Twenty-first century London contains some of the finest book collections in the world, but what about the libraries that haven’t survived? If you know where to look, London’s streets and alleyways are crammed with the ghosts of libraries past.
This brand new walk will carry you back through London’s history, to long-forgotten libraries, readers, librarians and collectors. In the company of Alice Ford-Smith (Principal Librarian, Dr Williams’s Library), Lost Libraries uncovers some of the links between London’s past and present book collections. From Bloomsbury to the City, you will hear tales of enterprise, transformation, obsession and destruction.
I wasn't disappointed. Not only did the organiser (Renae Satterley) and leader (Alice Ford-Smith) miraculously manage to arrange for the rain to stop for an exact 2 hour window whilst we walked, I also found out more about London's history and its libraries, as well as exploring all sorts of hidden corners I wouldn’t normally have ventured into.
The rendezvous was at Gray's Inn library, one of the Inns of Court and the only library we were able to see inside. We were allowed a silent look around upstairs (it was still open to users) before Alice gave us some background. Although the origins of the library lie back in the 15th century, the Holker Library building was opened in 1929 and subsequently destroyed (along with about 32,000 books) during World War II. The library you can see in the picture below was designed by Sir Edward Maufe and opened in 1958. This was one of several moments during the tour when the sheer scale of destruction at various points in history took my breath away.
Our next stop was a short walk along High Holborn, where we stood outside branches of WHSmith and Boots whilst Alice told us about the earliest subscription libraries, including those run by Smiths and Boots.
And on to stand outside the old Public Record Office building, and hear about its history, as since 2001 it has been the home of the Maughan Library of King's College, London. Of course, the old PRO is now part of the National Archives, housed at Kew.
On again to near Samuel Johnson's house where there was an opportunity to sit down by the statue of Hodge, whilst Alice told us about the sale of Johnson's library. The books were in poor condition, but were sufficiently annotated and signed by him to make it easy to reconstruct his library.
The following stop in Crane Court (now a tiny and unprepossessing alleyway but once the home of the Royal Society) was the site, in 1742, of the first circulating library. This was launched by Samuel Fancourt, a dissenting minister and librarian. He popularized the idea of a subscription library, and the Leeds Library is now the oldest surviving model of this type.
Although it isn't a library, we walked past Temple Church, which I thought warranted a photo.
Sea Containers House for the Queen's Jubilee!
Which we walked past on our way to Sion College. Founded by Thomas White in 1630 and entitled to receive a copy of every book published in London between 1710 and 1836, it closed in 1996 and the collections were split between Lambeth Palace Library, King's College London and Guildhall Library. It seemed very sad, as the building is now home to investment managers and the trading floor is in what was the library.
Further over towards the City we stopped near where Samuel Pepys was born, outside St Bride's library. Although not a lost library as such, it is currently closed to researchers and is at risk, although recently it was announced it will reopen at the end of September 2012. Alice talked here about ways in which to support this and other libraries under threat, such as the Women’s Library (you can read about this in my earlier blog post).
Final stop on the walk was Stationers' Hall. This has its origins in 1403, and is a City Livery Company, which once held the right to enforce legislation over publishing. Their hall in Ave Maria Lane was another casualty of the Great Fire of 1666, when another book collection was lost. However, there is still a library available on site here today.
We ended the walk by St Paul's Cathedral. Many booksellers stored books in the crypt beneath St Paul's and during the Great Fire John Evelyn records that these remained burning for a week. After the fire over 90% of booksellers returned to the area, but World War II caused more chaos and destroyed business records as well as books and catalogues. Nowadays the area is very different.
My account doesn’t do the evening justice, as there was an immense amount of detail provided by Alice and a lot of work must have gone into preparing the walk. I would highly recommend joining a future walk if you haven’t already done so though, as I thoroughly enjoyed my evening. Thank you to both Alice and Renae for organising the evening.