The Public Library in Strattondale Street

It was good to hear that ASDA is abandoning its plans for a massive development on its mudchute site (see Second Tower Hamlets ‘people victory’ as Asda scraps Isle of Dogs development), but I didn’t realise that – had it gone ahead – the library in Strattondale Street would have been under threat. This risk was perceived by some protesters because the development plans included creation of new premises for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ Idea Store, which is currently housed in the library; the argument being that the council would then have fewer limitations on any considerations it may have to sell off the library to a property developer. A not unrealistic concern – the library was built in an era when the concern of philanthropists and local government for the welfare of those less well off was more apparent – when it wasn’t so dominated by dealing with budget cuts or financial efficiency.

The library in Strattondale Street was financed by Scottish-born, massively rich, American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who between 1889 and 1916 gave grants for close to 3000 libraries (half which were in the US) in the English-speaking world.

Andrew Carnegie, 1913

The library in Strattondale Street, officially opened in January 1905, replaced the library in Osborne House, in what is now Island Gardens. The land opposite Greenwich was owned by Lady Glengall and leased from her by William Cubitt. In 1852 they signed a 99-year sub-lease agreement with Greenwich Hospital. It was to have landscaped gardens (a “plantation”) with imported trees and shrubs, and five large villas were to be built a little back from the river so they could not be seen from the hospital.

But, there was no interest from buyers; the wealthy businessmen that the development was expected to attract did not want to live on the Isle of Dogs. Close to 50 years later, only one villa had been built, and the land that had been set aside for gardens had become a public open space, but it was far from landscaped. Locally it was known as ‘scrap iron park’. The one villa, Osborne House, was taken over by the London County Council in 1892 and became the Island’s public library.

Osborne House, Saunders Ness Road, in the 1950s

 

In 1900, the land between Strattondale Street and Galbraith Street – owned by Lady Margaret Charteris – was vacant and was purchased for £1,150.

1895

Plans were drawn up for the building, with the remaining land to be landscaped as public gardens.

First plan

Eventual construction. Image: Survey of London

 

Survey of London:

Most of the ceiling in the lending department fell to the floor seven years after the building was completed and there was some bomb damage during the Second World War; full restoration of the fabric followed both of those misfortunes. Because of the need for a hall on the Isle of Dogs which could be used for public meetings and social events, in the early 1960s it was decided to convert the newspaper reading room and erect a flank extension, providing a hall with seating for approximately 140.

I do remember going to the odd ‘do’ in the library around 1970, but mostly I remember how many books I borrowed from the place – keenly waiting for the place to open of a Saturday morning so that I could hand my books in and get new ones.

I visited the library a couple of years ago and took a few photos (I asked first). I mentioned to one of the staff that it still smelled the same as it did in 1970. He wasn’t sure if he should laugh or dial 999.

 

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3 Responses to The Public Library in Strattondale Street

  1. Hazel Anderson says:

    It would be criminal to destroy such a beautiful building I always remember the library smelling of polish and brasso,looking through the doors and seeing the men reading the newspapers and when you went into the lending room it was magical this would have been late 40s 50s. My great uncle was caretaker and lived above the library I’m not sure how long he was there dut I know he was there in 1937 because he was given a dish to commemorate Edward the VIII Coronation which as we all know did not happen I have that dish now his name was Chapman. Why isn’t the Library a listed building as it must be one of the oldest and important buildings left on the island now. Thank you Mick for all the information and childhood memories.

  2. Christine Coleman says:

    Oh how I loved that library when I was a child, I spent hours and hours there. I have recently looked on Google to try to find some of the books that I borrowed during that time but, unfortunately, it is as if they never existed

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