Secrets Of The London Library

By Londonist Last edited 21 months ago
Secrets Of The London Library

The London Library was born in a fit of rage in 1841, 175 years ago.

Its founder — curmudgeonly Thomas Carlyle (he of The History of the French Revolution) — hated having to study books in the company of other people. In London at the time, that was all that was available unless you bought books yourself — an expensive option.

The London Library's Reading Room. Photo by Philip Vile.

London had no lending library of its own (unlike Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Norwich), and the Public Libraries Act was not even a gleam in the eye of bibliophiles of the time.

Carlyle was forced to work in the old reading room of the British Library, his studies distracted by sharing the space with the "snorers, snufflers, wheezers and spitters" around him.

He didn't get on with the librarian there either, and could never find the books he wanted. His solution? To set up a lending library on his own.

In 1840 Carlyle started generating public support, giving a rousing speech at the Freemasons' Tavern in Covent Garden (now the site of the Freemason's Hall) where he suggested that "the building of a library is one of the greatest things we can do."

From a little acorn a mighty oak grew and by May 1841 the library had raised enough money to open its doors to the public.

In fact, three mighty oaks have grown from The Freemasons' Tavern. The Geological Society was established there at a meeting held in 1807. The London Library came next and in 1863, The Football Association was established at a fiery meeting in which the rules of football were laid down. Blackheath FC were overruled in their wish to allow "hacking" (kicking an opponent in the leg) — a practise, we are pleased to say, that the library has never allowed.

Charles Darwin's membership record.

The London Library went from strength to strength. Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau and John Stuart Mill were founder members; Charles Darwin and WM Thackeray joined soon after. Prince Albert donated £50 and became Patron.

Great works have been written here too. Carlyle shipped a cartload of books on the French revolution taken from the library’s shelves to help Dickens write A Tale of Two Cities. Bram Stoker joined shortly before writing Dracula. Famous authors and public figures have been piling in here ever since.

George Eliot, TS Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle, EM Forster, Edward Elgar, Harold Pinter, AS Byatt, Rudyard Kipling, Laurence Olivier, William Gladstone, Arthur Balfour, Winston Churchill: you name it, they've been through the doors.

The roll call of famous members continues to this day — from Simon Schama to Antonia Fraser, Claire Tomalin to Jeremy Irons.

The visitors book shows a recent marriage proposal in the stacks.

As well as a place of hallowed learning, the library has also a proud history as a place of assignation. Its slow lifts were once a favoured option for romantic interludes in between studies. Iris Murdoch records one of her first dates with future husband John Bayley — having scoured the library for half an hour in search of a secluded spot they found a quiet corner in the bookstacks "we clung to each other in the semi-darkness… J wept."

Not so long ago a couple from Belfast became engaged in the library following a proposal on bended knee in the bookstacks.

For many writers, the library has been part of the fabric of their lives. Virginia Woolf was 10 when her father Lesley Stephen became president of the library in 1892, defeating library stalwart and then prime minister, William Gladstone. Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell produced their own hand-drawn childhood newspaper at the time (The Hyde Park Gate News) — the November 1892 edition records the children's delight at the victory.

This copy of the dictionary is particularly well-thumbed on one page...

Woolf was less delighted when her husband went browsing the slang dictionary in search of the F-word, and reported that the page was littered with the thumbprints of members who had been there before him. The dictionary — and the thumbprints — are still there on the shelves so members can inform themselves of the F-word lexicon if they need to.

The building

But this place doesn't just have a fascinating history — it is also a fascinating building: a labyrinth of seven buildings knocked into one.

You would have no idea that the narrow façade on St James’s Square leads into a maze of over 17 miles of bookshelves.

The façade of the library. Photo by James Tye.

The façade has its own illusion: the architects tried to make it look older and wider than it really is, tucking it behind a building that actually predates it.

The library never throws any books away, and runs out of space every few decades, but so far has been able to expand into adjacent buildings — sometimes hacking its way through by force.

The library was hit by a German bomb in 1944.

The worst loss was in February 1944 when a bomb struck, damaging five floors of bookstacks and destroying 16,000 books on religion and biography. A panicked assistant ran down from the fifth floor exclaiming: "We’ve lost our Religion", and indeed, a number of books had been hit — ironically numerous volumes of German ecclesiastical history among them.

Clearing up the bomb damage in the Art Room.

You can still find books with shrapnel embedded in them, and the sharp-eyed will also notice that the statue of Thomas Carlyle has a crack across his neck. It toppled off its plinth when the blast hit and his severed head was found by American servicemen clearing up the debris a few days later.

A book which was damaged by the bomb.

Behind the scenes, the library's association with wartime also extended to the heroic deeds of one of its presidents, HAL Fisher. Killed in a road accident in 1940, he played an unexpected role in the 1943 secret mission to fool the Germans about allied invasion plans for Sicily.

"Operation Mincemeat" involved dropping the corpse of a Welsh tramp at sea dressed as a naval officer and carrying fake operation plans in his pockets. Fisher's role? His high quality, officer lookalike underwear was donated by his widow to the British Intelligence Services to help dress the corpse and aid the subterfuge — which worked. The library's pants in Hitler’s downfall!

The famous backstacks. Photo by Christopher Simon Sykes.

Architecturally, the library is a bit of a gem. It's full of strange portals and mysterious spaces — none more so than in the famous bookstacks. 35ft high book stacks support four storeys of American-built iron grille floors. It's an industrial temple of learning.

Examples of the classification system created by Charles Hagberg Wright. Photo by Christopher Simon Sykes.

Accompanying it is a Victorian version of Google — books are arranged by a proprietary subject classification system designed by the organising supremo Charles Hagberg Wright, librarian from 1893 to 1940. His system creates some wonderful juxtapositions — insanity is next to inns of court, fools are next to football. There are great sections on domestic servants, flagellation, exhumation, camel care, huns and hittites. It’s a paradise for browsing and chance finds.

There's a wide variety of signs in the library. Photo by James Tye.

Mysterious signs are everywhere: 1930s admonitions to switch off lights and keep the electricity bills down; fingers pointing the way to history; bomb raid warnings.

Desks are tucked away in secret corners. The books in the lending collection date from 1700 to the present day — there are over one million of them, housed on the shelves together — and all can be borrowed.

One of Bram Stoker's books is in the collection.

Extraordinary topics and titles fuel the imagination and can often aid research in the most unexpected ways. And occasionally you come across a slab of history nestling inside the covers — books donated by Queen Mary in 1953, books from Bram Stoker's collection, donations from EM Forster, bookplates from Duff Cooper. And in the Special Collections vaults (which can be accessed under supervision), there's a further collection of books dating back to 1500. It includes some spectacular gems – a King James Bible 1611, a first edition Origin of Species, a Shakespeare fourth folio, a Kelmscott Chaucer, and Henry VIII’s Assertio of 1521.

The King James Bible 1611 and a copy of Origin of Species.

An even greater surprise lurks in the stacks built in the 1920s. Shuffling feet on the opaque glass flooring combine with steel bookstacks and bronze handrails to create a perfect environment for static electricity, producing savage electric shocks for the unwary. For nearly 100 years the members' comments book has recorded the cries of anguish of those affected.

The lavatories featuring tiles by Martin Creed.

In many other parts of the building the library demonstrates a subtle mix of the contemporary and the traditional. In the Art Room and Lightwell room for instance, RIBA award-winning renovation by architects Haworth Tompkins updates the language of spaces that are nearly a century old.

The revered hat stand is state of the art and much used by members for whom sharp headgear is an essential component of decent research.

Its toilets are literally works of art. Several of them have been fitted out with tile flooring designed by Turner Prize winner Martin Creed. The Victorian equivalents are no less evocative. And the ladies loo is clearly taken from the set of Some Like It Hot. No wonder Gladstone can be seen outside glowering at what's going on.

At heart The London Library is a broad church. Since 1841 it has been lending wonderful books to anyone who cares to join. Carlyle's fit of rage has transformed into something rather magical.

Normally only open to members, the Library runs occasional guided tours for the public.

Last Updated 20 October 2016