Tales from the Mystery Object Group

By Wes White, Library Development Officer

Canada Water Library’s Mystery Object Group meets around once a month to explore a different artefact from the borough’s collections or with relevance to the history of the area. The item chosen for each session is a secret until it is unveiled to the group. We encourage members to respond creatively to the items – in writing, artwork, creative photography, or however they might be moved to do so. In this post we are sharing some of the creative work that has been inspired by our mystery object sessions since the group was incepted at the beginning of the year.

Click on an image to see the details.

The Printworks

In June the group went outside of the library on a field trip to the Printworks building. This space is best known currently for hosting dance music and film-inspired events, but it retains an original newspaper press – a huge machine – and we made that our mystery object that month (slightly too big to bring into the library!) Group members sketched, wrote about and photographed the space.

‘All’s Well’

In this session we focused on the Camberwell coat of arms, of which we had a painted wooden carving. We were struck by the heraldic symbolism, particularly the wounded deer on its crest, which is an emblem of St Giles – Camberwell’s patron saint.

Roman Southwark

In March there was a display of the Cuming’s artefacts from Roman Southwark at Morley College, and to complement it at the end of February the museum’s curator Judy Aitken brought us a whole range of original Roman objects to draw and explore.

McAndrew’s Models

In January, we had a selection of models from the Cuming Museum’s handling collection. We don’t know a great deal about the origins of these apparently handmade figures, which seem to depict characters from life in Victorian London. They are marked with the name McAndrew. Among them, group members identified a tailor complete with measuring tape; the self-styled ‘Royal Ratcatcher’ Jack Black; and one of the rats he had caught!

Our next sessions are on Tuesdays at 2 – 4pm on 22 August and 26 September 2017 at Canada Water Library.

To find out about more email wes.white@southwark.gov.uk.

 

 

 

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Southwark Libraries: the beginning (part two)

By Emma Sweeney, Learning and Engagement Officer for Southwark Libraries and Heritage

In part one we heard about the ‘uproar’ and ‘hubbub’ that greeted proposals to open publicly funded libraries in the parishes of Southwark. Read on to find out what happened next.

The first parish within what is now Southwark to pass the Public Library Acts was Bermondsey in October 1887. Many local authorities did the same that year to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Rotherhithe adopted the Acts soon after but Christchurch were the first to establish a rate-supported library, which opened in rented premises (on Charles Street, Blackfriars Road) in October 1889.

John_Passmore_Edwards_by_George_Frederic_Watts

John Passmore Edwards

Camberwell eventually adopted the provisions of the Public Library Acts in 1889 after Mr. George Livesey made a handsome offer to build a library should they do so. Newington adopted the Acts in 1890, followed by St Saviour’s in 1891, leaving St George the Martyr the only parish in the area that had not done so. The money thus raised by the rates, however, was nowhere near enough to build, furnish and stock new libraries so public donations of both money and books were essential.

One of the most generous philanthropists was John Passmore Edwards, a journalist and newspaper owner from Blackwater, near Redruth in Cornwall. In his short autobiography A Few Footprints, he writes:

As I had accumulated mainly by the labour of others, I thought, and think, it was only reasonable and just that others should share in the garnered result: and to act accordingly was a duty and a privilege – a duty as a citizen and a privilege as a man.

Between 1890 and his death in 1911, aged 88, Mr. Passmore Edwards was instrumental in the establishment of hospitals, orphanages, convalescent homes, schools, museums, art galleries and twenty-five public libraries: eight in Cornwall, one in Devon (Newton Abbot, his mother’s birthplace) and sixteen in London. In A Few Footprints, he states:

Public libraries are, in my opinion, entitled to public support because they are educative, recreative, and useful; because they bring the products of research and imagination, and the stored wisdom of ages and nations, within the easy reach of the poorest citizens […] All may not use them, but all may do so if they like; and as they are means of instructing and improving some, all are directly or indirectly benefited by them.

In July 1895, the Daily Chronicle published a letter that drew attention to St George the Martyr’s need for a public library but inability to pay for it, due to the poverty of the inhabitants, and asked for help. Mr. Passmore Edwards wrote a letter that was also published in the paper, offering to pay for the building if the parishioners would adopt the Acts to maintain it. A poll was taken and the Acts adopted by a majority of 1,814 in 1896. The foundation stone of what would become Borough Road Library was laid by Mr. Passmore Edwards on Thursday 2nd December 1897.Borough Road exterior

Camberwell particularly benefited from his munificence as he had lived there for some time. Dulwich (1897), Nunhead (1896) and Wells Way (1901, now in Burgess Park) were all Passmore Edwards libraries. The foundation stone for Nunhead Library was laid on Saturday April 11th 1896. At the ceremony, Camberwell Vestry extended its thanks to Mr. Passmore Edwards, saying “We are honoured and encouraged by the special favour you have extended to Camberwell, and we are glad to know that, as a young man, you resided in its historic grove.” Mr. Passmore Edwards, in reply, noted that it was “not his fault that he had to leave Camberwell Grove about a quarter of a century before, as the house in which he happened to live at the time had to be removed in obedience to the inexorable demands of a railway company armed with parliamentary power.”

When Dulwich Library was opened on Wednesday, 24th November 1897 by the Lord Chancellor – Mr. Passmore Edwards having contributed £5000 of the total cost of £5800 – the Times opined “Probably no portion of the metropolis is better served by public libraries than the parish of Camberwell”, remarkable progress in under a decade. The foundation stone of Nunhead bore the motto, “Good deeds live on when doers are no more” and this is certainly true in the case of John Passmore Edwards.Dulwich opening ceremony invitation 24 Nov 1897

When the various parishes were amalgamated into the Metropolitan Boroughs in 1900, Bermondsey boasted two permanent libraries, with a third to follow within two years; Camberwell four, with a fifth within two years and Southwark four.

In some ways, these libraries were quite similar to the service we provide today. Belying, even then, the cry that libraries are “just books”, a thriving programme of lectures and exhibitions was soon in full swing. There were books for lending, books for reference and a range of newspapers and periodicals. In other ways, they were quite different. The Southwark library by-laws of 1902 contain clauses that make interesting reading.

7.—A person who is resident in a house where a case of infectious disease exists, or has occurred, shall not within one month from the removal of the patient to hospital and the disinfection of the premises, or if the case be treated at home, within one month from the patient’s complete convalescence, use the Libraries in any way.

19.—Every person above the age of ten years resident, rated, employed , or attending any Educational Institution in the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark shall be permitted to borrow books for home reading […] the person desirous of becoming a borrower [must have] obtained a ratepayer to become a guarantor for him […] in lieu of such guarantee the applicant may deposit with the Librarian the sum of ten shillings…

Ten shillings would have been a huge amount of money to the poorer inhabitants of Southwark – in 1898 an ordinary labourer in England earned on average 16s. 9d. a year, rising to 17s. 5d. a year in 1902 – so, while the library was, in theory, open to all “ratepayers and inhabitants”, in practice, it is doubtful that poorer inhabitants would have been able to make use of the lending library.

Until after the First World War, most libraries operated a “closed-access” system, rather than today’s “open-access”. The bookshelves were not available for browsing. Instead you had to consult the catalogue and note the number assigned to your desired book before examining the indicator board at the counter. The indicator board in the Livesey Library, for example, was crowded with red and blue lights, one of each assigned to each book the library held. If the blue light was on, the book was available and an assistant would fetch it for you. If the red light was on, it was out on loan. At busy times, making your way through the crowd apparently required tact, strength or both!

Too many of the books thus borrowed, some thought, were fiction, which was a waste of time and money and lacked any educational value. This was a recurring criticism of public libraries. Mr. Passmore Edwards spoke in their defense at the opening of Borough Road Library and was quoted in the local press:

It was not true that public libraries were only used by fiction readers. As an instance, he said that from the Camberwell Central Library nearby, there were issued the year before more than 500,000 volumes and nearly 200,000 of them were books of general reading, including historic, scientific, artistic, biographical, religious, educational, and other works.

If any one of these 500,000 books were back late, they would have attracted fines – in Southwark in 1902, these were set at a penny for the first week and tuppence per week beyond that. Other contraventions, however, attracted far severer punishments. Stealing a book or three, as attempted in 1897 from the Livesey Library, resulted in a sentence of three years penal servitude for the thief while cutting a column from a daily paper, as a customer of Camberwell Central Library discovered in 1902, resulted in a fine of ten shillings or, if not paid, seven days in prison.

In many ways, we’ve come a long way. Some things, however, appear to be eternal. In reminiscences, Mr. William Hahn, Chief Librarian of Camberwell Libraries from 1938 to 1955, recounts how the red-headed Mr. Edward Foskett, the first Chief Librarian, would encounter “rude little boys rushing into the Central Library with a shout”, who would “call out ‘Yah! Ginger Foskett!’ if they caught sight of him, and rush out again”.

To find out more on this subject, drop in to Southwark Local History Library and Archive.

Southwark Libraries: the beginning (part one)

By Emma Sweeney, Learning and Engagement Officer for Southwark Libraries and Heritage

For an institution so embedded in the fabric of our communities, so ingrained in the public consciousness, the free public library is a surprisingly recent innovation in this country.

The Public Libraries Act 1850, sometimes called the Ewart Act after its originator, William Ewart, allowed for local rates (taxes) to be increased by a halfpenny in the pound in order to pay for the provision of public libraries and museums—but the act had quite strict limitations. It only applied to boroughs with a population numbering over 10,000; the ratepayers of the parish had to vote, by a two-thirds majority, to adopt it; the money thus raised could only be spent on buildings and staff, not on stocking the libraries (for this they had to rely on public donations of books and money).

William Ewart

William Ewart

Further legislation was passed in 1855 and 1866 and the public library movement gained momentum, though not so much in London. The first public library in London established in accordance with this legislation opened on Great Smith Street, Westminster in early 1857, with a branch library in Trevor Square following soon after in June 1858. Yet, by December 1882, this was still the only instance in London in which the Acts had been adopted. This sorry state of affairs was lamented in an article in Trubner’s Literary Record (July 1866), reprinted in the Illustrated London Times (4 August 1866), which blamed a lack of local philanthropists willing to fund a library service:

London, which, of all other cities in the world, owes most of its position to the intelligence, education, and activity of its citizens, stands, to our thinking, degraded and disgraced for its apathy in this matter. Is there no public spirit among our bankers and merchants […] Is the accumulation of wealth alone the object of ambition to our citizens, and have they no desire to contribute aid towards the elevation and improvement of the masses?

While no London parish outside of Westminster adopted the Act in the first three decades after its passing, it was not simply ignored. The question was first raised in Camberwell in 1858. A newspaper article from 1932 quotes from a poster of the time proclaiming that a public library “would allay the prejudices of caste […] open to all comers; Rich and Poor would meet on an equality” and exhorted the population to resist “those small politicians, the niggardly do nothings […] lack-brains and know-nothings who miscall themselves your representatives who will try to divert you from your purpose of voting in favour of this gracious act!” Sadly, the required two-thirds majority did not agree with him.

Old Workhouse, Camberwell

Camberwell Workhouse

By 1866 the need for a two-thirds majority was abolished and replaced by a requirement for a simple majority. Still, this was not enough to pass the measure in Camberwell where, according to the South London Observer and Camberwell and Peckham Times, a meeting of the parishioners in the dining hall of the Workhouse “decided almost unanimously that the proposition was inexpedient”. This meeting is very unlikely to have included any of the poorest inhabitants of Camberwell. In order to vote at this time you had to be a man, aged 21 or over and also living in housing valued over £10 a year, which excluded six out of seven adult men. Those in property of a lower value were unlikely to be ratepayers and were not eligible to vote.

The main argument against free public libraries was financial, with many opposed to the increase in taxation.  The South London Observer and Camberwell and Peckham Times referred to it in November 1879 as “laying another straw upon the back of that marvellously-patient animal, the Camberwell ratepayer”. Some detractors, such as Mr. Merry in Kensington and Mr. West in Islington, whose views were reported in the Times, claimed this would be wasted money as such libraries would be used by the middle class—“those who could well afford a guinea a year for books”—rather than the intended beneficiaries, the working classes. Locally, the South London Observer wrote in November 1879 that Mr. Wesson of Camberwell caused “uproar” when he claimed that “working men could have plenty of books of their own if they didn’t handle the pewter pot so freely”. He was supported by Mr. Lond on the grounds that “he ought not to have to pay for another man’s enjoyment”.Free Libraries Act poll sign, Camberwell

Arguments for free public libraries stayed much the same over thirty years, at least in Camberwell where, in 1879, ratepayers voted once again against the adoption of the Acts with a majority of 627 (1306 against, 679 for), the resolution being defeated in every ward. The South London Observer celebrated:

And as modesty has ever been a characteristic of the South London Observer, we really don’t see why we should not have a crow for once on our own account […] We write fearlessly, and we don’t scruple to denounce this detestable state of things as a condition of positive parochial apostacy [sic], for what ought to have been a blessing, and was at the outset a very creditable notion […] has grown at Camberwell into a grim and gaunt Frankenstein before which even Shelley would have cowered, and whose one idea is to snap and devour the monies of the residents and rule them with the iron rod.

At the meeting where the result was announced, the crowd bayed for Dr. Rogers, chief proponent of the adoption, to explain himself. Feelings at the meeting were clearly strong and the South London Observer had a detailed report:

At last amidst the heat and row and squeeze, the Scottish champion got on the platform, but only to be hissed and groaned at as with no little fortitude he repeatedly bowed his acknowlegments [sic] à la favorite [sic] of the footlights. In vain he essayed to obtain a hearing. In vain Mr. Lassam grew crimson and Mr. Hunt nearly burst a blood vessel in yelling their hopes that the meeting would listen to the rev. gentleman. In vain Mr. Fermor, no longer the chairman, chirped his convictions that the ratepayers would not refuse to hear the originator of this movement […] Uproar drowned his [Dr Rogers’] voice, but his pantomimic gestures were supposed to be indicative of a plea for silence, but in the midst of the hubbub the gas suddenly turned off, and the meeting came to a very brisk end indeed, the cheering being renewed outside.

It would be another eight years before any Southwark parish adopted the Acts. We will explore this further in part two.

Camberwell vestry cartoons p13210 and 11

A satirical depiction of a typical Camberwell vestry meeting