‘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
(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