Sydenham Library

Sydenham Library – a brief history


  • Sydenham Library was built with funding from the Carnegie foundation, which gave £9,000 for Brockley and Sydenham libraries.
  • Designed by Albert L. Guy, ARIBA, who also designed Brockley Library
  • Built of red brick, with a fine stone portico, Portland Stone facings and pillars, and slated gable roofs
  • Library building site cost £504, library cost £4,027 to build, fittings £429, furniture £166, electric lighting £46.
  • 7,442 books were purchased for the shelves and a further 30 donated. 2,889 fiction titles and 745 junior.
  • Opened Saturday 24th September 1904 by Mayor Mr G.S. Warmington
  • Originally known as Lower Sydenham Library
Sydenham Library in 1950

The planned location was Adamsrill Road, which the Council was offered free but which was in the Forest Hill postal district. Local people raised a petition of 1,200 names demanding a library located on the main road and the current site was chosen and bought from the trustees of Sir George Grove (Lady Grove and her son), adjoining the Home Park recreation Ground and adjacent to Grove’s former home. Original estimates for building the library came in at £178 over the available budget of £4,500, with the borough covering the difference. Details of the site and the required building were sent to the six leading local architects, with the stipulation that the total cost should not exceed £4,500. (The final cost was £4,977-2s-0d.)

The competition was also controversial, the former mayor T.W. Williams wanting it to be judged by an architect, but the majority preferring to rely on the taste of their own sub-committee. The winning design was by Albert L. Guy of Lewisham High Street. The builders were Perry Brothers of the City Road, whose tender of £4,027 was the lowest of the thirty-one received.

The lending library had a stock of 7472 books, and the reading room subscribed to 18 daily papers, 67 weeklies, and 56 magazines. The first librarian was Alfred Hutton, formerly senior assistant at Leyton Public Library. He was aged 24, and married. The library was described as light and airy.

  • 1905 60,185 books issued
  • 1930 the Library contained over 15,000 volumes
  • 1953 187,806 books issued
  • 1955 200,893 books issued

Sydenham Library also had special provision for the needs of employees at the Lower Sydenham Gas Works, adjacent to the library.

The library was originally operated on the indicator system, like all the others in the borough. It was converted to open access in 1914, a change that required some structural alterations. The library escaped unscathed in the First World War, although there was bombing in Lower Sydenham, but was not so lucky in the Second, when it was damaged in 1940 and twice in 1944.

As early as the 1930s an extension to the library was being planned, and a piece of land to the west was considered for purchase. The price was too high and the land was bought instead by the Catholic Church. When Our Lady and St Philip Neri was bombed in 1940 this land was used as a site for a temporary church, but it was scheduled for library use in the County of London Development Plan. In 1953 a compromise agreement was made between the council and the church authorities that fifteen feet of frontage would be sold to the council when the new permanent Our Lady and St Philip Neri was completed and the temporary church could be demolished.

In 1957 plans were prepared for a major extension and re-arrangement of the library at a cost of £8,000. The main feature of the design was the removal of the porch and entrance (“which leads out on to a recognised road danger spot”) and the creation of a new entrance, also on the main road, in an extension to the west. This plan was rejected because the land needed for the extension was not immediately available and its cost had not been included in the estimate.

The same plan was brought forward again in 1960, but the Catholic authorities had not acted on their agreement and the temporary church was still standing. The council had the right to acquire the land by compulsory purchase, but decided not to proceed “as there was bound to be strong opposition from the Church Authorities, which might well put the Council in bad favour with a large section of the public.” Instead, they adopted an alternative proposal to remove the existing porch and entrance as planned, but to place the new entrance at the Home Park side of the building, with a new Junior Library at the rear. The estimated cost for this was £15,000. The final plans, by M.H. Forward, the Borough Architect, were submitted in July 1962 and approved in June 1963. Interior walls were removed, the extension added, porch removed and a new entrance created in place of the window on the far left of the building (east side), instead of on the main road. The library was reopened on Saturday 20th July 1963 by the Mayor Councillor F.B. Page, J.P. and Chairman of Libraries Committee Councillor G.A. Arkle, J.P.

In 2001 the library was refurbished and repainted and a carpet laid over parquet flooring.

Historic Building Listing has been considered for Sydenham Library, but has been rejected because of the damage to the original building done by the 1962/63 renovation work.

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