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Cubitt Town Library
As many people would 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 Cubitt Town library was part of the movement at the start of the 20th Century in which local authorities began to build public libraries often with joint funding provided by the Scottish American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
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.
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.
In our modern world of instant communications we sometimes forget that the important role the libraries such as Cubitt Town played in a local community.
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.
Walking around the Library I came across a book Rose Marie in a glass frame and next to it a short history, it is within this history that Kay’s childhood friend Iris Chadwick plays a leading part.
Iris and Kay in the 1930s
Just after the start of the second world war, Iris was 13 and a pupil of Millwall Central school , she had developed an interest in the piano and went into Cubitt Town Library to get the musical score of the popular musical Rose Marie.
However within days, steps were undertaken to begin evacuation of many of the Islands children. Iris was evacuated to Slough with her mother,sister and brother whilst her father a London Fireman stayed at their home on Stebondale Street.
Iris with her brother, sister and cousin in 1939
Whilst she was evacuated her home was damaged by a bomb and declared unfit to live in, fortunately her father was uninjured and managed to salvage a few items which included the Rose Marie book.
Within the next few months Iris’s father was able to be relocated to Catford and soon after the family was reunited.
For Iris her childhood was over, for whilst she was evacuated she had started work and when she moved to Catford joined the W.J.A.C. (Womens Junior Air Corps).
After the war in 1946 Iris got married then moved to Surrey Docks, Hampshire and Dorset, all through this time she was unaware if the Library had survived the Blitz. Therefore she looked after the book until 2009 when she thought it was time to try to return the book to its original home.
The story of the returned library book after 70 years was picked up by the media and Rose Marie became a bit of a celebrity,and the Cubitt Town Library entered in the spirit of the story by not demanding the estimated £2,500 overdue fees and putting Rose Marie in place of honour within a glass case.
Rose Marie at Cubitt Town Library
In the destruction of large amounts of housing on the Island during the war there was simply not enough housing for people who wished to return. Therefore many former Islanders were scattered around London and the rest of the Country.
The Island pre war had been a close knit community with many generations of the same family living on the same street. The disruption of the war had a profound effect on these communities in which people lost touch with family and friends.
Iris’s childhood friend Kay Everson was only 11 when she was evacuated to Eynsham in Oxfordshire before eventually moving to Hornchurch, it was only in the last few years that the childhood friends were reunited.
Iris’s story and Rose Marie are a timely reminder that for many people and certainly many children, the war had long term consequences which often meant they would never return to their childhood home. For many children brought up on the Island but then sent away for their own safety often without their parents, there was no doubt that those war years changed their lives forever.
Many thanks to Iris Chadwick and Kay Everson for their contribution to this post.