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Passmore Edwards’ East End Libraries

April 4, 2016
by the gentle author

At this time of library cuts and the occupation of the Carnegie Library in Lambeth, Dean Evans author of Funding The Ladder – The Passmore Edwards Legacy takes a look at the forgotten benefactor who shaped the culture of the East End through his enlightened philanthropy.

“It is a distinguished privilege, lightening the lot of our fellow East End citizens.” wrote John Passmore Edwards in 1892, in response to a request from Canon Barnett for a contribution towards a free library he was building in Whitechapel.

Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta moved to St Jude’s Parish, Whitechapel, in the eighteen seventies when it was an over-crowded area of appalling poverty and poor housing, mostly endured by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Barnetts set about to improve the conditions of their parishioners with missionary zeal, believing that “the social problem is at root an educational one” and that Free Libraries were the best means of education. Barnet had recently showed Edwards the half-finished library for which there was a shortfall in funding and was surprised to receive such a quick and welcoming response – since included with Edwards’ agreement to help was a cheque for £6,454 to cover the total construction cost and an offer of one thousand books to populate the shelves.

When the Whitechapel Library was formally opened in October 1892, there were already more than two and a half thousand people making use of the reading room on a daily basis and one thousand on Sundays. It had taken Barnett fourteen years to see his dream materialise of the first rate-supported library in the East End. For Passmore Edwards it was the beginning of a relationship with the East End that was to last until the end of his days and result in more than a dozen public buildings, libraries, hospitals, technical institutes, art galleries, boys clubs and a home for foreign sailors, all freely given to help those less fortunate.

John Passmore Edwards had been born in Blackwater, a small mining village near Truro, Cornwall, in 1823. Educated at the local dame school at a cost of tuppence a week, he had developed an ambition to be useful, an ambition that was to stay with him for all of his eighty-eight years. Asquith said that Edwards had done “more than any single Englishman to help the people to equip and educate themselves for civic and social duty.” Edwards simply said that if he could fund the ladder, the poor would climb.

As a young boy, he helped his father both in the family brewery attached to the cottage in which they lived and also in the market garden that was cultivated around the cottage, tending and picking fruit to be sold in the local markets. Saving up the few pennies he earned, he walked the seven miles into Truro to buy a single second-hand book, reading anything and everything he could lay his hands upon. After sending for leaflets on the work of the Anti-Corn Law League, he was persuaded to help deliver these throughout West Cornwall – to the chagrin of the Mayor of Penzance, a magistrate, who threatened him with prison for sedition. But Passmore Edwards’ zeal was not to be deflected, not then, nor at any time over the next seventy years.

After working briefly as a solicitor’s clerk in Truro, he travelled, first to Manchester as representative of the radical newspaper, The Sentinel, and then to London, arriving in Holborn in 1845. There he learnt a trade as a publisher’s clerk, but earned his living through freelance writing and lecturing, and found time to continue his education at the Mechanics Institute, while becoming actively involved in many of the social and political reform groups of the time. He was a member of the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, The Political and Financial Reform Association, The Society for the Abolition of Tax on Knowledge, The Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade, The Peace Society, and many more.

In 1850, then twenty-seven years old and with fifty pounds in savings, he launched a small publication of his own, The Public Good, obtaining paper and printing on credit and living and working in a single room in Paternoster Row, where he became editor, publisher, advertising clerk, as well as packing and sending off orders. But with a low cover price in order to be affordable to the working classes, neither this nor subsequent publications were profitable and, after a serious illness, he was declared bankrupt. Yet, though legally cleared of his remaining debts, he determined to pay back what he owed and did so a decade later. By hard work and frugal living, he clawed his way to success – obtaining first The Building News, then The English Mechanic magazine and in 1876, the London Echo.

Now a wealthy and influential man, Edwards turned his thoughts to Parliament and served for a short but disappointing spell as Liberal Member for Salisbury, before finding he could more better satisfy his ambitions outside Westminster. From 1890 to his death in 1911, he funded the construction of seventy-one public buildings. Twenty-one were in his home county of Cornwall, but the majority were to serve the inhabitants of London. His philanthropy was unique in that while his work was spread over diverse areas of social improvement – libraries, education, the arts, hospitals, convalescent homes, orphans and the disabled – he maintained a long-term relationship with all the organisations and institutions that he helped.

His gift of the Whitechapel Library in 1892 was followed in 1893 by the Haggerston Branch Library, a Cottage Hospital in Willesdon, a Lecture Hall for the new South London Art Gallery, and a hundred acre farm at Chalfont St Peters as the base for what was to become the National Society for Epilepsy. 1894 saw the opening of a Convalescent Home at Pegwell Bay, the following year a new wing at the West Ham Hospital, a Cottage Hospital at Wood Green, and the creation of a Printers’ Library at St Bride’s – while in 1896, the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, no less than ten opening ceremonies took place.

After laying the foundation stone at the Pitsfield St Library, Shoreditch, he went on to open an extension to the Haggerston Library and after opening the Shepherds Bush Library he walked to Hamersmith Broadway to unveil a drinking fountain, dedicated to the memory of his brother Richard who had been a vestryman there. Remaining a successful newspaper owner and publisher, he was as economical with his time as he was with his money, combining the laying of the foundation stones of the Limehouse Library and the Roman Road Library in a single day, and later similarly opening them on the same day. In 1895, he travelled down to Cornwall to lay foundation stones or open five of his buildings in a single week, only to return to London on the Friday, to open another library.

His wife, Eleanor, was also closely involved with his philanthropic work, helping to raise funds as a member of the Ladies’ Guild of the Charing Cross Hospital and arranging the furnishings for the Falmouth Cottage Hospital and the Perranporth Convalescent Home among others. She organised outings to Epping Forrest for children from the East End. Two hundred at a time would be taken there by train and treated to a tea and organised games, all funded by The Echo.

It was the gift of the Perranporth Convalescent Home that persuaded the Truro City Council to grant Edwards the Honorary Freedom of the Borough, which was followed by the Freedom of the Boroughs of Falmouth and Liskeard. In London he was equally honoured, by the Boroughs of both East and West Ham, yet he refused a Knighthood offered by both Queen Victoria and later, King Edwards VII, preferring, he said, to remain as he was.

Over the years the perceived need for convalescent homes has diminished, hospitals have become larger, orphanages have closed, and many of the Passmore Edwards buildings are no longer used for the original purpose. It was a German bomb that destroyed the St George-in-the-East Library, but the Limehouse Library has been left empty and decaying ever since it shut in 2004. Many others of his buildings have been fortunate to acquire other uses. The Whitechapel Library is now a splendidly restored annexe to the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The Borough Rd Library, the West Ham Museum, and the Camberwell School of Arts are all now used by London universities. The Haggerston Library, Canning Town Boys Club and Sailors Palace at Limehouse, built for the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society, are converted into housing. Of the London hospitals, only the Willesdon and East Ham buildings remain in use and of the London Libraries, only those at Plaistow, Nunhead, Dulwich and Acton remain open. With the current threat to library provision, the future of even these must be uncertain.

In 1850, Edwards campaigned with William Ewart for the Free Libraries Act but the progress with provision of libraries, even in London, was slow mainly due to resistance of the ratepayers – at the time only the more wealthy and better educated – to paying a penny rate to support them. Yet by then Edwards’ belief in the need for libraries was widely evident from his name over so many doors and upon foundation stones across London, and his offer of one thousand books to any new library opening in London.

Bernard Kops, East End poet and playwright, famously wrote of the Whitechapel Library that “the door of the library, was the door into me.” The name over that door was Passmore Edwards.

Plashet Library

Haggerston Library

Bow Library

Limehouse Library

Stratford Museum

Sailors’ Palace, East India Dock Rd

Plaistow Library

Hoxton Library

John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911)

FUNDING THE LADDER – The Passmore Edwards Legacy by Dean Evans can be ordered direct from the publisher Francis Boutle and copies are on sale in bookshops including Brick Lane Bookshop, Broadway Books, Newham Bookshop, Stoke Newington Bookshop and London Review Bookshop.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. sarah permalink
    April 4, 2016

    There was a Passmore Edwards library at the London School of Economics, with its own librarian, when I was a student there many years ago. I wonder if it is still there?

  2. April 4, 2016

    I hope his work and memory will not be forgotten; his life-work enriched the lives of so many people in London. I am sorry that the library in Limehouse is boarded up, I worked there as a student during my holidays. How sad that money is not being invested in libraries and literacy any more. Valerie

  3. April 4, 2016

    What a very wonderful man and what an inspiring story.

    Thank you, I’ve often idly wondered who / what was Passmore Edwards

    ps – went to Southend-on-Sea yesterday to see the East London painters exhibition. Closed on Sunday! Should have checked – but we had a lovely sunny day out anyway xx

  4. Gabrielle Dempsey permalink
    April 4, 2016

    What a history!…of this remarkable man, wise citizen of the world.
    I was touched and glad to see his image, after seeing some of the buildings, and reading about him.
    Absolutely amazing and inspiring.

  5. Annie G permalink
    April 4, 2016

    I have often wondered who this person was and mused on the name. Now I know. And what I great ambition: to be useful. Thanks for this, GA.

  6. April 4, 2016

    What excellent philanthropy.

    The closure of local authority libraries has been and continues to be tragic. It is almost impossible to credit what austerity politics has done to informal education in this country. Libraries offered knowledge, pleasure and freedom. The unstructured joy and benefits of self directed reading cannot be underestimated.

    When I look around to see libraries closing and see other cuts such as the savage cuts to Adult Education, it makes me very sad. Meanwhile mainstream education has become an exam-forcing factory with stressed out teachers wanting to leave the profession. I work in further education and some of my young learners have never read a book outside those they have had to read or study at school.

    There is something amiss.

  7. April 4, 2016

    My father was one of those children of Jewish immigrants who benefited from this philanthropism. As the oldest of 5 children living in Wilkes Road and later Brick Lane, he was encouraged to study at the Whitechapel Library. There was no room at home! His mother Annie was illiterate, but knew the importance of education. Jack managed to pass his medical entrance exams to the London Hospital over the road. He went on to qualify as one of this countries’ first NHS GPs. Dr Jack Fishman was a lifelong supporter of the library system that helped him. He belonged to as many libraries as he could. The back seat of our car was always littered with piles of library books being ferried back and forth to all members of the family as we were growing up. And they had to be returned on time!

  8. Angela P permalink
    April 4, 2016

    Not so much a comment, more a question – but I must say I found this blog article very interesting. It shed some light on a very early part of my working life!
    My first job after leaving school was at the Canning Town Public Library, which introduced me to a way of life, and people, with whom I had until then almost no contact. It was a revelation that taught me very rapidly some of the realities of life.
    My question is simply this – was the Canning Town Library one of the Passmore Edwards libraries? I should love to know.
    Thanks for the always interesting and enlightening Spitalifields Life.

  9. Rachel permalink
    April 4, 2016

    What an understated, yet excellent, ambition: to be useful.

    Angela P: the Canning Town public library building was down to the Corporation, but Edwards bought the first 1000 books for its collection. He also opened the library, in 1893. More info here:

  10. April 4, 2016

    Thanks for a wonderful article. Having moved back to London from Cornwall after 15 years I know the name of Passmore Edwards as many of his libraries and buildings populated my neighbourhood. When I started to see his name above buildings in London too I wondered just who he was. What a top guy!

  11. Linda Granfield permalink
    April 4, 2016

    I was happy to see the photograph of this wonderful man at the end of the story. (Would love to see his wife, too. She must have been equally generous given what you say, and she must have been a patient woman, too. Her husband had so many jobs on the go!)

    thank you

  12. Delia Folkard permalink
    April 4, 2016

    Thank you GA for enlightening us about this amazing man – I had never heard of him! Particularly interesting is that The Centre for Epilepsy is fairly local to me.

  13. armier permalink
    April 4, 2016

    I can just hear any number of shortsighted politicians (and/or misguided enthusiasts of raw capitalism) saying, ‘But libraries are on the way out!’.

    If only the UK would learn from someone, anyone, other than the sad ol’ USA – because a great many other countries, thankfully, take a different more intelligent view.

    For example, our nearest neighbours in the Netherlands…


  14. Peter Holford permalink
    April 5, 2016

    Extraordinary man. A bit more of his values would be most welcome among those who could improve society with a fraction of their wealth.

  15. Vanda Human permalink
    April 26, 2016

    So sad to see so many libraries closing their doors. In my youth I used to love visiting the library, would spend afternoons there, selecting books that I wanted to read. Unfortunately my selection was always more than one was allowed. It was such a peaceful and to me an entertaining place to visit. To this day, I always spend whatever spare time I have with my nose in a book or kindle. But then I guess I am what numerous people call a bookworm. I hope these old buildings are not going to be demolished, I am sure they can be put to use to help entertain the youth or the elderly.

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