by Carolyn Hammond
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 8 (1999)
In 1897 Chiswick Library was facing the worst crisis of its short life. The library service had started in the house on the corner of Duke Road and Bourne Place in 1890 and each year it had become steadily busier and more crowded. Borrowers had to queue on the stairs leading to the lending library on the first floor to change their books, and readers wanting to look at the newspapers and magazines were crammed into two small rooms on the ground floor. Each room was lit by eight gas jets producing an atmosphere ‘about as poisonous as it well could be without immediately asphyxiating the readers’.
The comments in the annual reports of the Library Committee became increasingly anguished, from the relatively moderate ‘the library has outgrown its present premises’ in 1894, through: ‘increasing inconvenience is very keenly felt owing to the cramped and overcrowded conditions’ (1895) to the demand in 1896 that ‘the Council…carry out some scheme by which improved accommodation be provided’. The Council then set up a sub-committee to examine the possibilities: the chief problem was the lack of money – they were not allowed to spend more than the product of a penny rate on the library, which at that time gave them about £500 a year, supplemented by the small amount which the library raised from fines, selling waste paper etc. From this had to be found about £150 to pay Mr Hewitt the librarian and his boy assistant, another £150 for rent, rates, heating and lighting and the rest went on buying books, newspapers and magazines and rebinding older books. Each year the income only just balanced with the expenditure.
The sub-committee’s first idea was to buy the house at the top of Duke’s Avenue which belonged to the Sanderson family, owners of the wallpaper factory next door, and erect public baths and a public library on the site. However, the asking price was £3,500 and the Duke of Devonshire, enthusiastically supported by Mr Watts, the owner of Devonhurst, the large house that would be the library’s nearest neighbour, had imposed a covenant on the land, stating that the road was for private houses only. So the committee turned their attention to other potential sites with a proposal to create a new municipal complex by enlarging the Vestry Hall, incorporating public baths at the rear and a spacious two-storey library on the eastern side. However this plan had not gone far before news broke in October 1897 of ‘one of the noblest gifts the parish had ever received’. Mr Arthur Sanderson had written to the Council offering to ‘give our house, Number One Duke’s Avenue to the parish for use as a public library. We thought it would have been a fitting way of celebrating the Jubilee.’ Although the parish had held celebratory meals and festivities to mark Queen Victoria’s 60 years on the throne there had been no permanent memorial as in many other areas so perhaps the Sandersons felt this would redress the balance.
The Council’s legal experts immediately opened negotiations with the Duke of Devonshire and Mr Watts and eventually a compromise was agreed that would allow the library to move into the Duke’s Avenue house but, should it ever move out, the building must immediately revert to a private house. Meanwhile the Council’s surveyor, Mr Ramsden, had been considering the best way of converting the many small rooms of a private house into premises suitable for provision of a library service, without incurring too much expense – the Council eventually sanctioned expenditure of £500 for this purpose.
These negotiations took nearly a year so it was not until September 1898 that all was ready for the great move. Although it was only a matter of yards, there were a great many things to be shifted: nearly 6,000 books, over 100 newspapers and magazines, all the furniture and fittings plus the Hewitt family and their possessions from the top floor. There were no speeches or cutting of ribbons – the Chiswick Times reported that ‘without any public function and in the most quiet and unostentatious manner’ the library moved into its new home. On Saturday 24 September the last books had been issued from Bourne Place (did Mr Hewitt encourage as many readers as possible to borrow books so that there would be fewer to move?) and by Monday evening the whole of the remaining bookstock plus all the reference books had been transferred over to Duke’s Avenue. The reading rooms remained open in the old building until their normal early closing time of 12 noon on Wednesday when all the newspapers and magazines were carried over and rearranged ready to open again the following morning in the new premises. Meanwhile work was proceeding on transferring the shelving for the reference and lending libraries and they reopened on the Thursday of the following week. Mr Hewitt was awarded a bonus of £5 and there was one guinea for George Baker his assistant to reward them for all their extra work during the move.
Number One Duke’s Avenue was an imposing three-storey detached house, set in a pleasant garden. It had been built in the early 1880s for the large family of Mr Arthur Sanderson who had started the wallpaper factory in Barley Mow Passage a few years earlier. After the cramped and dark rooms in Bourne Place it must have seemed very light and spacious. From the semi-circular carriage drive a flight of steps led up to the front door and into an entrance lobby giving access to all the public rooms. Readers would have found the newspapers and some of the magazines displayed in the large through room on the left of the entrance hall, while on the right the front parlour housed the lending library, where the books were still shut off from the public by a broad counter surmounted by indicator boards showing which titles were ‘in’ and ‘out’. The back room on the right housed the reference collection of some 1,000 volumes and the rest of the magazines. The rooms on the first floor were not for public use. They contained the librarian’s office, store rooms and the room reserved for the library committee’s regular meetings. On the top floor were eight rooms set aside for the use of Mr Hewitt and his family, far more spacious quarters than they had been used to in Bourne Place.
The committee decided that as the building was so much larger it would be necessary to employ a full-time caretaker at a salary of one guinea per week plus accommodation and a uniform consisting of a frock coat with the library’s initials on the collar. Mr Alfred Goodall was chosen from 56 applicants and he and his family took up residence in the basement; he continued to serve the library for the next 30 years. His duties included sweeping and dusting the public rooms each day, cleaning the windows, attending to the open fires in the public rooms, tidying the newspapers and magazines, helping to shelve the books and looking after the garden.
As was inevitable, the new premises attracted new readers, so despite the extra space there were soon complaints of overcrowding again. The hundred years since the move have seen many alterations and additions to the building in an attempt to keep up with the changing requirements of the library service – but that is another story.
Carolyn Hammond is Local Studies Librarian at Chiswick Library, author of The History of Chiswick Library: one hundred years of service to the community (1997) (available from the library price £2.50) and co-author of Chiswick (1994) and Brentford (1996) in the Old Photographs Series, published by Chalford Press