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A Brief History of Hanwell Library

This talk was originally given at Hanwell Library on 13 July 2013 by Dr Jonathan Oates, Borough Archivist and is reproduced by permission of the London Borough of Ealing.

Hanwell Library has been in existence since 1905 and is the second oldest library still in existence in the London Borough of Ealing. I am going to talk about its history from the first discussions about its existence in 1902. The talk will discuss some of the issues which have cropped up over the decades, including embezzlement, censorship, rowdy youths, a war hero and political extremism. And perhaps I should mention books, too.

The Public Library Act of 1850 allowed local authorities to raise a half penny rate to fund public libraries, but few did so. Later in the century they were allowed to raise a penny rate for the same purpose. However, it was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that London’s suburbs began to witness the birth of public libraries. Richmond had one in 1879 and in Ealing in 1883. We should also remember that population in these suburbs was rising and that that population was becoming increasingly literate, with the coming of compulsory elementary education in 1880.

The impetus to the building of libraries in the early twentieth century was undoubtedly because philanthropists were helping finance them. Passmore-Edwards had given money for the Public Library at Acton, opened in 1900, and Carnegie gave money towards Brentford Library which opened in 1902. Hanwell Council took note of this and contacted Carnegie, who replied with the offer of a grant of £2500. Spurred on by these events, a public meeting was held in Hanwell at the end of 1902 to discuss whether Hanwell should have such a facility. Not all agreed, for it was asking inhabitants to pay additional rates. Mr Williams said that ‘he did not think the honest working man wanted a library’ and another said that they didn’t need a rich man’s charity. Yet the motion was adopted.

There was also the question of where the library was to be located. [slide 1] The possibility of the recreation grounds was vetoed on the grounds that the county council would not allow open spaces to be built upon. Then there was the suggestion that the open space by the council offices be used. This seemed most likely but in 1903 the council were negotiating for land on the bottom end of Church Road and the Broadway, close to where the clock tower is now, but this would cost £1000. This scheme came to nothing and the library was built just to the north of the council offices and the fire station on what is now Cherington Road.

A letter was written to Carnegie’s secretary to ask for an additional contribution towards a library. A positive reply resulted, on the basis that the money be used for the building and its furnishings and fittings, on the condition that the council paid for the books and for salaries. Contrary to popular myth there’s no evidence that the building was to be used in perpetuity as a library. They agreed and eventually the sum of £3,000 was awarded. Carnegie was not forgotten. When he escaped injury in a motor accident in 1908 the committee wrote to him to congratulate him on his escape.

The foundation stone [slide 2] was laid on 26 November 1904 by the Countess of Jersey of Osterley Park. She was met at the railway station by Mrs Sharpe, wife of a local magistrate and historian, Sir Montagu Sharpe. The Hanwell Town Band provided musical entertainment.  The countess said that she hoped the library would be ‘the forerunner of great intellectual endeavour in Hanwell’ and ‘a continuation school of great benefit to the public’. The leader of the council remarked, ‘I do hope and trust this library is not going to be a library for sleepers. I hope it is not to be a doss house, but a place of an elevating character, which will meet the requirements of the district’.

T. Gibbs Thomas was the architect and Messrs Sims and Woods of Grey’s End Road were the builders. It was to be a two storey building, with a reading room and a magazine room on the ground floor, as well as the librarian’s desk; the basement was to hold the bookstore. On the second floor would be a lecture room, committee room.
There was also a lavatory. The window of the latter was not thick enough to prevent people living in the houses opposite seeing inside, so a blind was fitted.

A committee of both councillors and residents was formed in order to administer the library and to report back to the Council. One of their first tasks was to select a librarian, ‘an experienced and qualified librarian be appointed at a salary of £100 per annum’. This salary was reduced to £80 at a subsequent meeting, but was raised to £100 in the following year. From 1907 he was given three weeks leave per year. A working week was 47 hours. There were 42 applications. Three were invited to interview, but Mr Clive from Yorkshire was unable to attend.

The man they chose in August 1905 was Frank Pocock, who had previous library experience at Brentford. He lived at 34 Lateward Road, Brentford and later at Deans Road in Hanwell. He was 22 years old and a bachelor on appointment. Six of the committee voted for him and two for his rival. He proved to be a good choice and was frequently commended by the committee in subsequent years. In 1909 it was said, ‘The Librarian has throughout the year been most zealous in the performance of his duties and in no small measure is this record of success due to his devotion to the welfare of the library’.

An assistant was also advertised for in local newspapers; he had to be at least 14 years old, work for five shillings a week from 10 am to 10pm on the days that the library was open. The assistant appointed in September 1905 was one John Lane. He left in 1906, but his replacement was, in 1907 reported as ‘been seen gossiping with other lads both at the library counter and at the entrance of the library’. A cleaner was also appointed, at seven shillings a week. There was a fairly high turn over of staff for these posts, though the salary slowly increased. Often the library assistant had to be told off for bad behaviour. By 1912 an extra assistant was employed.

The committee appealed to the public for donations of books, magazines and newspapers, and contacted numerous organisations and publishers for free copies of their works. Some of the first to be promised were religious magazines from the Ealing branch of the Protestant alliance, accepted with thanks. The Independent Labour Party also donated copies of their magazines, too.  In 1905, seven daily newspapers, twenty seven weekly papers and thirty monthlies were taken. These included titles suitable for children as well as adults and many were given free of charge by the publishers. Examples of books donated were London Scenes and London people, The Old City, Gibbons’ Decline and Fall and The Clergy List for 1901.  The committee once noted, that they ‘gratefully acknowledge the great assistance rendered by many generous gifts of books and take it as evidence of the recognised usefulness of the public library as a centre of educational and social advancement’. Most books, were, of course, bought, too, often second hand ones, and these purchases accounted for about 90% of the book stock.

Some odd items were donated to the library. In 1907 Sharpe gave an ancient British stump found in the Thames and so a suitable display case was needed to house it. Some local history items were purchased, such as a print of church and rectory for 1s 6d, a sermon preached by the Rev. Glasse of Hanwell in 1798 and a copy of a book by Sharpe. However, the published Middlesex parish registers were not purchased even though volume one included Hanwell. A collection of stuffed birds was offered, but declined.

Committee meetings took place monthly and followed a very predictable format. The accounts were read; with the librarian’s salary being the biggest item. Then there was the librarian’s monthly report, stating numbers of days open, numbers of visitors, borrowers, books in the library, books issues, and cash taken for fines, catalogue sales, room hire and for waste paper sales. Items offered to the library for donation or sale were discussed, as were any other matters about the building, its staff and readers.

The library was opened [slide3] on 27 September 1905 by Sir Clifton Robinson, Managing Director of the London United Electric Tramways Company, who ran trams along the Uxbridge Road from 1901-1936. He said that he hoped the library would be used by the same people as his employees, who could not afford to buy good books, rather than those who could. He said, ‘As a tramway car would be of little utility without a supply of electrical energy, so a library without books would be regarded as only half fulfilling its destiny. May I ask your courteous acceptance of a little page out of what is probably the most useful book in my own library’ and gave them a cheque for fifty guineas with which to buy books. The public were then invited to look around the building, but only the newspaper room was open. The lending library opened in January 1906.

The library [slide 4] was open six days a week. There was a suggestion about opening for two hours of a Sunday evening but this was declined ‘for financial reasons’. In the first week, the average daily visits were 506; in the second week, 360.

Not all were well behaved. In October 1905 the police were notified about ‘boys congregating outside the Library to the annoyance of the general public, and also to catch boys who throw stones at the library doors’. Next year the librarian complained of ‘certain young men had caused much unpleasantness to readers in the library by repeatedly behaving in a disorderly manner and refusing to leave the premises when requested to do so’. Their names were to be taken and proceedings taken against them. In 1909 there was a reference to ‘some boys behaving in a disorderly manner in the library’. Strongly worded letters were to be set to their parents. Mr Pick complained of youths singing in 1911 whilst the librarian was at tea, and that one Mrs Ash was the chief offender. Pocock was deputed by the committee to have a talk with him about this. Mr Pick, though, was not above reproach for in 1912 one Mr Hoskyns complained, ’Mr Pick had taken a magazine away from his child when it was in the Reading Room…and that he was of the opinion that Mr Pick should be forbidden to use the Reading Room’. He was told that in future he should report this to the librarian.

Children could only borrow books if they had a letter from their headteacher that they were suitable borrowers and had passed the fourth standard. Non fiction could only be borrowed for fourteen days and fiction for a week. Only one book could be issued per ticket. From 1916 unaccompanied children under 12 were not allowed access.

Since books were not on open access, a catalogue of all the library’s books was published in 1906 and was sold for six pence. This could be bought and resulted in an increase in the use of non fiction. The catalogue was basically arranged in alphabetical order by subject or by author, with some cross referencing. There were also a number of adverts by local businesses. Subsequently additions to stock were added as supplements. The local press also listed new books available in the library, and did so until the 1930s.

Economy was crucial. Old magazines were sold at a third of their original price. The library even sold its waste paper. Applications were made to bodies for funding, such as the Middlesex County Council for the purchase of technical books. Suggestions by the public to the committee for new books and particular titles were often turned down. Proposals for purchasing items from authors and others were usually vetoed, as were suggestions that sectarian literature be purchased.

There were also health concerns in the early years and in 1906 two books returned to the library from a house where there had been an outbreak of scarlet fever had to be destroyed and the sanitary inspector called on all houses where there was such infections and told to return any library books.

The Committee room was hired by local groups for meetings at the rate of 1s 6d per hour and the Rector was one of the first in September 1906 to avail himself of this. Another group using it was the Hanwell branch of the ILP. Some groups were allowed to use the room at a discounted rate, such as Girl Guides and the Boys Brigade, as well as charitable associations. Events in support of the Cottage Hospital were allowed to be held there free of charge. A series of monthly lectures were held there, with sixpence admission. The first was ‘An Evening with MacBeth’ by Dr Deane and Miss Christmas. However, although two were deemed ‘excellent…the other four were not so well attended’. Requests for music there were not allowed. In 1911 the lecture hall was extended after the receipt of a grant of £645 from Carnegie.

In about 1920 there was a strong protest by a local ratepayer who objected to the library allowing the Labour Party to use the lecture hall for meetings. She claimed they were allied to the Bolsheviks and so were bloodthirsty revolutionaries and so she would withhold her part of the library rate owing to the council. She was summoned before the magistrates’ court and told she was legally bound to pay. It is presumed she did so. Another controversial figure appeared in the lecture room on 4 November 1922. This was when Sir Oswald Mosley, MP took a break from electioneering to present prizes at a whist drive run by the Hanwell Athletic Football Club, and although this was announced in the press the meeting was not reported.  He had been elected as Unionist MP for the Harrow constituency which then included Hanwell in 1918 and was re-elected as an independent in 1922, just a few days after his presence at the library. Later in the 1920s he became a Labour MP and in the 1930s was to gain infamy as leader of the British Union of Fascists and supporter of Hitler but in 1922 in Hanwell he was as yet untainted by his future career.

In the first year of opening, almost 60,000 books were borrowed; two thirds of which were fiction and a quarter were of juvenile works. This was at a time when there were only about 4000 books in the library; each one was very heavily used. Poetry, drama, literature and language books were borrowed the least. Average daily visitors were 302 and there were 1242 registered borrowers. In the first year, ten books were lost; in seven cases the readers responsible paid for them.

Censorship also ked to at least one book suggestion being turned down. One reader wanted ‘Love while ye Maye’, which had been presented by the publisher to the library for potential sale. The chairman and vice chairman of the committee read the book it ‘were of the opinion that it was not a suitable book for the library’. For anyone unacquainted with the book, it is a historical novel set in the sixteenth century and features a torture scene which may have been what was objected to by the committee. In 1921 the book The three Sisters’ was withdrawn following complaints and other books by the same writer were similarly condemned.

All books were on closed access. This meant that people could not browse the shelves as now but had to consult a catalogue, ask for the book required and then this would be checked to see if it was out or not. The first suggestion that the ‘open access’ scheme be adopted was made in 1911 but was turned down.

The First World War led to a number of relevant books being asked for and being bought; Von Bulow’s Imperial Germany, Germany and the next War and The Riddle of the Sands. The first floor of the library was hired to the men of a Territorial unit for a brief period in 1914 and was later used by men of the National Reserve who were guarding the viaduct from potential saboteurs. There was discussion as to whether the library be insured against bombing and it was decided against. The war also led to a reduction in books being issued to readers. It was in 1915 that the first female library assistant, one Miss G.L. Cox was employed at 5s 6d per week, and in 1916 a Miss Allen was employed. War Loan posters were displayed and copies of political speeches inserted in each book issued.

Pocock enlisted in the 23rd battalion of the Middlesex Regiment in November 1915 [slide 5] and the committee regretted the loss of such an efficient member of staff. Conscription was about to be introduced and after the war, anyone who had volunteered for the forces rather than been conscripted would be viewed more favourably. They looked forward to his return, with the laurels of glory and victory. Unfortunately this was not to be, for on 25 March 1918 Private Pocock was killed in action. The library committee recorded ‘their deep sense of loss…and sent to his widow the expression of their deep sense of loss and sympathy in her bereavement’. They continued paying her half of his late husband’s salary for the next half year. Miss Cox was then deemed acting librarian at an increased salary. A portrait of Mr Pocock was later displayed in the library. His name is on the wooden plaque in Ealing Town Hall titled, bizarrely, ‘Southall-Norwood Urban District Council’.

One of his successors, in 1919, found the administration of the library and the organisation of the books in a most disorganised and primitive state, so it was difficult to find those required. It was also hard to locate which books was overdue. This was a Mr Warburton from Lancashire. An ‘open access’ scheme was recommended, once again and was adopted in 1919 (this scheme was now increasingly commonplace in libraries). He resigned in 1920 and was replaced by Frank Stinton, once senior assistant of Ealing Library, who was unwell for much of the time and died in 1923. Maurice Hodges of Hackney Library was appointed in 1924. Unlike the others he remained at his post for the next thirty years.

After his appointment it was found that ‘deficiencies had been discovered in the accounts relating to the hire of rooms, involving sums amounting to £6 7s 6d for which receipts had been issued and the counterfoils fraudulently altered by the late librarian’; ie Stinton. The money was not recovered despite an investigation involving an interview with Mrs Stinton – just after she had received a letter of condolence from them.

In 1925 provision for a separate juvenile library was considered and decided upon. The work took place later that year. There was a public appeal for suitable books and several hundred were received. Borrowers had to be aged between 9 and 12. Another decision at this time was to enter into an arrangement with the county library service to acquire the use of 1000 extra books for an annual fee of £50, boosting the book stock from about 5000 to 6000. Having said, this, though, book borrowing per year, which had been 59,564 in 1906-7, peaked in 1918-1919 with 77,000 and were down to 60,000 in 1924-1925. Although only about 8% of the population used the library, each borrowed an average of 39 books per year.

In 1926 Ealing and Hanwell were merged to form, along with Greenford, the new borough of Ealing. Hanwell Library thus became one of three libraries in the newly enlarged borough, and by far the smallest one, after Ealing Central Library and West Ealing Library. This caused some concern. This was because the library was a Carnegie Trust library rather than one built by the council. It was stated that the Trust only provided the building but Mr Neaves, a library committee member, said that the library building must be kept as a library. The chairman concluded that the library must be kept open for the next six months and then a decision would be taken whether to continue with it, given West Ealing Library was quite close by. Other questions about amalgamation were over the standardisation of opening hours and it was agreed that all libraries close at 1pm on Thursdays, as had been the case already at Hanwell, but that reservation fees at Hanwell Library for popular fiction be dropped. It was also judged, ‘The late Hanwell Council could not be accused of spending too much money on its library’. Yet in 1933, expenditure on books for Hanwell Library was a third of that at the Central Library and half of that for West Ealing. There were only two members of staff compared to four at West Ealing and a dozen at Central. Over the decade, new libraries were built in Greenford, Perivale and Northolt

Conflicting interests in the library were brought to public notice in 1928 when it was stated, ‘I have had three rather disconcerting experiences there lately’. Quiet readers in the reading room were being disturbed by loud voiced children rehearsing a play in the children’s section. On another time, meetings of the Hanwell Ratepayers’ Association were disturbed by operatic singing and dancing and stamping of feet. A Liberal meeting held there in winter did not have the benefit of hot water pipes. Wedding receptions in the lecture hall were another cause of noise.

Those Hanwell residents living nearer to West Ealing Library began to use that library, so numbers using Hanwell Library fell, though 85,000 issues in 1927 was far from discreditable. [slide 6]  Increasing usage led the committee to state in 1930, ‘the building is inadequate to serve the growing needs of this district’. Issues topped 130,000 in 1933. Yet the rival claims of providing a library for Greenford was the greater priority and so this took several years. The Carnegie Trust was written to in the hope of receiving a grant as in 1904, but on this occasion were told that grants were not given for extensions. In the interim, even a brief two week closure for internal decoration brought forward the following irate complaint:

‘Sir-, I am writing this letter at the request of several ratepayers who, like myself are disgusted with the recent closure of the reading room at Hanwell Library for nearly fourteen days…I believe a letter in the gazette is the best way to bring the scandal before each member of the Libraries Committee.  And I call it a scandal because I am assured on good authority that the work could have been done in four days’.

 The library was eventually closed for three months in 1935 and reopened in July. Book cases lined each wall and there were two central shelves of 39 feet long each. Lighting was far better than it had been. Fiction predominated on the shelves because that was more popular.

This actually turned out to be rather controversial because there was a significant overspend on the estimates for the work. The cost was £837 but the amount asked for was £590. Heating and lighting costs had been underestimated. It seemed that the surveyor had died but had made a verbal agreement with the builder, unauthorised by the committee. But despite the changes made, there were problems with the library’s roof. The slates were decaying and some were falling off. This was in 1935 and cost nearly £400.

The library’s meeting room and lecture hall was a feature unique in Ealing’s libraries and was regularly used by many local organisations, such as four branches of the Labour Club, the Junior Imperial League, co-operative and friendly societies and others. Exhibitions of photography and associated lectures were held there in 1936-1938 which also helped boost issue figures.

A debating group began at Hanwell Library in November 1942. Their first topic was ‘Is there purpose in life’. Mr Hodges thought this would be very dull but found it was not the case and a lively discussion ensued. In 1944 there was a debate between the debating groups of Hanwell and Greenford about a federal Europe in the future but the proposal was unpopular. Political and literary discussion were common. There were occasional one act plays put on there, too. About 50-80 people attended each meeting. This group continued in existence until about 1982.

World War Two led to the library lecture hall being used as an ambulance depot and so could no longer be used by local groups. Black paint was used to cover the windows so as to affect a black out and so artificial light was used in day time. There was a slight decrease in book issues in 1939/1940 compared to 1937-1939, from 154,000 to 142,000, but by 1941-1942 the pre war numbers were reached again and by 1942-1943 they had been exceeded; with 182,000 issues and topped 210,000 in the next year. People had spare time on their hands but neither the money nor the supply of available goods. However, by the end of the war issues had fallen to 177,000 and by 1947 to 156,000 and 131,000 in 1953.

After the war, the lecture hall was as well used as ever; with 994 meetings being held there in 1949-1950 by over 40 different groups. There were also exhibitions, with one held in 1958 to celebrate 1000 years of St. Mary’s parish church being in existence – though this date is now thought to be highly doubtful. Discussion groups continued to use it. After the decline in issues of book, by the later 1950s, they were rising again; to being 140,000 in 1956, and 156,000 in the next year – the only branch library apart from West Ealing to record figure of over 100,000.

There had been redecoration in the children’s library in 1960, ‘and now presents a more welcoming appearance on which many readers have commented’. [slide 8] There were regular Children’s Quizzes at the library and the children’s librarian was based there. However, the rest of the library was less attractive, ‘the gloomy appearance of the rest of the building with its dark greens and browns’. The electric lighting was of a poor standard. In the following year there was the same story, ‘The building itself is dingy, dark, depressing and inconvenient. The peeling, neglected exterior does not invite and the grimy, dull interior does not welcome. However…the structure is sound and there is nothing wrong with its appearance that cannot be remedied’. As indeed it was, in the following year, with a complete redecoration both inside and out. It also was the headquarters for the school and the mobile library service and so had the biggest concentration of departments and of staff outside the central library.

Perhaps we should say a word about staff at this point. [slide 7; Miss Walton standing, Mrs Emery sitting] Mr Hodges, Hanwell’s long serving librarian since 1924, retired in 1955. He was replaced by another qualified librarian, Mr Thomas. However, he did not stay long and in 1960 both he and the senior assistant, Miss Banks, had left. His post was quickly filled by a Mr Viles, but not hers. It was stated, ‘This is particularly unfortunate as the Senior Assistant is a key member of the staff, and this vacancy is causing a severe reduction in the standard of professional service available to readers. The remainder of the staff are to be congratulated for carrying on so cheerfully and efficiently under this handicap’. The post was briefly filled and then vacant again and ‘The public prefer to be greeted by familiar faces and dislike frequent staff changes’.

In November and December 1959 the third Carry on Film – and the first to feature Sid James - was shot, mainly in West Ealing and Hanwell. The exterior of the Hanwell Library was used for the police station in which part of the film is set. The interior shots were presumably taken at Pinewood. Oddly enough this was not mentioned in either the library reports nor the local press.

So how did Hanwell Library sit in the early 1960s? In 1962-1963, 147,000 books had been issued. 24,000 had been to children and of the remainder, 91,000 were adult fiction and 31,000 adult non fiction. The Library was one of eight full time branch libraries. It was open on Monday, Thursday and Friday from 9-7, on Tuesday from 9-8 on Wednesday 9-1 and on Saturday 9-6. [slides 9-12]

In more recent times, Hanwell Library has been designated a ‘community library’, that is to say in the third tier of libraries and is now open four days a week down from the six as in the past. There was the possibility of closure in 2011, but a vigorous protest occurred.  The council decided to keep the library open and to refurbish it in 2013.

Throughout its history, Hanwell Library has been a subject of controversy and change. The past was certainly not a golden age, with concerns about rowdy youths, selfish readers, idling members of staff, not to mention embezzlers and controversial political meetings. Since 1926 there have been proposals to close the library. Peak usage seems to have been in the 1950s, just before the advent of universal TV ownership.