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.


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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7 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.

    • Thank you too, Hazel.

    • Patricia Cooper says:

      My great Grandfather George Chapman was caretaker at the Library. My mother used to tell us stories about how she used to play on the balcony when she was a child. My mother was born in 1922 and only passed away in 2017. We have photos of my great grandmother Frances Chapman on the library roof. My grand father Sydney was his eldest son.
      Tricia Cooper

  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

  3. Harry Nobby Sprackling says:

    My first visit to this library was in 1946 when the last bomb had been dropped and finally peace came to the Isle of Dogs.

    During the previous 4 years we had been going into the basements of old house and into Anderson shelters and anywhere we could escape. After seeing total destruction and bodies everywhere through my 6 year old eyes it was like a dream to enter this building. The smell and the polish in the reading room was like being on another planet. We crept in the main reading area with little boxes which we could stand on to read all sorts of papers which we could never understand.
    What I will always remember is the smell of the disinfectin which came from the concrete hut next to the library which was the only source of cleansing material for all the Island.

    As the older generation gets fewer and fewer I sincerely hope that this wonderful and beautiful building manages to stay alive and well on the Island.

  4. Lorna Ellis says:

    I had my wedding reception there in 1974! I had forgotten about it until I read this.

  5. David King says:

    My earliest memories of the Isle of dogs go back to about 1968/9 when my family moved to number 59 Strattondale street when I was 6 or 7 years old. My very first memory was seeing the Blue bridge as we travelled along Prestons road in my dads blue Ford Zephyr and being amazed how big the bridge looked as we turned the little bend (now straightened) just as you approached the bridge. As a child that young I guess most things look big. I don’t remember what route we took from the bridge to Strattondale street, but i guess the two sensible options would have been either right fork at the Queens hotel (no longer there) down East Ferry road, left into Glengall grove, then left into Strattondale street or straight along Manchester road, right into Marshfield street, right into Glengall grove, then right into Strattondale street.

    Either route, there nothing to impress a 6/7 year old. But as we turned into Strattondale Street, the first thing a saw was the Library and was amazed at this beautiful building. I don’t think I had ever seen anything like it before. Maybe I hoped my dad had hit the big time and that was our new house ha ha. Then we stopped right outside outside new house (parking was never a problem back then) and was happy it was bang opposite this lovely building, i would now see everyday.

    I don’t remember any of the conversation after, but I guess my 6/7 year old mind must have been curious and I assume I asked what this building was… one of my parents must have explained it was a Library and what a Library was. I had never been in one before and was probably amazed that you could just walk into one of these buildings and walk away with free books ( at that age, having to register, join, get books then return them after a certain date or get a late return fine was an adults responsibility to deal with ) . . I just wanted the books to read. I don’t remember my first books, but I do remember the accumulated hours I must have spent in there during the following years searching and choosing probably every single book they had on Football, especially anything to do with Chelsea Football club. I also remember a Dr Zeuss, cat in the hat and a Spike Milligan period I had.

    I also remember how clean the place always was and how quiet it was in there and how quiet you had to be. I remember the staff but not their names. There was a tall(ish) mid 40’s fellow with black framed glasses, i think he was the head librarian, I remember a younger man and I think 2 ladies who may have been cleaners. But more importantly, I remember the caretaker/maintenance man/ janitor/ and general good egg Charlie Surface and his 4 daughters (who wouldn’t remember 4 daughters ?) haha.

    I became friends with his youngest daughter Wendy as we were the same age and happy to Say, 50 years later, Wendy and i still remain friends. She is now living happily in Lincolnshire with her family, and Charlie (now retired) is living with her.


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