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Whitechapel Library closes

Whitechapel Library closure

The closure of Whitechapel Library on 30 July sees the end of an institution born in the great years of Victorian philanthropy. Times change, and the new Idea Store a few hundred yards to the east along Whitechapel Road will be able to offer the space and access to new technology not possible within the confines of 77 Whitechapel Road.

But though the old library building is to be pressed into a fruitful new role by the neighbouring Whitechapel Art Gallery, many will nostalgically mourn the passing of this ‘university of the ghetto’. For many writers, poets, artists and others, the Whitechapel Library was their route to free education.

It had come about through a typically Victorian meeting of zealous social reform and private money. The social reformer was Canon Samuel Augustus Barnett; the man with the money John Passmore Edwards.

Passmore Edwards had risen from humble beginnings in a small Cornish village to become a City journalist, the MP for Salisbury, and finally a hugely successful publisher of newspapers. He then set about the enthusiastic disbursement of his fortune. In just 14 years more than 70 major buildings were established as a direct result of bequests from John Passmore Edwards as well as many other gifts and donations to further their good work. London is littered with Passmore Edwards libraries, and there are hospitals, schools, convalescent homes and art galleries bearing his name … and giving good service a century later.

Samuel Barnett believed strongly that the immigrants squeezed into Whitechapel at the turn of the twentieth century should have the same access to culture as their fellow Londoners in richer parts of the city. He had already been instrumental in the setting up of the first university settlement, Toynbee Hall, in 1884, mobilising young Oxford men as ‘missionaries’ to the East End.

Now he targeted the deep pockets of Passmore Edwards, outlining his plans for a library and art gallery to bring culture and beauty to the people of Whitechapel. And what a contrast the new building was to the squalid tenements around it. Pevsner’s Architectural Guides describe the building, which was finished in 1892, in loving detail. ‘drift away from sermonising Gothic towards a warmer aesthetic combining Northern Renaissance details with Baroque asymmetry. Red-brick with mullioned and leaded windows dressed in terracotta tiles by Burmantoft’s, popular for their perceived resistance to the polluted atmosphere of the East End. Showy sculpted frieze of interweaving foliage at first floor and sculpted spandrels of putti over the entrance.’

It was important to the founders to construct a building of beauty and permanence, but it was what was inside that changed the lives of generations of young readers. Famous users were to include the First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg, painter Mark Gertler, novelist Esther Kreitman, anarchist Rudolf Rocker and playwrights Bernard Kops and Arnold Wesker. Bernard Kops was to refer to the library in his play The Hamlet of Stepney Green. And as well as the books there were exhibitions by Jewish artists from the East End such as Bomberg, Gertler and Kramer.

The relationship between culture and finance isn’t always an easy one. Passmore Edwards had also paid for the Whitechapel Art Gallery next door. A blank space had been left above the entrance for a mural, The Sphere of Message and Art by Walter Crane, but when Barnett refused to call the gallery the ‘Passmore Edwards Gallery’ the great philanthropist refused to pay for the work.

Over the 113 years of its existence, the Jewish population has largely dispersed once more, but many thousands of them have taken a little piece of the library, in ideas, dreams, the beginnings of an education with them. Arguably, there are dozens of books, plays and poems that wouldn’t have been written, and paintings that would never have seen a canvas if it hadn’t been for the seeds sown by the Whitechapel Library. And the original mission continued, with titles in Urdu and Bengali replacing those in Yiddish … firing the imaginations of new generations of East Enders.

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