Bow Library 1901

When the Bow Vestry initially asked Passmore Edwards to support the funding of a Free Library their request was not favorably received. However, he eventually agreed to provide £4000 towards the building.

The Parishes of Bromley and Bow initially proposed combining to provide a central library and a branch library in each Parish but as soon as an agreement appeared to have been reached, negotiations broke down. Bromley had already opened a branch library at Brunswick Road in 1895, Passmore Edwards performing the ceremony but not contributing to the costs other than by giving his customary 1,000 books, and it was mainly due to the inability of the Bow Vestrymen to agree amongst themselves that lead to the breakdown and the decision to go it alone. In November 1898 the Clerk to the Bow Vestry, wrote to Edwards to ask for his assistance. His response what that he was unable to help at that time but a second request resulted in an offer of £4,000.
Designed by S B Russell, who also designed the Plaistow Library and the West Ham Museum, the Bow library was constructed on a salt glazed brick base with redbrick elevations and Portland Stone dressings. There were the usual arrangements for reading room, reference and lending library, with shelving for 12,000 books, but a feature of the library was the heating arrangements, with hot water piped under the road from the public baths and wash house opposite.

The date set for laying the foundation stone was Friday 19 October 1900, at 4 o’clock, after laying the foundation stone at Limehouse at 2.30. The previous day Edwards had reopened the West Ham Polytechnic, which he had not funded, and attended the opening of the adjacent West Ham Museum, which he had funded, and had witnessed the unveiling of a bronze bust of him at the Museum. Not only were the foundation stones for the Limehouse and Bow libraries laid on the same day, they also opened on the same day, 6 November 1901.Plans to extend the Bow library were proposed in 1926 but it was not until 1939 that work commenced, only to cease when the war started and instead a public air raid shelter was built on the site. Bomb damage occurred in 1940 but the library was only closed for a few weeks, and building recommenced in 1949, the extension finally opening in February 1950.

However, 1962 marked the end of the library service at the Roman Road premises, when a new library and community centre was opened in Stafford Road, nearby, and the Passmore Edwards building was converted into a public hall, called Vernon Hall. This library was itself replaced with the formation of the present library, the Idea Store, in 2002, situated just behind the original Passmore Edwards building.

Passmore Edwards Public Library, Limehouse 1900

Passmore Edwards initally offered £6000 towards the costs of the Limehouse Library but then withdrew the offer, stating “I cannot promise to substantially assist you whilst this wretched war with the Transvaal Republic is waged”. He later contributed £5000.


A poll, to adopt the Free Library Acts resulted in a 2,000 majority in favour and a board of Library Commissioners were elected to find both a site and the capital required to build it. In January 1900 the Commissioners wrote to both Passmore Edwards and Canon Barnett for assistance. Edwards initially offered to give £6,000 but within days had written to withdraw the offer, saying that he could not promise to substantially assist ‘whilst this wretched war with the Transvaal Republic is waged’. Within weeks he had changed his mind and agreed to pay £5,000 towards the building and laid the foundation stone, at 2.30pm on 19 October 1900.
Edwards declined to give a lengthy speech after laying the stone. The first reason he gave was that after leaving Limehouse he was due to lay the foundation stone of the Bow Library and at 8pm that evening he was due to unveil the memorials to Charles Keene and Leigh Hunt at the Shepherds Bush Library.
The second reason, he said, was that ‘it was difficult to make bricks without straw’- he could not make a speech without facts to speak upon. He had walked the two miles from Whitechapel to Limehouse that afternoon and said he had been struck by the absence of anything of any architectural character to relieve the monotony. But he had noticed the number of men standing about the streets with nothing to do. The library would be for these men, where they could find recreation different to lounging about.
Designed and built in Commercial Road, by Sabey & Son of Islington, the library was opened a year later by the first Mayor of Stepney, Edward Mann. Edwards was unable to attend the ceremony.
The library was originally fitted with gas lighting but, so as not to later spoil the internal decoration, the wiring for electric lighting was also installed for when it became available. In the Library’s entrance the Brockwell Collection, an exhibition of species of fish caught in the nearby River Lee between 1876-1881, was put on display.
The library closed for three years in 1928, to allow an extension at the rear to include a Children’s Library and Reading Room, both claimed to be the largest in East London, as well as a Lecture Hall with seating for 256 people. After the formation of the Borough of Tower Hamlets this lecture hall was also used for weekly feature films, with free entry.
In 1987 the Wapping Neighbourhood Committee commissioned local artist Claire Smith to design and execute a mural for the library. Painted in the style of William Blake the mural is called Limehouse Reach, a huge fresco stretching right across the rear wall of the library.

The following year a statue of Clement Attlee, MP for Limehouse from 1922 to 1950 and Prime Minister between 1945 and 1951, was erected outside the library and unveiled by Harold Wilson.

Although talk of closing the library in 1997 initially came to nothing the library’s days were numbered and it eventually closed in June 2004. The library building remained empty in a state of disrepair for many years, resulting in Historic England including the Grade II listed building to be included on the Buildings at Risk Register. Recently, however, work commenced on restoring the building to be used as student accommodation. The Attlee statue had been removed some years earlier.

proposals for the restoration and extension of the LImehouse Library

Whitechapel Library 1892

The first of the Passmore Edwards Libraries to be built in London, and the first rate supported library in the East End, was the Whitechapel Library.


Canon Samuel Barnett, and his wife Henrietta, had moved to St Judes’ Parish, Whitechapel in the 1870s, an area of appalling poverty, poor housing conditions and overcrowding; mostly involving Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Barnett’s set about improve the conditions of their parishioners. Barnett campaigned for adoption of the Free Libraries Acts and a poll in 1889 voted by nearly 4 to 1 in favour. At the first meeting of the Library Commissioners, in January 1890, Barnett reported that he had collected promises of £4,500 towards the library and a suitable site was obtained on the High Street; the busiest part of Whitechapel., The foundation stone was laid by the Lord Mayor in July 1891.
When the vicar of St Paul’s, Dock St, offered his entire collection of relics, fossils and works of art, some very rare and valuable, as a nucleus of a museum, ‘if proper accommodation could be provided’, the architects were asked to amend the design. The building was almost complete when Canon Barnett invited Passmore Edwards to view it, hoping to obtain a donation that would close the shortfall on the required funds. Edwards was sufficiently impressed to later write ‘I cheerfully comply with your request and relieve you of the difficulty which presses upon you by paying the entire cost of the building … . I do this not merely from a sense of duty, but because I think it is a distinguishing privilege to assist in lightening and brightening the lot of our East End fellow citizens’. Included was a cheque for £6,454 to which he added the offer of a thousand books.
The library, designed by Edward and William Potts, and Arthur Hennings, set the pattern for East End libraries, which, though by different architects, are similar in their domestic scale and the general seventeenth century asymmetry.

By May 1892 the Reading Room was open and the official opening of the library, by Lord Rosebury, took place in October. In the week prior to the opening more that 2,500 were using the reading room daily with another 1,264 on the Sunday. Hundreds of other books were to be donated, even before the library opened, including a copy of the Koran. During the first year more than 2,500 residents registered as members and for many the Whitechapel library, soon to be known as the ‘University in the Ghetto’- promoted by its librarian, Morley Dainow, was the only means of getting an education. Members in those early years included First World War poet Issac Rosenburg who perished on the Somme, Jacob Epstein, the sculptor responsible for the work representing St Michael at Coventry Cathedral, and historian Jacob Bronowski, creator of the TV series, the Ascent of Man. Playwright Bernard Kops wrote about the Whitechapel library – ‘the door of the library was the door into me’.
From the beginning Hebrew books and papers were provided, the library later holding the largest collection of Jewish books in any UK public library. By 1910 a Hebrew assistant, Mr Bogdin, was appointed to manage the collection of books in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian, a collection that remained in the library for 70 years. Loans peaked in 1937 at 18,000 volumes but in 1970 Indian language books were added to the catalogue for the first time and soon outnumbered Hebrew and Yiddish issues.

Always at the forefront, as the immigrant population changed so did the library’s membership and the library was the first to stock Somali texts.
The Whitechapel library, like several in London, was damaged during the air raids of World War Two, the upper floor being completely burnt out and not reopened until 1955. It also stands not far from the site of the Brick Lane restaurant bombing, of 1999, and the Tube bombers target at Aldgate in 2005. Though escaping these threats to its existence the building could not escape the march of progress and closed its doors in August 2005, the library moving to a new building in front of Sainsbury’s – The Idea Store.The opportunity was taken to restore the building and create an extension of the adjacent art gallery.


Plaistow Public Library 1903

The Plaistow library is


This branch library was designed so that it could be managed by a minimum number of staff, as the sum available from the rates was very small. The design produced by S B Russell appears to have been based on his design for the West Ham Museum, producing one large room, sixty foot square under a domed and barrelled roof. The exterior is in red brick and Bath Stone. When it opened in 1903, the lending library was in the centre, with space for 12,000 books, separated from the newspaper and reading areas by a glass screen, eight feet high, and which gave a single attendant a clear view of the whole of the library. The flexibility of the building has allowed the layout to be adapted to meet different needs over the years and has, perhaps, contributed to it remaining open today.
Edwards chose Andrew Carnegie to open the Plaistow library in 1903. Carnegie said that it was the first time that he had been asked to open a library to which he had not contributed even one penny. Any disagreements he may have had with Edwards over the Echo had clearly been forgotten as he praised his former colleague. Perhaps a little tongue in cheek he dubbed him ‘St Passmore‘ and said that if he had been born a hundred years earlier he would certainly been canonised.

Current Use

In December 2020 the Newham Council sought residents views on a proposed move for the library to a new more accessible building in Valetta Grove, close to the Tube Station. As part of the consultation, the council is looking for opinions on what should happen to the existing Grade II listed building. Several other of the Passmore Edwards buildings have found new community use and it is hoped that this wonderful building can continue to do so.


Hoxton Library (Passmore Edwards Free Library, Hoxton) 1898

The first library in Shoreditch was the Passmore Edwards Library at Haggerston.
Finding a suitable site for the second Shoreditch library, proved difficult as the Baths & Washhouses Committee was also looking for a site on which to build and it was decided to combine the two.


A site in Pitfield Street, Hoxton, was chosen and Passmore Edwards laid the Foundation stones for both the extension to the Haggerston Library and the Hoxton library on the same day. When the library was opened in 1898 it bore the name The Passmore Edwards Public Library, Edwards though he had given only £4,450 towards the total cost of £20,000.
In recognition of the gift of the two libraries, the Borough of Shoreditch commissioned George Frampton ARA, to produce a marble bust of Edwards. Frampton had already exhibited a bronze bust of Edwards at the Royal Academy and the marble bust unveiled to mark the first anniversary of the Hoxton library was identical. Frampton produced a second marble bust of Edwards, which he presented to Edwards’ wife, Eleanor, and which graced the Edwards family home for many years.
The Hoxton library suffered extensive damage during the Blitz in 1943 and was not reopened until 1956. It was finally replaced in 1995 when the Hackney Council opened a new library in Hoxton Street. For a while the building became home to the English National Opera Company (ENO) and in 2003 researcher Knighton Berry went to enquire about the marble bust of Edwards that had stood for many years on the main staircase to the upper floors. The bust was nowhere to be found but his enquiry produced sufficient interest in Teresa Deacon, then Administrator at the ENO, to continue searching amongst the disused rooms at the former library. The lost bust, badly chipped and covered in grime was eventually found in the boiler room. With the permission of the London Borough of Hackney and the ENO he was able to retrieve the bust, have it cleaned and repaired by the ceramics department of the West Dean College in West Sussex and have it transported, with the help of the Tate, to St Ives, in Cornwall, where on 31 May 2007 he presented it to the Cornwall County Council. Today the bust stands once more in its proper place, in a Passmore Edwards library.
Following the departure of the ENO the library found a new use in 2007, as the Courtyard Theatre, providing two performance areas and rehearsal space, whilst the upper floors have been converted to office and residential accommodation.


Kingsland Road Library, Shoreditch 1893


The areas of Haggerston and Hoxton, collectively known as Shoreditch, were, at the end of the nineteenth century, a seething mass of people crammed into slums. Poverty and overcrowding affected almost the entire district and there were few buildings or institutions of an educational character. In March 1891 the overseers of the then parish of St Leonard were asked to adopt the Free Libraries Act. In the all held later that month, 3,154 ratepayers voted for and 2,076 voted against, but only for a maximum of a ¾d rate.
In Haggerston the overseers decided to convert the vacant offices of the Independent Gas Company in Kingsland Road, with a large garden at the rear and a house adjoining, rather than build new. The cost was £4,250 and although a loan was arranged from the Prudential Assurance Company Passmore Edwards came forward and offered £5,000 to cover both the purchase and conversion work, and gave 1,000 books.
The newsroom and reading rooms were opened first but it was another four months before the lending and reference libraries were ready and the building could be formally opened by the Duke of Devonshire on 10 May 1893.The library was an immediate success; so much so that a temporary reader’s shelter was constructed in the rear garden, such was the demand. Opened with 6,460 books in the lending library and 2,346 in the reference library, and 160 newspapers and periodicals in the reading room, 51,000 books were issued in the first twelve months. It was soon decided that an extension was needed with Passmore Edwards providing the £2,000 needed. The extended library was opened on 17 October 1896, and named The Passmore Edwards Library.
In 1975 the library closed its doors for the last time and after standing unused for sometime was converted into residential apartments.


East Ham Library (Plashet Public Library) 1899.

When the East Ham Urban District Council was formed in 1894 J H Bethell, later Lord Bethell, proposed introducing the Free Libraries Act. The population was at that time more than 50,000 and the product of a penny rate, at £670, was enough to support more than one library. Initially making use of a converted house, the first library was opened in North Woolwich and Bethell then turned to Passmore Edwards for help in establishing a library at Plashet.


When the East Ham Urban District Council was formed in 1894 J H Bethell, later Lord Bethell, proposed introducing the Free Libraries Act. The population was at that time more than 50,000 and the product of a penny rate, at £670, was enough to support more than one library. Initially making use of a converted house, the first library was opened in North Woolwich and Bethell then turned to Passmore Edwards for help in establishing a library at Plashet.
Edwards chose Herbert Gladstone, the youngest son of the Prime Minister William Gladstone to open the Plashet Free Library. Designed by Silvanus Trevail in the Tudor Renaissance style, with the use of Ruabon red facing bricksthe library opened in October 1899. It had cost Edwards £4,000 plus the 1,000 books he added towards the 8,000 on the shelves when the library opened. Bethell also provided 1,000 scientific and technical books and in the first year over 3,000 residents registered as members.
In 1903 the great nephew of Elizabeth Fry, Mr Sydney Buxton, MP, unveiled a bust of her at the East Ham Town Hall. The marble bust, sculpted by Henry A Peagram RA was one of the thirty busts and memorial plaques commissioned by Edwards. It is now to be seen at the Newham Library.
In 1903 the East Ham Improvement Act empowered the Council to spend a 1 1/2d rate on its libraries and with assistance from Andrew Carnegie two further libraries were opened, at Manor Park in 1905, and in 1908, adjoining the Town Hall in High Street South.

Current Use

The Plashet Library closed in 1993 when a new library was opened in nearby Green Street, one of the main shopping streets in Newham and more convenient for users, and the Passmore Edwards building became the Registry Office. The Registry Office was relocated again in 2019 and in June of that year was taken over by squatters.

Nunhead Library

Though initially indicating otherwise, in February 1896 Edwards wrote to Foskett, the Head Librarian with an offer to build the Nunhead library as well as the library at Dulwich, and laid the foundation stone in April of that year. Speaking in response to the thanks given to him Edwards said Camberwell, had increased enormously in population since he lived there and was now one of the most populated parts of London. Having expanded so it was now displaying unusual municipal spirit, by competing with other metropolitan parishes and leaving most of them behind. If there was to be competition what could be better than in the promotion of the public good. He referred to man as being a fighting animal but this didn’t mean that he must be engaged in murderous struggles on the battlefield. How much better if these struggles were in order to provide public buildings. Edwards later said that although he had provided many public libraries it would be one competition that he would be happy to lose, with others taking up the challenge.
Designed by R P Whellock, the Nunhead library is amongst only three Passmore Edwards libraries in London that remained in use in 2020.

St Georges in the East Public Library

Although the parish of St George in the East was one of the poorest in the East End the product of a penny rate amounted to £800 per annum, but, in the view of the Vestry, insufficient to pay for the construction of a free library. Passmore Edwards responded to an appeal for assistance by saying that he was so involved in building libraries elsewhere that he couldn’t help, but added that if they started a public subscription fund then he would reconsider their request as soon as he could. An offer from one of the Vestry Members to start the fund off with £1,000, ‘provided there was no lending library’, was met with scorn from Edwards, who considered it unwise to leave out a lending library. The Commissioner removed the condition but reduced his offer to £500, and Edwards came back with an offer of £5,000, and a thousand books. The selected site, in Cable Street next to the Vestry, was owned by The Earl of Winterton, who offered to sell for £3,000, but donated £200 of the price to the library fund. Other donations received included £180 from the local breweries, which was surprising since one of Edwards’ aims in creating Free Libraries was to provide workingmen with an alternative to the public house during their limited recreational hours.
Maurice Adams’ design drawings were exhibited at the Royal Academy and appeared in the Building News on the 21 May 1897, the day before Lord Russell, the Lord Chief Justice, opened the library.
The main feature of Adams’ design was the reading room, which had a steel octagonal roof, 9 metres wide, rising over a series of arches and equally spaced piers. The room, however, was square with newspaper stands along two walls and grille-fronted bookcases on the others. The reference room occupied the whole of the first floor, which had three projecting oriel windows overlooking Cable-street. The library was in red brick to first floor level and finished with stucco above whilst he facade was in Portland stone with monolithic columns flanking the doorway and with an arched pediment above. Above the columns were two seated statues representing ‘Literature’ and ‘Art’ sculptured by Nathaniel Hitch in Portland stone, and commissioned by Passmore Edwards as an additional gift to the residents of the parish.

I have found this type written report on the initial arrangements at the library and the rearrangements that took lace over the 40 years beofer the commencement of WW2. It finished with a note that “This brief history of past adaptations provides justification for the claims that a building erected to meet the requirements and conditions of 40 years ago must of necessity have become restrict in its possible uses, not capable of meeting the greatly increased demands.” This report was sadly prophetic as incendiary bombs destroyed the Library during the 1941 Blitz. The shell, in an unsafe condition, was pulled down leaving just the front elevation which was eventually pulled down in the late 1960s.

A temporary single storey prefabricated Library was built in St George-in-the-East Churchyard in 1953 and this remained in use until the late 1980s when a new Library was built in Watney Market.

Edmonton Library


The Edmonton Local Board of Health had adopted the Free Libraries Acts in 1891 and opened a small temporary library in the Edmonton Town Hall in 1893. The Passmore Edwards library, in Fore Street, replaced that first temporary library. Passmore Edwards chose Mary Ward to lay the foundation stone in April 1897, at the same time that he was in negotiations with her over building the Settlement in Bloomsbury. Immediately after the short ceremony the procession returned to a public meeting in the Town Hall. In describing the ceremony that had just taken place, she prophesied the time when ‘generations of English people, both in and around London and in the remote towns of beautiful Cornwall, would still be entering the spiritual kingdom of knowledge and imagination, the Passmore Edwards Free Library’.

Designed by Maurice Adams, the library was dedicated to the memory of John Keats and Charles Lamb, both associated with Edmonton and she said it was pleasing to think that one day an Edmonton boy, through visiting the library they had just seen commenced, would produce a novel or a poem, or write a history, that would stir the English minds.
At the opening, undertaken by Dr Richard Garrett of the British Museum, in the following November, Passmore Edwards said that the people, mostly working men, now had a library and books but lacked the time to read. Hundreds of working men from Edmonton and other outlying districts of London had to travel into London daily – a journey that would take, on average, two and a half to three hours, each morning and evening. Referring to the engineers strike currently taking place, the engineers wanting an eight hour day, Edwards said that matters were made worse by the lack of workmen’s trains, resulting in long waits at the London Stations.
It was nearly forty years before branch libraries were built, at Bush Hill Park in 1923, Houndsfield Road in 1937, and Weir Hall, in 1938. In 1931 a new lending library was added to the rear of the Passmore Edwards building, which then became known as the Central Library, and a further branch, at Ridge Avenue was opened in 1963.

In 1991 the Central (Passmore Edwards) Library closed its doors for the last time, on the opening of the Edmonton Green Library. For some time the old library was used by the Sikh community but in more recent years it has been the home of the Mevlana Rumi Mosque, where visitors continue to enter the spiritual kingdom. The plaques of Lamb and Keats were removed to the Community House at 313 Fore Street.