for the library entrance. On the other hand, we see the Duke of Devonshire moving from one smart location to another. His staff remained in touch with Plant, issuing peremptory updates on the arrangements for the Shoreditch opening ceremony: his Grace had just left for Monte Carlo; his Grace was enjoying a day at the Races; no, his Grace wasn’t yet able to confirm a date for the ceremony; and so on.
The Duke of Devonshire’s half-hearted engagement with the Shoreditch opening ceremony indicated the ‘Cinderella status’ of the rate-assisted library in the eyes of those who moved in more elevated circles. At the same time, Plant’s grand aspirations for his opening ceremony reminded us that, at grass-roots level, the new free libraries were perceived altogether differently. Before the advent of the rate-assisted library, only those men and women with a disposable income or respectable social connections and/or a stable home address were able to access London’s various circulating and subscription libraries, university and church libraries and large reading rooms – of which the British Museum was probably the best known. Yet even the cheapest reading matter (down to and often including the daily papers) might lie beyond the financial reach of ‘ordinary’ people. So how would the self-improving domestic servant, the out-of-work bricklayer, the impoverished pupil-teacher, the itinerant labourer or the down-at-heel office clerk access books or learning in late-Victorian?
The public library was a truly egalitarian innovation – part of a broader movement aimed at widening access to ‘rational recreation’. Rather than spending their leisure hours in the pub, on the street corner or at the Music Hall, working-class men and women might use their weekends to promenade or perambulate in new public parks. Equally, they might spend their evenings reading or studying in ‘lighthouses of learning’ or ‘temples of light’ as the new public libraries were variously termed. Library user statistics from the period prove that there was a real demand for opportunities for self-acculturation among the urban working and lower-middle classes. By 1914, the city’s 100+ rate-assisted libraries stood at the unofficial heart of local cultural and intellectual life, circulating millions of books annually to hundreds of thousands of readers, as well as getting up popular lecture series’ and reading circles. Little wonder, then, that the new free libraries were known as the ‘universities of the people.’