Disappointed Borrowers at East Ham Public Library

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.

Passmore Edwards Library East Ham c.1900
Passmore Edwards Library East Ham c.1900

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.


Would you recognise this?

In the late 1960s Vi Martin visited Ilford in Essex. She sent a postcard of her trip to Mrs Rockwell. The postcard showed the super-modern shopping parade at the corner of Ilford Broadway, featuring Bettafit Shoes, Lunn Poly travel agents and the exotically French fashion house ‘Maison Riche’.

Bishopsgate_2_3024  On the back of the postcard, Vi wrote:

Would you recognise this as old Ilford Broadway? My sister and I often talk of the old days and compare the shops and roads and traffic. Thought this might interest you. All the best.

Southern Rambles for Londoners

What has surprised me…is the wealth of countryside that still remains unexplored within twenty-five miles of Charing Cross and Victoria.*

This statement of surprise is taken from the introduction to Southern Rambles for Londoners published in 1948. The writer of both book and introduction was Stuart Petre Brodie Mais (1885-1975). Between 1914 and 1969 Petre Mais wrote more than 200 books, including novels, history books and school textbooks; but he was best-known for the immensely readable guidebooks he produced from the 1920s for an expanding audience of day-trippers, ramblers and tourists. These dealt with both British subjects (Walking in Somerset, England of the Windmills, Week-ends in England, Highways and Byways in the Welsh Marches, and so on) and foreign (Norwegian Odyssey, Austrian Holiday, Italian Holiday, Spanish Holiday, Madeira Holiday, etc).

Mais often collaborated with rail companies on publications calculated to promote rail travel: The Cornish Riviera (1934) was printed by the Great Western Railway Company and Southern Rambles was printed by British Railways, Southern Region. If the railway companies hoped to increase passenger numbers – hence revenue – by publishing these easy-to-use pocket guides to the countryside, Mais was motivated by a more idealistic agenda. A keen walker (‘as an undergraduate, I was never satisfied unless I covered about 35 miles a day’), he wished to encourage others to get out into the fresh air and benefit from what he termed the ‘healing power of nature’.

In Southern Rambles, Mais described walking as:

…the healthiest and cheapest exercise and the purest of human pleasures. Few things have added so much to the sum of human happiness as walking. You and I only really become ourselves out of doors. Moods of depression, sullenness and despair all drop from us as we take to the open road.

and stated his intention in the publication was to prove that there was good walking country in Surrey and Kent (‘the cream of south country walking is to be found in those counties’) before summarising his hopes for what the reader will take from the guidebook:

Your object is to achieve as complete a change as possible from your ordinary life in office or street, to let your eyes roam at one moment over wide horizons with an unbroken vista  of blue sky overhead and at another moment to concentrate on the myriad colours interwoven in the carpet under your feet. Your object is to regain your lost senses, the sense of hearing that has been dulled by traffic and by bombs, the sense of sight that has been obscured by poring over ledgers, the sense of smell that has been vitiated by living too much indoors.

As the second extract makes clear, the intended Southern Rambles readership was the hard-pressed London working man and woman (see cover below, illustrator not credited). This last extract also reminds us that Southern Rambles was published in the immediate post-war period, a fact threaded through the text where mentions are made of tracks previously ploughed up by the passage of tanks on manoeuvres, common land commandeered by the war department and footpaths still blocked off following their use for military training exercises. During one remote walk, Mais stumbles upon a sign announcing ‘DANGER UNEXPLODED BOMB’ in bold red block capital letters.


The format of Southern Rambles is deceptively simple. It consists of twenty basic walking routes, although an ingenious system that allowed trails to interlock enabled the thoughtful reader to devise thousands of additional rambles of his or her own invention. Mais spent more than a year researching the region beforehand to update his knowledge, an earlier version of Southern Rambles for Londoners having been published in 1931. His in-depth understanding of the locality is apparent in the level of detail included in the 1948 edition, both practical and descriptive. The walker is assumed to be arriving in the region by train from London. Each step of the way is explained from the moment of departing the suburban railway station, whether that station happened to be Horsham, Reigate, Guildford or Dorking:

‘I set out along the chalk track that goes off northward a few hundred yards east of Dorking Town station…’ (Ramble 11)

‘I left the train at Warnham and took the lane going directly east which led to a lane where I turned right-handed to make a circuit around Holbrook Park which lay on my left.’ (Ramble 15)

‘I first made my way north of Oxted station to the track that runs westward past the south door of the church.’ (Ramble 20)

Sketch maps are included throughout to assist the reader with orientation.

rambles019 (2)

But Southern Rambles is much more than simply a meticulously constructed walking guide to Kent and Surrey. Each ramble is written up in the first person with descriptive asides that evoke a seemingly lost postwar rural world lying just beyond the satellite towns; a world of sandy lanes, wicket gates, fine oak trees, meandering streams, weather-boarded inns and ‘woods so thick that you could be lost in them for hours and fields over which man no longer ever passed on his way to church or pub or work.’ Although Mais accepted that this world was shrinking as London’s expanded its built-up  borders, what is perhaps unexpected is the extent to which it is still possible, some sixty years after the publication of this account, to find remote spots for peaceful rambles just beyond the fringes of the capital.

Photograph by Michelle Johansen, April 2014

Photograph by Michelle Johansen, April 2014

* All quotes are from S. P. B. Mais Southern Rambles (1948). For more information about S. P. B. Mais, click here. Maisie Robson has written abook about his life called An Unrepentant Englishman, which was published in 2005.


Bridget Jones versus Charles Pooter

Image from Diary of a Nobody

Completing the revisions for a paper on leisure in the London suburbs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has meant revisiting the secondary literature on class and the suburbs. I initially reviewed this literature a decade ago as part of the research for my doctoral thesis. Notwithstanding the publication of several new titles offering less pejorative accounts of suburban lives and lifestyles since my first research phase, the gaps in the literature remain considerable – and frustrating.

Bridget Jones' Diary

When is somebody going to publish a scholarly study of the London suburbs using primary sources to reconstruct the experiences of the lower-middle-class men and women living there? Or, expressed another way (and aside from a handful of journal articles and unpublished theses), why do we still know so little about the social lives and leisure pursuits of clerks, shop-workers and pupil teachers in the city’s suburbs in the late-nineteenth century? Census data, business and institutional records, letters, diaries and novels would all yield valuable information upon which a comprehensive and comparative account might be constructed; an account that would finally remove the need for general studies of the London suburbs to rely for ‘proof’ on a handful of novels and autobiographies. It would also ensure oral history evidence from the inter-war years wasn’t a-historically backdated to provide testimony or light and shade for earlier periods. Best of all, otherwise credible scholars would no longer feel obliged to reference the satirical diary of a made-up Islington clerk to illustrate or support their arguments. After all, imagine historians in 2113 relentlessly (sometimes exclusively) using the fictional experience of Bridget Jones to describe and represent the lives of single thirty-something women in late-twentieth century London…