Our History

Background and history

Lending and reference libraries are a nineteenth century phenomenon. In the early years of the century these were either subscription libraries of free philanthropic libraries. In the 1880s, Clapham had one of each sort, a subscription library in Studley Road and a poorly used free library at St Anne’s House, a working men’s club in Old Town.

Public provision was first authorised by legislation in the 1850s. In using the new powers, the provinces outstripped London, where by the time Clapham Library was opened in 1889, there were only 17. Clapham Library was among 10 new library administrations set up in 1887, a sudden upsurge which may have been as much the result of competitive civic pride as any sudden urge for learning. In Clapham the initiative came from the Revd George Forrester, Vicar of St Paul’s Church, Henry Bulcraig, a Churchwarden of Holy Trinity Church, and an anonymous friend of the Vicar, who offered £2,000. After a public meeting, a local referendum authorised the setting up of a Library Commission empowered to carry through the work.

There was intense local argument about a site, which the local paper described as “the battle of the sites”, before the Commissioners settled on a site on the North Side of the Common, opposite the Parish Church, on land to be purchased from the Lord of the Manor. The acceptance of this particular site gave rise to local suspicions about
the close links between some of the Commissioners and the manorial family, no doubt intensified when the chosen architect turned out to be the Surveyor to the manorial estate. Indeed, a local resident wrote to the Chairman of the newly formed London County Council, asking him to put a stop to “another case of Clapham parish jobbery”.

In fact, at least with hindsight, the site chosen was central and sensible, and the architect was selected by competition. Six designs were submitted, in accordance with normal practice anonymously, and the winner was Edward Blakeway I’Anson. The builder was the local firm of Charles Kynoch and Co, and the cost, including purchase of the land, £3,865. The Library was opened on 31 October 1889 by Sir John Lubbock, Vice-chairman of the London County Council.

As originally laid out, more than half the ground floor was devoted to a large reading room, with stands for papers and periodicals, and a reference library. Behind that, there were closed stacks capable of holding 27,000 volumes (the initial stock was 4,800). Upstairs, there was a large meeting room, intended to be available for public meetings, and behind that a flat for the Librarian.

EB I’Anson

Edward Blakeway I’Anson FRIBA (1843-1912) was elder son of Edward I’Anson junior, PRIBA (1811-1888), an eminent City of London commercial architect and surveyor. Born in Clapham, he trained under his father and as assistant to Alfred Waterhouse, before joining his father in practice in the late 1860s as assistant and later as partner.

Like his father, I’Anson worked on commercial buildings, mainly offices and warehouses, as an estates surveyor mainly in South London and as a valuer and arbitrator. He also succeeded him as Surveyor to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Very little of his commercial work survives, but he left a substantial legacy of public buildings, which in the last decades of the nineteenth century were much in demand. In Clapham, he designed the School of Art in Edgeley Road (1885, retained facade surviving), Clapham Library (1889), and St Anne’s House and Hall, Venn Street (1894). Elsewhere in London are the St Mary Newington Public Library, now the Southwark central library, in Walworth Road (1891) and nearby in Manor Place off Walworth Road, the Newington Public Baths and Washhouses (1893-5). For St Bartholomew’s Hospital he designed the Outpatients’ Block (with Rowland Plumbe, 1904-7) and the Pathology Block (1907-9). He designed cottage  hospitals at Shanklin, Isle of Wight (1905) and Finchley (1908), the former a tribute to the deceased son of his friend Lord Chief Justice Alverstone. Following his father, he was responsible for several examples of a new type of building called into existence by medical advances, the rural convalescent home. Two good surviving examples are Parkwood, at Swanley, Kent, now Parkwood Hall School (1891), and Lady Forrester’s Convalescent Home at Much Wenlock, Shropshire (1901).

At Bart’s I’Anson’s buildings respect their classic surroundings. His other public buildings are in a style derived from the seventeenth century, which he himself called vernacular. Materials are generally red brick and stone; by the standards of his day, ornamentation is fairly sparse, with interest and variety being offered at roof level, with dormers, chimneys and turrets. The buildings range from the very plain St Anne’s House and Hall, more Queen Anne than Saint Anne, to Parkwood, plain enough below, but breaking out into a riot of turrets. Clapham Library is somewhere in between, though it unfortunately lost the ornamental top to the ventilator turret in the last War. What they have in common is that they are well built, practical, and well liked by those who use them.

Peter Jefferson Smith
February 2006


Robert Tzopa, The Early History of the Clapham Public Library, typed dissertation, University College London 1995 (copy in Lambeth Archives).

The letter complaining of jobbery is in the London Metropolitan Archives, MBW 22633.

Clapham Observer, 10 March 1888 and 2 November 1889.

For diagrams of the original floor layout, T Greenwood, Public Libraries, London 1891.

For availability of records, research by Peter Jefferson Smith and George Owen.

For EB I’Anson, research by Peter Jefferson Smith.