When the Lower Sydenham Public Library (its official name) was opened on 24 September 1904 it was not only the first of five Carnegie libraries to be built in Lewisham, it was quite possibly the first Carnegie Library to be built in England. By 1904 Carnegie Libraries had been built in the USA and Scotland but of more than 100 libraries to be built in England almost all were opened between 1905 and 1909.
The disgraced Mayor of Lewisham, Theophilus Williams (bankrupt, fraudster and suicide, but that’s another story) announced proudly at a council meeting on 18th June 1902 that after two months of negotiations he had persuaded philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to donate £9,000 to build two new libraries, one at Crofton Park and one in Lower Sydenham.
Scottish born Carnegie (1835-1919) migrated to the USA in 1848, founded a steel works and eventually became one of the richest people in the world. He believed that those who acquire great wealth had a duty to return it to the community. He also believed that working people and others who wanted improve their situation should be supported and encouraged. An avid reader, Carnegie knew that books were an essential part of providing the opportunities for people to improve their situation so he chose to redistribute much of his wealth by founding libraries in those parts of towns and cities where people would most benefit.
Carnegie also believed that the community itself should contribute something towards their library. He paid for the building but the Council, using local taxes, had to find a suitable site, buy books and employ experienced staff (important, as they offered the knowledge and advice to support their readers’ needs).
Local builder Dorrells offered a site in Adamsrill Road. The Council readily accepted, but local people were unhappy; the site was not central and was too distant from the small terraces of houses at Bell Green whose occupants were expected to be its main users. A petition with 1,200 signatures was handed to the Council opposing the Adamsrill Road site. The Council responded. The Trustees of Sir George Grove, who died in 1900, were prepared to sell part of his estate and in March 1903 the Council bought the land between Grove’s house and Home Park.
They then invited six local architects to submit plans for the new library. Albert L Guy, who lived in Lewisham Park, was chosen. Of the 31 builders who submitted quotes Perry Brothers’ was the lowest, and they were appointed.
At the opening ceremony the mayor was slightly apologetic at the amount of fiction (nearly 3,000 books compared with just over 1000 on art and science and only 398 on theology). He added that a few had objected to the library because it would “help to disseminate betting news and harmful fiction” but that risk was “far outweighed by the educational and moral advantages”.
During the 1960s, following concerns about the safety of the entrance from Sydenham Road, the Council decided to build a new entrance on the Home Park side of the library. The work included opening up the ground floor and replacing the original smoked oak furnishings with new furniture and bookshelves. The Mayor opened the refurbished library, with its new side entrance, on 20th July 1963.
Of the five libraries in Lewisham that Andrew Carnegie provided one has been demolished, two are used for other purposes and two are under imminent threat of closure. In other parts of the world (particularly the USA) and other parts of this country Carnegie Libraries are cherished and protected. It is such a pity that in Lewisham, it seems, they are not.
Should Sydenham Library close the probability is that the building will be boarded up and forgotten. It will certainly not become a library again. Instead we will have a small, probably temporary, facility in an inappropriate location with few books and no staff. Sydenham will, in effect, no longer have a library.