Bishopsgate Library is part of the Bishopsgate Institute, which opened in 1895 and was “erected for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions and otherwise the advancement of literature, science and the fine arts”.(1) The Institute was built using funds from charitable endowments made to the parish of St Botolph without Bishopsgate over the course of five centuries. The Reverend William Rogers (1819-1896), rector of St Botolph’s and a notable educational reformer and supporter of free libraries, was instrumental in setting up the Institute. The design was the result of a competition, won by Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928), who, up till then, was mainly known for church restoration work. In the design for the Institute, he combined elements of the Arts and Crafts movement with Art Nouveau styles and also threw in a bit of Romanesque and Byzantine architecture for good measure. There have been several refurbishments in the past years, but it still (or maybe one should say once again) looks as if the original builders have just left. An information panel shows a drawing of the Great Hall in former times and I must say, it does not look much different today.
As you walk through the corridor from the Great Hall to the Library, you can still see the original green glazed tiles with their decorative band of leaves.
The Library is like a time capsule of the Victorian age with its oak bookcases and glass domed ceiling. The glass dome was twice destroyed, first in World War II and again in April 1993 by an IRA bomb, but it has been faithfully restored to its former glory.
Besides holding a wealth of material on London history, labour and socialist history, freethought and campaigning, the library has recently become the home for several dioramas that used to be housed in a pub. “These dioramas”, and I quote the library’s information panel about them, “were made for The Bell Public House, Middlesex Street, by model maker Howard Karslake (1932-1995)”. Karslake was originally an undercover topographer for the Royal Air Force who specialised in making scale models from maps and eventually set up his own model making business. The dioramas “were commissioned from Truman’s Brewery in 1972 and depict Petticoat Lane Market, Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane and the interior of The Bell at the end of the nineteenth century”. You can see Karslake’s own scale model business in one of the dioramas. The models were discovered in the basement of The Bell in early 2012 by Glyn Roberts, the current landlord, and after restoration set up in the library.
More detailed photos can be seen here.
(1) Information about the Institute from their website and the leaflet handed out on Open House London day.