One of my favourite old buildings on the ‘Island’ is the Cubitt Town Carnegie Library on Strattondale Street. Therefore it is with some concern that I have read that library is under threat from closure. As many people may know the ‘Island’ suffered greatly from bombing in the Second World War, one of the consequences of this was that many fine old buildings were damaged or destroyed.
One of the buildings that escaped that fate was the Cubitt Town Library on Strattondale Street. It is a pleasant surprise to come across the fine classical styled building amongst the post war houses and modern developments.
The library is of national and international significance being part of a the chain of Carnegie Libraries. Carnegie Libraries were built with money donated by Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, it is estimated that 2509 libraries were built between 1883 and 1929. The majority (1,689) were built-in the United States, but 660 were built-in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada and others in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, Mauritius and Fiji. Andrew Carnegie had humble beginnings in Dunfermline before emigrating to the United States in 1848. Carnegie over the next two decades through hard work and clever investments became a very wealthy man. Carnegie never forgot his background and looked at ways to use his wealth to help people from a poor background. With his love of books and reading, Carnegie believed that establishing public libraries was a way to encourage people to aspire to move beyond their poor backgrounds. To get local support he provided the funding to build and equip the Library and the local authority provided the land and money to maintain its operation.
Painting by Rebecca Mitchell
Cubitt Town Library was built after the Mayor of Poplar heard Carnegie speak in 1902 and soon afterwards made the application and set about raising funds. It was officially opened by well known local politician Will Crooks in 1905.
Cubitt Town library, one of the 660 in Britain and Ireland was part of a movement that developed what we consider the modern library. One of the innovations of the libraries was the idea of open stacks that encouraged people to browse and choose books for themselves.
A Poplar Guide of 1927 relates with pride “The Cubitt Town Free Library, opened in January, 1905, in Strattondale Street, is on the ‘Open Access’ system, by which means borrowers can select their own volumes from the shelves with full satisfaction to themselves and a saving of time to all concerned: the library is open from 9 a.m. to 9.30 p.m.”
Before Carnegie libraries, in most libraries you went to the librarian at the counter and ask for books which were then retrieved from closed stacks.
It cannot be overestimated the role that libraries played in the late 19th and 20th centuries especially in poorer areas, they provided escapism and a refuge from the often harsh world outside.
Kay Everson who grew up on the Island in the 1930s remembers her visits to the library:
I loved the library and spent a lot of time there as I have always been a voracious reader and books were a form of escapism whilst growing up. I lived in Strattondale Street so the journey to the library was easy. My one ambition at that time was to get in to the adult section to find more exciting books. My mother and my Aunt who lived upstairs in our house used to send me to get them any romance, particularly anything by Ethel M. Dell or Ruby M. Ayres.
However in the 21st century a number of Carnegie Libraries have been demolished or used for other purposes, this has led to many libraries widening their access to provide more community services. In recent times, Cubitt Town has developed a number of special and community events but this has not stopped its decline as a library.
With information available at your fingertips, one of the functions of a library has disappeared but its role as a community space is perhaps more important than ever. The isolation that many people have suffered in the pandemic reminds of the importance of community spaces that provide an opportunity to meet your old friends and get to know new friends. Libraries has always provided an important resources for local communities and Cubitt Town Library has for over a century been an oasis for many Islanders.
Tower Hamlets Council is asking for opinions about some of the proposed changes, this is an opportunity for people on the island to have their say on the library and whether they want to save this important part of Island history.
Find out more about the plans here