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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Camberwell Central Library

Camberwell Central Library Camberwell Library

Changing styles in public library architecture:  (left) the ornate Camberwell Central Library, 1893, in Peckham Road (photo credit London Metropolitan Archives, City of London); (right) the more simple Camberwell Library, 2015, Camberwell Green.

There are some fine libraries within the London Borough of Southwark and it’s easy to take the free use of public libraries for granted, but it was not until the end of the 19th century that most local authorities, often with the prompting and inducement of Victorian philanthropists, began to adopt the Public Libraries Act.  This Act, passed in 1850 with later amendments, allowed local authorities to raise money through local taxation to provide libraries which were to be used by the public free of charge.


The Camberwell Vestry, which administered the areas of Camberwell, Peckham, Nunhead and Dulwich, vehemently rejected the adoption of the Act.  But then in March 1888, the Vestry received a letter from George Livesey, Chairman of the South Metropolitan Gas Company saying he was ”desirous of doing something that may be useful to the inhabitants, especially the working people, and will add some enjoyment to their lives.”  He proposed a Free Public Library to “promote union amongst classes and give the people the means of spending their spare time pleasantly and profitably.”  He offered a site in Old Kent Road where he would provide a building for a library if the Vestry would agree to maintain it.  He suggested that three or four such libraries would be required in such a large parish.  Livesey ended his letter by saying “I address this proposal to you, as I think such a movement, to be successful, should be taken in hand by the vestry, who will, I feel sure, do what is best for the parish.” (Quoted from South London Press 27 October 1888).


The Vestry took up the challenge and formed a Committee who recommended Mr Livesey’s proposals be accepted, and the Committee’s recommendation was unanimously passed at a ratepayer’s meeting held on 23 October 1888.  The site in Old Kent Road described in Mr Livesey’s letter became the Livesey Free Library which was opened in October 1890.  


In March 1890 a temporary library opened at 18 Peckham High Street with a reading room where newspapers and magazines could be readl  Later books could be borrowed and during the first nine months, 100,000 books were issued.  A year later, a temporary library was opened in Lordship Lane, Dulwich, which had a newspaper room, a magazine room and a lending library consisting of 6,300 volumes.  Dulwich College had donated a site for a permanent library and it was hoped a philanthropist would enable the building of a permanent library.


In July 1890, the Vestry purchased a site for the Central Library in Camberwell.  It was situated on the south side of Peckham Road, adjoining Pelican Buildings (near the corner of Grummant Road, where previously there had been two large houses with long gardens, Woolacombe House and Napier House.  Robert Phillips Whellock was appointed architect and plans drawn up and eventually approved.


The new library was completed in October 1893 and opened by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who opened a new lecture hall and library at the South London Gallery on the other side of Peckham Road on the same day. It was a day of festivity in the area and from Camberwell Green to Rye Lane, Peckham Road was said to be gaily decorate with flags and mottoes, private houses as well as shops and public buildings. At the entrance to Camberwell Church Street the message “Welcome to Camberwell” was hung over the roadway and a similar message adorned the vestry offices along with trophies and flags.  The road was lined with thousands of spectators.


Built in what was described as the Renaissance style in red brick and Portland Stone, the new library was a very grandiose affair. It consisted of “two gabled buildings, one on each side of a lofty tower in the centre, with an open arcaded porch supported upon polished Cornish granite columns and bases of the Roman Ionic order.” On entering the building, to the right hand side was the lending library that, on opening, contained about 22,000 volumes with space to accommodate a total of 30,000 volumes.  On the left was a newspaper reading room that provided reading desk accommodation for about 40 newspapers, separated from the corridor by a pitch pine screen with ornamental glazing and with lightly tinted stained glass windows to the side.  Adjoining the newspaper room was a magazine room also with stained glass windows.  At the end of the mosaic paved corridor was a reference library that could accommodate a total of 18,000 volumes. To the rear was a small public garden.


By 1928 the library had a total of 35,000 books and a children’s library had been opened upstairs.  Books in Braille and Moon Types were provided for the blind and books were also obtained from the National Library for the Blind.  There was music library of about 1,500 volumes, 750 volumes of foreign literature and in Reference library a complete set of Latin classics. There was a local collection of books, pamphlets, manuscripts, paintings, drawings, maps and plans and approximately 700 volumes relating to history and topography of London and its suburbs.


Other libraries to open in the Borough of Camberwell in the years after the opening of the Central Library were Nunhead Library at the end of 1896, Dulwich Library in 1897 and North Camberwell Library in 1902, all three the result of generous donations from philanthropist John Passmore Edwards.  


Sadly the grand Central Camberwell Library in Peckham Road was destroyed in 1944 by a doodlebug and the library moved into two adjacent shops at the Camberwell Green end of Church Street.  A prefab that housed an additional library in Peckham Hill Street was opened in 1954 and replaced in 2000 by the large Stirling Prize winning Peckham Library.  More recently, the new smaller Camberwell Library opened in the north east corner of Camberwell Green in 2015 replacing the library in Camberwell Church Street.