In 1902 the Metropolitan Borough of Lambeth applied to Andrew Carnegie for money to build a branch library for Herne Hill and Tulse Hill ward.  As Carnegie believed in giving benefactions the community would continue to support, he asked whether the site would be “sufficient for the proper maintenance of a library if erected.”  On Lambeth’s assurance the rates would be quite sufficient and there was “no danger the library would be starved”, he agreed to supply the £12,500 needed “to complete your library system.”

The Council purchased land from Mr Robert Sanders, the indenture stipulating a public library and reading room be built within five years and that the Council would make up and pave new streets around the library.  Library Committee Chairman Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence offered to present 23 pictures if an art gallery could be incorporated.

Applications from 14 local Quantity Surveyors were considered; tender was accepted from Messrs Leaning.  Of 48 architects given particulars, 25 submitted designs; that of H Wakeford & Sons was chosen.  The builders were Holliday & Greenwood.

Plans included a main lending library, magazine and newspaper reading rooms, children’s library with separate entrance, staff office and workroom, room for files and repairs, basement store room and heating chamber, plus upstairs lecture hall for public meetings, talks and exhibitions.  When Carnegie learned the Chief Librarian’s residence was to be included, he had his private secretary fire off a sharp letter to Lambeth stating Mr Carnegie was paying for a free public library, not a private dwelling place.  Persuaded this was common practice and would provide security, he agreed, subject to minor design alterations.

The library was completed in 1905, fitted out with steel bookshelves and oak furniture, and opened to the public on 9 July 1906.  It is a fine example of Edwardian civic architecture, built with red Flettan bricks and terracotta, with some 45 “blue” bricks.  It combines a classical framework with Tudor style large mullioned, transomed windows.  The Lakeland slate roofs feature bell cupolas.  The library plus outside walls and railings were listed Grade II in 1981, sadly after most of the original bookshelves, which in the central room had fanned out in a sun-ray design, had been removed.

Andrew Carnegie wanted a building worthy of its purpose.  The superb windows, panels and glass dome afford plenty of natural light, giving the rooms a bright, welcoming feel.  Parquet floors add extra warmth, and the graceful Corinthian columns provide further elegance.  There are many pretty fixtures and fittings, including metal finger plates and base panels on internal doors.

The library was ahead of its time, being the first purpose-built to allow borrowers to walk around and choose books from the shelves, instead of having to ask a librarian if a book were available and waiting for it to be fetched.  The Carnegie’s open access system set a trend for all to follow; now of course we take browsing for granted.

Over the years formerly public rooms have been turned into office space for central library and IT staff, used for storage or transit of material, or to house the borough’s joint fiction reserve stock, including play-sets and music.  At some stage the librarian’s residence was carved into four council flats, two of which were sold off in 1991.  By November 1997, opening hours reduced to 16 per week (from an already low 34), with a consequent fall in usage.  The former music library section was deleted and supply of new books diminished.

In 1999 the Friends of Carnegie Library was formed in response to Lambeth Council’s plans to close the Carnegie and several other libraries.  After a three-year campaign we succeeded in preventing closure.  The book stock briefly improved, music cassettes (later CDs) and videos (later DVDs) became available, Internet access arrived and some refurbishment work began.  From August 2003 opening hours increased to 31 per week (lowest in the borough).  Until recently, severe weeding kept book stocks low.  The Friends’ aims remain to protect Andrew Carnegie’s gift to our community, revitalise the library and raise its profile within Lambeth, the Southwark catchment area and beyond, and to liaise with other friends groups promoting local libraries.

The Art Gallery, which the Friends created from part of the largely disused former magazine reading room, hosts a flourishing chess club and adult literacy reading groups.  Beginning in 2000 with a special exhibition of portraits of and pictures by John Ruskin, Herne Hill’s most eminent former resident, it has featured prestigious displays on occasion and has shown works by many local artists and projects by local school children.

Community Services, including Home Visit  stocks, are now housed in the Carnegie.  Funds from the sale of the former mobile store allowed urgent repair and redecoration to be undertaken and the layout of some areas reconfigured to accommodate these services.  With this architectural gem largely restored to its former glory, Lambeth Libraries and the Friends hosted a community celebration on 9 July 2006, the centenary of opening.  One year on, we launched a Breathing Places project, funded by the Big Lottery, to refurbish the back garden; this highly successful Reading & Wildlife Garden enhances the library going experience.  Volunteers of all ages get involved in planting, maintenance and enjoying events in the open air.

The installation of self-issue machines late 2014 enabled a refit, with neat enquiries point, discrete teen zone and public computer area, laptop counter (free Wi-Fi available throughout the library) and all new furniture.  Bookshelves on wheels allow great flexibility for a wide range of activities and events beyond library hours.  In anticipation of borough-wide spending cuts, we are developing ideas for income generation while aiming to bring the library into wider use, reflecting its role as the hub of the Herne Hill community.  Comments by visitors and users and greater involvement by community groups are welcome.

6 thoughts on “History

  1. Hi, Friends. I’ve been involved – though only peripherally – in the Save Our Libraries campaign (now rechristened the Don’t Steal Our Libraries campaign) for 4 or 5 years. I live off Acre Lane, so I mainly use Brixton and Clapham Libraries for my own purposes – though, as a member of Minet Reading Group, I attended the Lambeth Reading Groups’ Joint Christmas Party at Carnegie back in 2012 (I think it was) and came away with the impression of a very peaceful space in a very beautiful building.
    Before I make two specific points, I’d like to thank you for the ‘potted history’ above. I’m trying to do some basic historical research quickly, and your piece has been of more help than the rest put together.
    On Friday 5th of this month, the day of your date with Sky TV and the day after the ‘last-ditch’ meeting at Brixton Library – which I attended – a couple of random thoughts occurred:
    (1) Do the present-day heirs of Henry Tate, Andrew Carnegie, et al. know anything about the threat that is hanging over their ancestors’ bequests – given in good faith to benefit the general public – and/or have they been approached to join in any protests or photo-opportunities? I seem to be batting zero with the Tates, but I had no trouble locating William Thomson, Andrew Carnegie’s great-grandson, who has just recently taken over as Honorary President of the Carnegie UK Trust [q.v.]. It definitely wouldn’t hurt to have him standing next to Jo Lumley in a photo!
    (2) Do the individual Trusts, or (more probably) the Trusts’ lawyers, hold any historical documentation that might protect the use of the donated buildings? I’m a little confused about chronology, as you say above that Lambeth applied to Andrew Carnegie in 1902; but the Carnegie UK Trust’s Web site states that that body wasn’t formed until 1913. In fact, they had a big centenary celebration in 2013, with lots of interesting-sounding special projects.
    So did Lambeth apply to A.C. directly? Or was it perhaps a pre-existing American Carnegie Trust? – though that seems improbable.
    I’m sure someone in the Carnegie Friends will have tried these avenues already; but I must admit that I’ve never heard them mentioned specifically.
    Good luck!

  2. Dear Sue
    It was indeed to Andrew Carnegie himself that Lambeth applied. He asked if the site would be sufficient to maintain a library – i.e.would Lambeth guarantee to maintain it though the rates. They assured him there was no fear the library would be starved. Unfortuanately, there was no solicitor’s contract – a gentlemens’ agreement was considered sufficient. The Carnegie UK Trust cannot shore up previous benefactions. Do not believe the spin from the so-called Carnegie Herne Hill Community Trust. They fed the Carnegie UK Trust a tale about their plans and received a polite encouraging reply – but that is not endorsement; and if the CUKT knew what a load of lies the bogus trust were peddling, they would not have been so nice. I am sorry Adam still pushes the misinformation churned out by the bogus trust, which is just a proxy for their mates in the Council who want to destroy our library.

  3. I am shocked to hear of the attitude of Lambeth Council to their libraries. Apart from all the dedicated work which various people have put in over the years to maintain an excellent service, the local authority has a statutory duty to provide a library service to all its citizens, not a physical exercise service. I was the first Music Librarian of the Borough of Lambeth, appointed in the 1960s, and did my best to ensure that a good range of music materials (scores and recordings) were available in all the branches, including Herne Hill library (which was just round the corner from my home). It’s sad to see a complete change of philosophy among politicians – whatever happened to ideals of promoting literacy and dedication to social service?

  4. I am appalled with lambeth for their proposed use of the carnegie library. I will be coming to the next meeting, also tonight Thursday 7 September, I walked my dog around the library and was horrified at the state of the gardens around the library, as gardening is my living, are they just going to let the gardens turn into a building site, and dump for their rubbish etc, can we not get together and either trim them, or better still realicate them . As once they were a thing of beauty but now. I would gladly give some of my time to this, or I would dig some up myself and realicate.

  5. I just happened to walk past this amazingly beautiful building today and am appalled that it has just been ‘left to rot’ and handed over to ‘developers’. Surely it can be refurbished to still incorporate a library and other community workshops to make it viable so it isn’t turned into MORE ‘Luxury Apartments’??

Comments are closed.