Last summer, I moved into a flat on the edge of London’s Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. I chose it only because it was where my significant human made his home. It was my first time moving in with someone. As I clattered up from the Tube, I found myself in a swell of schoolchildren on Jack the Ripper tours, Bangladeshi immigrant families, and men with tortoiseshell glasses and Scandinavian backpacks. The local cafe offers beetroot lattes and vegan croissants. The local supermarket has an aisle devoted to halal food. This was a beautiful place to live, but I was a mess. My first novel was about to come out, and I jittered and jangled around the flat, failing to read or write.
Finally, I did what I’ve always done when nervous. I looked for a library. My father told me once that he always has to know the location of the door of any room he’s in. I need to know the nearest bookshop and library. The theory is the same: we need an escape.
I googled to check the opening hours and found something stranger. The library building once housed an insane asylum—so notorious that the park was known as “Barmy Park.” On the outside, it looked like a library in a particularly fine picture book, one with watercolor illustrations and a moral ending. The only thing out of place was the violently modern library sign slapped onto the face of the building, letters in blunt red sans serif. When I sat in the main reading room, trying to work, I could not focus. I kept trying to imagine the people who had been locked within these walls. I could not detect a trace of madhouse. It was so quiet. The books were so well ordered. How on earth had this gone from a famous asylum to a home for books? Libraries have always made me feel saner. Perhaps someone hoped this would serve the same purpose?
I shut my laptop and approached a librarian. The thin young man smiled, eager to answer my questions. But when I asked about the building, he frowned. He didn’t know. He suggested I try the Royal London Hospital Archive. I wrote to them. The reply said I could come in and look at Burdett’s Hospitals and Charities: The Year Book of Philanthropy and Hospital Annual. The archive was buried in a basement. The archivist pointed me to a shelf of hefty, red, clothbound books, each as thick as my arm. Burdett’s was worth examining for the advertisements alone: there were sales pitches for corsets and hot chocolate and orphan working schools.
I flicked forward, searching for the Bethnal Green Asylum. In 1894, it was licensed to a R. Burra and J. K. Will, to house up to three hundred patients. As time went on, the number of patients dwindled, until 1920, when the asylum closed. No more detail than that.
As I skimmed indexes, another entry jumped from the pages: an advertisement for the Bethnal Green Free Library. Although libraries have always made me feel better, I was surprised to see it listed in a medical annual. More reading revealed that this was not my library. It was located elsewhere and run as a charity.
As I kept looking, I realized that the how and why of the transformation from asylum to library were not to be found in the Royal London Hospital Archive. I trotted over to the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, where it seemed there might be some municipal records. This is in the Bancroft Road Library, an ornate and lovely building. I handed over my request to the archivist, who came back with an armful of brown folders tied with soft white ribbon.
In 1850, I learned, a Victorian belief in the power of public institutions to cure the public of their vices had prompted the creation of the Public Libraries Act. It was believed that libraries might “induce” working-class men to drink less by drawing off “a number of those who now frequent public-houses for the sole enjoyment they afford.” The act allowed local councils to levy a library creation tax, and by 1912, almost every other hamlet had a government-run and -funded library. A document titled “The Metropolitan Borough Councils that Control Public Libraries” notes that Southwark had five, Wandsworth eight, Clerkenwell six. But Bethnal Green had zero.
The embarrassment of being one of the few boroughs without libraries led the Bethnal Green Borough Council to seek funding, but tax alone was not enough fund a library’s creation and the locals did not have much extra income to donate: Bethnal Green was a poor area of London, a slum whose population consisted of migrant workers from the countryside and Jewish immigrants fleeing from Russia. At one point, a local school had a class of 90 percent Yiddish speakers. The area suffered from overcrowding and extreme poverty.
The clerks of Bethnal Green begged all the guilds of London, they begged private citizens, and they begged societies. But many doubted the need for a public library at all. A Mr. Hollingdale, an estate agent, suspected that the “scheme will fall through,” but should the purchase of a library be settled, he promised a “small contribution.” Mr. Hollingdale was right to be skeptical. For the construction alone, the council needed four thousand pounds. Most of the donations they did receive were small—Darling & Son Painters, Stationers, & Lithographers donated a single guinea, just over eighty pounds at today’s value. The drive only succeeded in raising only 658 pounds. It seemed there would be no library at all.
Around this time, the steel industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was setting up libraries across the world. He came to the rescue. He promised fifteen thousand pounds to found the library, on the condition that once started it should fund itself. This would pay for building, site, shelves, and new books. In 1914, the borough council announced they’d bought a site on Cambridge Heath Road.
Sadly, 1914 had other plans for England. World War I broke out. When the war ended, Britain once again turned its mind to local matters, but once again obstacles rose up. In 1921, a report in the Evening News stated that “the whole of the £15,000 pounds has been wasted.” Worse still, there was now “a rubbish dump” on the site of the library. The borough council responded with outrage. The Tower Hamlets archive contains three drafts of a furious letter to the editor of the Evening News. The drafts are typewritten, but on each progressive draft a fountain pen marks how the objections could be made more dramatically and certainly. “Not one penny” of the funds had been wasted, the council’s representative said. It was not a rubbish dump. The council threatened to take legal action against the paper for slander.
Even if the site was not a “dump,” there was no library. Building costs had risen after the war. Again it seemed there would be no library. Again Carnegie stepped in, upping his gift to twenty thousand pounds. It was just enough to buy and repurpose the now-defunct asylum.
I laughed in the silent air of the Tower Hamlets archive room when I read this. I was alone, but for the two archivists who sat at their computers. Embarrassed, I looked down. Of course, there was no great synergy between lunatic asylum and library. It was, as it so often is, a matter of finances.
In 1922, the library opened. There was “an Adult Lending Library,” “a Juvenile Reading Room,” and even a cinematograph, and a slide lantern for lecturing. Lectures were given on topics from Gallipoli to bird watching. To encourage further patrons, they produced a pamphlet called The Reader’s Guide to the Public Library complete with photographs of the floor plan.
For a few years, the Bethnal Green Library seemed to be safe, but in 1938 an ominous note entered the library report. George Vale, borough librarian, wrote, “The estimated daily average attendance in the Newsroom was 554 and this department undoubtedly fills an urgent need in these troublesome times.” By 1939, Vale explicitly included solace in the library’s remit: “If amidst the threats and rumours of war and universal destruction we can bring, in some small measure, a sense of beauty and a general desire for truth into the homes of the people of Bethnal Green, the work of our public libraries will not be in vain.” The 1940 report reflected country’s move to war. Gone were the thick white sheets, replaced by translucent brown onionskin. Our librarian reported on his fractured clientele, “Some were exhilarated, but not a few suffered from depression, ‘nerves,’ bewilderment, restlessness, or ill health.”
Then on September 7, 1940, the library was bombed. Vale described it like this:
The enemy raiders had fired on the Docks, and as darkness approached the night became an inferno. It was on that day at 5.55pm that our Central Public Library received a direct hit … The bomb went clean through the Adult Lending Library.
That year, Vale’s annual reports to the borough council stopped altogether. As London was battered and blitzed, librarians were trying to keep books safe. Bethnal Green asked for one hundred pounds to construct shelves inside the local bomb shelter. Though the London Civil Defense Region did not think this was the most pressing issue in time of war, they agreed that fifty pounds could be put toward the provisions of bookcases or cupboards, and the librarians carried four thousand books down into the tube.
This was how, during the Blitz, the Bethnal Green library became the first, and possibly only, bomb-shelter library in all of Britain. As bombs and fires cratered the city, Londoners hunkered underground, and librarians handed out poetry, plays, novels, nonfiction, and children’s books. Presumably, the readers discovered the library’s new location as they clattered down the steps away from air sirens, caught their breath, and looked around. It was open from 5:30 P.M. to 8:00 P.M. every weekday.
What courage all this must have taken. When he resumed his borough report, Vale wrote that “there were no Press photographs showing library assistants working on the edge of a crater and certainly no films or gay posters advertising the attraction of the library service.” And yet throughout the war, this little library offered a respite from fear, an education, and beauty.
Can you imagine celebrating our libraries as we do our battalions? What if world leaders put their egos in the number of libraries their countries boasted? Perhaps we should start by being grateful for those libraries we do have. There was almost no bomb-shelter library. If the war government had decided that books were too frivolous, if Carnegie had not found the money, if the residents of Tower Hamlets had refused to pay their taxes, if a few Victorians hadn’t wanted to shunt the poor from the pubs, then the residents of Bethnal Green would’ve had no books to unfold as they crouched underground.
The creation of the Bethnal Green Library did not end alcoholism, like the Victorians hoped. It did not prevent World War II. No poem could stop the bomb that burst through the library roof. And yet we still need “freedom of access to the best literature and art,” as George Vale wrote, when “ ‘isms and ‘ologies are loosed upon the world.” I shall let the final sentences of his 1940 report be mine, too: “In the dark times these things sustain and console and render men and women stronger to meet any ordeals that might be put upon them. In this sense the committees and staffs of public libraries are making a by no means negligible contribution towards the triumph of justice.”
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is the author of Harmless Like You.