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.



Stay Safe Victorian People

Here are four reasons that suggest health and safety actually ‘went mad’ some time ago:

(1) In 1897 two whole pages of a short guide to the diamond jubilee celebrations in London were given over to advice about ‘staying safe’ during the day (don’t smoke, don’t faint, don’t fall off tall buildings, don’t buy flimsy and flammable decorations manufactured abroad) under this dramatic sub-heading:

From 'All About the Diamond Jubilee' (1897).
From ‘All About the Diamond Jubilee’ (1897).

(2) In January 1894, the City Press reported that more than 40 Liverpool Street station staff had been successfully examined in the principles of first aid.

From London Collection Press Cuttings. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive
From London Collection Press Cuttings. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive

(3) In 1851,’ due care and attention’ was paid to the load-bearing capacity of the new gallery flooring ahead of the public opening of the Great Exhibition in a purpose-built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.

'Testing the Galleries of the Great Exhibition Building,' from the Illustrated London News, 1 March 1851. Reproduced with the kind permission of Bishopsgate Institute.
From the Illustrated London News, 1 March 1851. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive.

(4) In 1893, the architect employed to design the new Bishopsgate Institute and Library implemented structural safety measures to facilitate prompt evacuation of large numbers of people from the lecture hall in the event of a fire.

Detail of Bishopsgate Institute ground floor plan (1893), showing that hall exit doors were positioned to enable direct access out to the street. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive.

A more systematic overview of the history of health and safety legislation is available here.

When Newcastle Rained Librarians on London

‘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.

Reproduced with the kind permission of library staff at City Library in Newcastle,  from 'Newcastle Library Cuttings, Volume 1'.
Reproduced with the kind permission of library staff at City Library in Newcastle, from ‘Newcastle Library Cuttings, Volume 1’.

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.

(4)I have previously written on one pairing within this cohort.

‘Life’s Poor Play is Over’ for David Chalmers

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.’

This note is reproduced with the kind permission of Newcastle City Library from 'Newcastle Library Cuttings, Vol. 1'.
This letter of memoriam is reproduced here with the kind permission of Newcastle City Library from Newcastle Library Cuttings, Vol. 1.

(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.

‘The Bethnal Green Humpty Dumpty’

Mancherjee Bhownaggree c.1900. George Howell Archive, Bishopsgate Institute

Mancherjee Bhownaggree (1851-1933) came to Britain from Bombay (now Mumbai) to study law in 1882.* He was part of an informal network of western-educated Indian reformists based in late-Victorian London that included Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917). Naoroji was elected Liberal MP for Finsbury North in east London in 1892, becoming Britain’s first Asian MP – by a margin of just five votes.

Although he had played a part in Naoroji’s successful election campaign, Bhownaggree rapidly became disillusioned with the Liberal policies Naoroji favoured and by 1894 he was seeking party backing to stand for election as a Conservative candidate. The Conservative party welcomed the chance to manage the political career of a man they believed would provide valuable support in their efforts to combat the influence of the Indian National Congress both in India and Britain; and in 1895 Bhownaggree was selected as the Conservative candidate for Bethnal Green North East in east London.

Here we have an unknown and highly-educated Asian man standing against the self-educated trade unionist leader George Howell (1833-1910) in an impoverished and overcrowded area of inner east London that represented home to a mainly artisan population. Howell had comfortably held Bethnal Green North East as a Liberal-Labour candidate since 1885. It barely requires stating that this was viewed as an ‘unwinnable’ seat but, with Conservative Party guidance and support, Bhownaggree set about an energetic campaign to secure local votes. Extant election ephemera provides evidence of the character of his campaign:

Campaign flyer (front). George Howell Archive, Bishopsgate Institute.

The front of this flyer highlighted the broad implications for wages and employment of allowing ‘alien’ immigration to continue unchecked, together with the economic dangers of adopting a Liberal approach to free trade between nations – according to the Conservative standpoint. The reverse side of the flyer explicitly stated what the Tory Party believed would be the result of these expansive policies for the British-born boot makers, tailors and cabinet makers of east London:

Campaign flyer (reverse). George Howell Archive at Bishopsgate Institute.

Increased rent; overcrowding and insanitary dwellings; sweated trades; and competition for jobs. Bhownaggree’s was a campaign seemingly exclusively concerned to appeal to workers’ anxieties around ‘foreign pauper aliens’ an especially hotly-contested topic in the late-Victorian East End due to the relatively large Eastern European population that had settled around Whitechapel and Stepney, in particular, since the 1880s. According to Hinnells and Ralph (reference below), it was local concerns about immigration ‘plus a good oratory style, an arduous and effective campaign, some Liberal complacency and a national swing towards the Tories, [that] provided the combination of factors which yielded the surprising success.’ The ‘surprising success’ being that Bhownaggree defeated Howell to win the Bethnal Green North East election. A popular constituency MP, Bhownaggree was re-elected in 1900 on an increased majority.

The awkward fact that Britain’s first ever Asian Conservative MP gained electoral success by running an outspoken campaign against ‘foreign pauper aliens’ may explain why the early story of minority representation in Britain has never been sufficiently analysed or celebrated in wider historical narratives. Few people today are aware that London had two Asian MPs in the 1890s. This is surely partly because the case of Mancherjee Bhownaggree cannot be at all comfortably accommodated within the most immediately relevant or obvious existing thematic frameworks, such as empire, colonialism, post-colonialism or multiculturalism. Yet Bhownaggree’s political career is an intriguing and singular one. As Hinnells and Ralph have pointed out, he has been harshly treated by posterity, most notably in India where an argument with one rival damaged his reputation in a media that not only nicknamed him ‘Bow-and-Agree’, for what was seen as his slavish support for Anglo-Indians (that is, British people living in India), but also and frequently subjected him to personal insults – including the title of this piece, taken from the Madras Standard of 1897. Other sources suggest a more positive interpretation is possible. Sensitively handled, the career of the ‘Bethnal Green Humpty Dumpty’ has much to tell us about such topics as: Anglo-Indian relations and networks; working men’s voting patterns in east London; grass roots responses to immigration in the East End; and minority representation in Britain since the end of the nineteenth century. I would certainly be interested to read a comparative study of the lives and achievements of Naoroji and Bhownaggree.


*The content of this post – including the Madras Standard reference – is largely taken from John R. Hinnells and Omar Ralph Mancherjee Bhownaggree 1851-1933 (1995), which itself drew upon an unpublished M.phil thesis by C. Monk ‘Members for India’ (1985). Additional biographical information is available here. The post was inspired by an accidental discovery in the George Howell archive at Bishopsgate Institute. The images are from the Howell archive. They have been reproduced by kind permission of the Institute.



The London Fiction #Shelfie

For your reading pleasure, I’ve assembled some extracts from a few of my favourite London-based novels (1887–1960). No real attempt at a system has been made. I simply transcribed scenes in each story that seemed to capture the spirit or atmosphere of the city at a particular time in the past. I hope you find these descriptive extracts evocative. Maybe they will send you running to your own #shelfies to revisit London authors or novels I’ve inevitably overlooked; or perhaps you will be inspired to add to your own fiction collections as a result of one or more new discoveries from the passages below.*

The short-list of London novels used to compile this post.

‘a negligent November London’

H.G.Wells Ann Veronica (1909) [1993 edition, p.94]

She went about in a negligent November London that had become very dark and foggy and greasy and forbidding indeed…Her little bed-sitting room was like a lair, and she went out from it into this vast, dun world, with its smoke-grey houses, its glaring streets of shops, its dark streets of homes, its orange-lit windows, under skies of dull copper or muddy grey or black, much as an animal goes out to seek food. She would come back and write letters, carefully planned and written letters, or read some book she had fetched from Mudie’s [circulating library]…or sit over her fire and think.

‘a band was playing’

Barbara Comyns The Vet’s Daughter (1959, set in c.1910) [1981 edition, pp. 3-4]

‘We walked in Battersea Park. Lucy’s hair fell down her back like water from a tap, very straight and long. Mine was like a pale yellow bell. We talked on our hands because Lucy was a deaf mute; her mother was turning her into a dressmaker because she considered it a suitable trade for those that were deaf and dumb. We were both seventeen. Mothers sat on dark green benches watching their children playing on the sooty grass, bowling bright hoops and balls. We went to see the birds, and in the distance a band was playing. Soldiers tried to speak to us until they noticed that we used our hands to speak with. Then we watched the pleasure-steamers and barges on the river. Great bales of different-coloured paper and boats loaded with straw went past very quickly, and a man with a black face in a coal-barge waved to us, and we waved back because we knew he couldn’t stop. It was lovely by the water; but too soon it was time to return home through the hot, ugly streets of red and yellow houses.’

‘walking on the Common’

Graham Greene The End of the Affair (1951) [1975 edition, pp. 34-5]

What a summer it was. I’m not going to try and name the month exactly – I should have to go back to it through so much pain, but I remember leaving the hot and crowded room, after drinking too much bad sherry, and walking on the Common with Henry. The sun was falling flat across the Common and the grass was pale with it. In the distance the houses were the houses in a Victorian print, small and precisely drawn and quiet; only one child cried a long way off. The eighteenth-century church stood like a toy in an island of grass – the toy could be left outside in the dark, in the dry unbreakable weather. It was the hour when you make confidences to a stranger.

‘watch the big life’

Sam Selvon The Lonely Londoners (1956) [2006 edition, pp.72-3]

Many nights he went there…and see them fellars and girls waiting, looking at they wristwatch, watching the people coming up the escalator from the tube. You could tell that they waiting for somebody, the way how they getting on. Leaning up there, reading the Evening News, or smoking a cigarette, or walking round the circle looking at clothes in the glasscase, and every time people come up the escalator, they watching to see, and if the person not there, they relaxing to wait till the next tube come. All these people there, standing up waiting for somebody. And then you would see a sharp piece of skin come up the escalator, in a sharp coat, and she give the ticket collector she ticket and look around, and same time the fellar who waiting throw away his cigarette and you could see a happy look in his face, and the girl come and hold his arm and laugh, and he look at his wristwatch. Then the two of them walk up the steps and gone to the Circus, gone somewhere, to the theatre, or the cinema, or just to walk around and watch the big life in the Circus.


‘small, senseless sounds’

Alexander Baron King Dido (1969, set in 1911) [2009 edition, p.91]

He was talking, talking, and she gave him answers. People thronged in the foggy dusk, hurrying bowed, in flight from the chill mist, jostling past, vanishing into it. Great shire horses loomed out of the fog, sparkles of moisture on their backs and manes, high-laden wagons from docks and rail depots rumbled behind them, carters huddled, grotesquely wrapped, on their perches. The clash of the great hooves on cobbles, the iron rims of wheels mingling their noise in a thunder, the wide road a jam of wagons, here and there the gawky, coloured upper deck of a bus among them, all in a pale yellow cavern of light that blurred away into fog [on the City Road]. Her voice and his were small, senseless sounds among all the noise and movement.

‘dissolved in mist’

H.G.Wells Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) [1993 edition, pp.79-80]

They lunched on cutlets…and little crisp brown potatoes, and they drank between them a whole half bottle of – some white wine or other…Then, very warm and comfortable, they went down by the Tower, and the Tower Bridge with its crest of snow, huge pendant icicles, and the ice blocks choked in its side arches, was seasonable seeing. And as they had had enough of shops and crowds they set off resolutely along the desolate Embankment homeward.
But indeed the Thames was a wonderful sight that year! Ice-fringed along either shore, and with drift-ice in the middle reflecting a luminous scarlet from the broad red setting sun, and moving steadily, incessantly seaward. A swarm of mewing gulls went to and fro, and with them mingled pigeons and crows. The buildings on the Surrey side were dim and grey and very mysterious, the moored, ice-blocked barges silent and deserted, and here and there a lit window shone warm. The sun sank right out of sight into a bank of blue, and the Surrey side dissolved in mist save for a few insoluble spots of yellow light, that presently became many. And after our lovers had come under Charing Cross Bridge the Houses of Parliament rose before them at the end of a great crescent of golden lamps, blue and faint, half-way between the earth and sky. And the clock on the Tower was like a November sun. It was a day without a flaw…


‘Piccadilly, Bond Street, and so forth

Christina Stead For Love Alone (1945) [1986 edition, pp.313-4]

They climbed up to the top [of the bus] and saw London; Piccadilly, Bond Street, and so forth, got out and walked in some of the little streets behind Piccadilly, saw some of the taverns…Jonathan had friends among Oxford and Cambridge aesthetes; one undergrad had a room painted in black with a row of silver skulls…one had purchased a tavern and others frequented taverns near the East India Docks; all went to low dives, which was considered the romantic thing to do. He asked her, passing one pub, whether she would take a gin and lime juice, for they could go in and take one in the company of men with painted cheeks and hair dyed yellow.

‘into the West End’

Roland Camberton Scamp (1950) [2010 edition, p.94]

His parents were wealthy, had a large house in Golders Green…and gave him a couple of shillings pocket money each day for his jaunts into the West End, where he had discovered that cosy, steamy little cafe behind Foyles, frequented by art-students, film extras, bums, and several very pretty girls. A couple of shillings was not a lot but it was enough to buy a packet of cigarettes and a cup of tea. And what more did one want, when one was eighteen, not entirely repulsive (though far from brilliantly handsome), and potentially the greatest lawyer, doctor, painter, actor, and lover in the world?

‘footfalls numberless’ 

George Gissing In the Year of Jubilee (1894, set in 1887) [1994 edition, p.58]

No one observed her solitary state; she was one of millions walking about the streets because it was Jubilee Day, and every moment packed her more tightly among the tramping populace. A procession, this, greatly more significant that that of Royal personages earlier in the day. Along the main thoroughfares of mid-London, wheel-traffic was now suspended; between the houses moved a double current of humanity, this way and that, filling the whole space, so that no vehicle could possibly have made its way on the wonted track. At junctions, pickets of police directed progress; the slowly advancing masses wheeled to the left or right at word of command, carelessly obedient…there was little noise; only a thud, thud of footfalls numberless.

‘peering into the murk’

Lynne Reid Banks The L-Shaped Room (1960) [2004 edition, p.143]

At last I got on a bus, which trundled quite briskly to the far end of the King’s Road, but after World’s End, where the streets were darker, the fog seemed to close in and the bus was forced to nose its way cautiously along in first gear. The journey went on and on – before long we were travelling at a walking pace, and I and the few other passengers were anxiously clearing the condensation from the windows and peering into the murk in an effort to see where we were. Passing a street-light came to seem quite an event; one watched their brave little smudges receding with a feeling akin to despair, as if we might never find another.

‘the show’s never, never twice the same’

Colin MacInnes Absolute Beginners (1959) p.85

Whoever thought up the Thames embankment was a genius…If the tide’s in, the river’s like the ocean, and you look across the great wide bend and see the fairy advertising palaces on the south side beaming in the water, and that great white bridge that floats across it gracefully, like a string of leaves. If you’re fortunate, the cab gets all the green [lights], and keeps up the same steady speed, and looking out from the upholstery it’s like your own private Cinemarama, except that in this one the show’s never, never twice the same. And weather makes no difference, or season, it’s always wonderful – the magic always works.

‘a melancholy and futile star-shine’

Norman Collins London Belongs to Me (1945) [2008 edition, pp.609-10]

Bill had got embarkation leave. That was why Doris was there at King’s Cross waiting for him. The train was late. Very late…it was after ten o’clock already. Outside, the light had faded from the evening sky and King’s Cross was settling down to its nightly black-out. The platform lamps, like so many blue inverted night-lights had been turned on by the stationmaster and made a melancholy and futile star-shine of their own. Through the murk, the word ‘BUFFET’ on the tea-room door showed up magically in 6-inch letters cut out of cardboard. Every ten seconds or so the word would disappear altogether as a soldier, carrying the war on his back, pulled the door open and went inside. It was the same wherever you looked. Tired, thirsty soldiers. Soldiers going, soldiers coming. The tramp of their boots mingled with the smell of train oil and the hiss of high pressure steam. It might have been the Tottenham Court Road and not the Siegfried Line that they were going to storm at any moment.

‘at dusk it glitters’

Patrick Hamilton Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935) [1998 edition, p.41]

He spent over an hour in [the crowded Lyons in the Hampstead Road], smoking three cigarettes, and strangely enjoying the electric-lit, spoon-clinking liveliness of the place; and when he came out the world was transfigured by dusk. Bob identified and adored this transfiguration. All day long the Hampstead Road is a thing of sluggish grey litter and rumbling trams. But at dusk it glitters. Glitters, and gleams, and twinkles, and is phosphorescent – and the very noises of the trams are like romantic thunders from the hoofs of approaching night. In exultant spirits he strolled down towards the West End.


*To discover more about how London has been portrayed in novels past and present, the London Fictions website is well worth a visit.

‘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)