"If the residents of the London Borough of
Camden can't save their public libraries from closure, the rest of the country has no chance".
So said an article in the Times Educational
Supplement in 1999, the last time Camden
assaulted our libraries. Alas this time it appears
they have succeeded. We must now assume that
three local libraries will cease to be public
libraries from April 2012, sweeping away an
important element in the history of the long
struggle by ordinary people to access
knowledge and education.
A century of history – the growth of civic pride
William Ewart's Free Libraries Act of 1850 which
enabled vestries - the forerunners of the borough
councils - to build and run libraries on the rates
was one of the most significant achievements of
that struggle. Even so provision for libraries and
museums was made grudgingly. By 1892 only
fifteen libraries had been opened in London,
Westminster being the first in 1857. Typical of
the prevailing attitude, even as late ;i,s the 1930s,
was that the building of libraries were "Fools'
Enterprises"; "they might be useful but they were
not vital and were more of a luxury for people".
(The end of one story - A souvenir of the Borough of
St. Pancras, St. Pancras Library Department, 1965)
Hampstead Vestry felt able to avoid such
expenditure until the 1890s, as its wealthy
residents had made their own arrangements.
The Hampstead Subscription Library was founded
in 1833 as the Hampstead Public Library of General
Literature and Elementary Science at 65 Flask Walk.
It was supported by eminent local residents: John
Constable was a life shareholder, and publishers
such as John Murray, Longman and Bell, all local
residents, donated books. Controversial subjects
such as theology^nd politics were excluded.
In the 1840s it moved first to 91 High Street, and
then to Heath Street, and for a few years it
flourished. But as other library facilities in London
improved its support began to decline and it
came near to being sold in the 1870s.
Efforts were made to revive it in the 1880s.
Following a move to Cavendish House in Pond
Street in 1882, a company was formed chaired by
Sir Spencer Wells, to erect a new building. But
even though Basil Champneys offered his services
as architect, the scheme attracted insufficient
public support. By 1884 there were only 900
subscribers and the institution faced collapse.
However following a further move to Stanfield
House in Prince Arthur Road (formerly Green
Hill House) in 1885, and, more significantly, the
introduction of a free lending service for the
working classes in 1887, support began to revive.
A side door was provided so that the under-
privileged need not be seen in receipt of charity,
and the reading room and library were open free
on Sundays in 1889, by which time membership
had increased to 1,100. It carried on successfully
until 1966. Perhaps the time has come for
Hampstead residents to consider reviving it.
Libraries on the rates
In 1892 a revision of Ewart's Libraries Act
transferred the power to decide whether to
establish a public library from the ratepayers to
the Urban Authorities. The Vestry appointed
commissioners to provide and manage libraries
for other parts of Hampstead.
The first municipal Library to be opened was a
temporary one, in 1894, in a converted house at
48 Priory Road, Kilburn, while a suitable site for
a permanent building was searched for. In 1899
land in Cotleigh Road became available,and
with loans from the London County Council the
new purpose built lihran \\i;:, liigh ceilings
natural light and a lovely garden was built and
formally opened by the M.iv'or in July 1902.
(H&HS newsletter September :' 1111'.
After a hundred years of use, Camden Leisure
and Community Services Committee decided,
despite a long and hard protest campaign by the
local community. io close Cotleigh Road and
relocate the Library to a new building at 12-22
Kilburn High Road in 2006.
1897 saw (IK .nail's second purpose built library
in Antrim Road. Helsi/.e Piirk. But the derision to
economise by not using an architect proved short-
sighted: so many design defects emerged over the
years that in 19 ' "iplere reconstruction was
necessary. Today s building was opened in 1937.
The Central Library
The Central Library was also opened in liS97 on
a site purchased from Sir Spr'ii 1/1 Maryon
Wilson on the corner of Arkwrigin Road and
Finchley Road. Sir Henry Harben, President of
the Prudential Assurance Company, a leading
Veslrvni.in ;ind l.ilcr first Mayor of Hampstead,
gave the entire cost - ^5,000 - of the building.
A children s lil)i.n\ was added in 1909, one of
the first in the London area, and in l92n die
lending library was enlarged.
Heath Library started at the turn of ilie century as
a Book Exchange in a shop ;r -' l '-" mth End Rd.
opposite Hampstead Heath Station. (H&HS
newsletter September 2005). Borrowers had to
hand in ;i -.i^ni.'d list of tides, and a few hours later
a book or books, obtained from the Arkwright
Road Library, would be waiting for them. In 1907
a library opened in the former school building in
Worsley Rd. (now part of Pilgrim's Lane). Keats
House was purchased in 1921 and placed in the
care of the Borough in 1924. In 1931 the present
library, designed to blend with the style and scale
of the house, was built in its grounds to serve also
as a museum for the Kciits Memorial Library, a
collection formed by Sir Charles Dilke and given
to the Borough in 1911.
The first West Hampsiead library was opened in
1901 on the corner of Westbere and Sarre Road.
It was destroyed by a bomb in the Second
World war in 1940, and, after making do in
various temporary premises a new library was
built on (lie corner of Dennington Road in 1954.
A proud Library service
Well supported, managed, and funded, Hampstead
Library service became one of the leading services
in London with liiyl) lion-owing rates. In 1896
they purchased the 8000 volume collection of
local resident Henry Morlcv. Professor of English
at University College London, which formed the
basis of the new reference library in ilic Central
Library. A local archive collection was begun
by the purchase of a 1680 survey of the Heath.
By 1911 it had 61,000 books in its catalogue.
Its central importance in Hampstead's life was
given recognition by the Borough's commission,
in its closing days, to Basil Spence for a new
central library at Swiss Cottage. The new Library,
now listed, was the first in London to allow open
access to gramophone records. The old building at
Arkwright Road is now the Camden Arts Centre.
Three into one
The amalgamation in 1965 of the three boroughs
of Hampstead, Holbom and St. Pancras, took
place at a time when library services were being
reformed at national level. Hitherto provision of
the service had been discretionary: local authorities
could, but need not, provide it, and no national
standards were specified. Reflecting the importance
of their role, the Public Libraries and Museums Act
(1964) for the first time laid a positive duty on
library authorities to provide a comprehensive and
efficient library service and outlined the broad
criteria of such a service. It came into force on the
same day that Camden Borough Council assumed
its powers, April 1 1965.
St Pancras had been a late starter in its provision
of libraries. Its first library was built in 1906 in
Highgate, with financial aid from the Duke of
Bedford and Andrew Carnegie (Sec H&HS
Newsletter September 1996). But by the time of
the amalgamation in 1965 it had made up for lost
time. In the 1960s it was in the middle of a library
building programme to replace branch libraries
which were housed in converted shops, \\ itii
purpose built libraries. Six new branch libraries
were opened in three years, and a site had been
acquired in I960 for a new central and reference
\ library. It was also renowned for its superb annual
(Festival, run by the Library Department.
Holborn Council also provided an important
and extensive library service and pioneered a
picture lending scheme as early as 1954. \\ -ith
original paintings hired from artists lent at a fee
of 10/- per picture.
In November 1946 the Municipal Journal
commented that "art, literature and music
having been accepted as essential civic
amenities", more would need to he done in
future as leisure time increased .
In 1956 the St. Pancras Annual Library Report
expressed the view that "the Public Libraries of
today should be the focal point of the artistic
and cultural life of the community they serve".
What has happened to so radically change
attitudes, that now libraries are being closed across
the country wholesale? Francis Bennion, who
worked on the original drafting of the 1964 Act,
recently wrote to The Times to point out that
the Act does not contain any provision for
reduction of the duties because of a need for 'cuts'.
Furthrmore increasing reports tell us that functional
illiteracy is rising at an alarming rate and that many
youriH people are so ill-educated that they are
unemployable. Camden's low level of achievement
in literacy amongst the Borough's 11 year-olds, was
revealed by Department for Education figures,
published in December 2010. The present
administration should have been well aware of this
when it formulated its library policy in 2011.
No-one should be under any illusion rh.it what
is happening is entirely due to finaneiiil
constraints. Perhaps one quote might serve to
throw light on the sort of thinking that developed
in the 1970s that has led us to this situation:
"The so-called cultural heritage which made
Europe great - the Bachs and Beethovens, the
Shakespeares and Dantes, the Constables and
Titians - is no longer communicating anything
to the vast majority of Europe's population. It