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Opera North - The Little Greats

A History of Bromley House Library

2 April 16 words: Robin Lewis

"In 1849 an abandoned baby was found in a back room, which led to a furious debate over where, precisely, the dividing line between the two parishes of St Peter's and St Nicholas' ran"

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photo: Raphael Achache

If you were going to list the tools of the librarian’s trade, it’s doubtful a truncheon would make the cut. But there it is, in the hands of Carol Barstow, the head librarian of Bromley House Library for the last decade or so. It’s about 12” and weighty enough to give your head some sudden and drastic blunt force surgery. It’s also old, and Carol thinks it’s from a time when Goose Fair would pop up right outside on the street, lions and all. Of course, it could be around because of all the gambling, drunkenness and gunplay in the library.

Wait, what?

Bromley House Library’s 200-year anniversary was celebrated in April 2016, with its colourful history beginning in 1816, when some of the great and good of the city founded it first on Carlton Street, then moving to Bromley House on Angel Row a few years later. The Standfast Library collection was bequeathed to the people of Nottingham in 1744 and housed in the Bluecoat School, but was getting little use, so this collection formed the basis of the Bromley House collection. This was all before the Public Library Act of 1850, when a ha’penny was added to the rates to pay for free public libraries.

The life of a library in the nineteenth century was obviously very different to today. In 1832, the minutes of a committee meeting state that complaints were made and “high disapprobation” was felt about the repeated firing of guns and pistols in the billiard room. The Ladies Bible Society that met in the same building was presumably scandalised. In 1849 an abandoned baby was found in a back room, which led to a furious debate over where, precisely, the dividing line between the two parishes of St Peter’s and St Nicholas’ ran.

The financial burden of the baby’s upbringing would be borne by the parish whose borders lay under the spot where the child was found, and St Peter’s eventually ended up grudgingly shelling out. A tea room was proposed by the library, but only became a reality after a woman was co-opted to sit with the all-male committee, as they apparently didn’t know what a tea room required. As well as the gunplay, boozing and babies strewn about the place, more than one of the librarians of Bromley House found time over the years to be dismissed for misappropriation of funds. Never a dull moment.

It’s been cash-strapped a couple of times, and not just because the librarian nicked off with the piggy bank. In the twenties, it had to sell off some of the more valuable books to stay open, and then again in the eighties when subscriber numbers ran low and survival was in doubt. It’s currently financially stable, though old buildings need constant top-ups, with expansion plans to make it more accessible and to fix the roof in motion.

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photo: Raphael Achache

It’s possible you don’t even know that Bromley House Library exists. Nestled between MSR News and Barnardo’s off Market Square is a large wooden door you’ve probably walked past a hundred times. Look up from the street and you might catch a glimpse of bookcases stacked high and wide through the first floor windows, perhaps someone peering out with a cup of tea in hand. There’s no sign outside indicating the existence of a library, and if you’ve ever peered in when the door was open you’d have seen a short corridor ending in another door.

After a member of staff upstairs has buzzed you in via the intercom, you head up a wide staircase to the first floor past large, imposing portraits of such long-dead luminaries as the first Duke of Richmond. And then through some more wooden double doors into the Main Reading Room. The first time you go in feels like entering the TARDIS. How could all this be hidden behind a single door on the street?

The library itself comprises more than a dozen rooms, packed with around 45,000 books across four floors, catalogued in the original pre-Dewey Decimal System. The scale of the place is difficult to fathom from the outside. Each room in the library has its own distinct character, and the books in each one are grouped by classification, with A for Theology (because God came first in 1816) all the way to F for Politics and Economics. In between lie sixteen other categories, ranging from Philosophy to Miscellanies, Art and Architecture, to Antiquities and good old Fiction.

The largest room is the fine Main Reading Room, which stretches up two storeys on one side, and has room for not one but two grandfather clocks, plus a Victorian spiral staircase that creaks worryingly as you ascend to the balcony. The Neville Hoskins Reading Room was recently restored, and the fine Georgian plaster ceiling makes it one of the loveliest in the building. The Standfast Room used to contain huge, unfurled maps of Mansfield and Nottingham, but now houses part of the history collection.

One of the few original meridian lines in the country decorates the floor (a north-south line on which a spot of sunlight shines to signify noon), and it’s here that the newspapers (the good ones) are laid out every day for members to peruse in leather-backed chairs. Head upstairs and you might wander into the Thoroton Room, in which resides the library of the British Sundial Association (apparently a right bunch of scallywags) and some of the library of Phillip James Bailey, a Nottingham poet so famous he couldn’t walk down the street without being feted by admirers.
 

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photo: Raphael Achache

Above these, in the attic, you’ll find the site of Nottingham’s first photographic studio, and from 1841 to 1955 it was rented by one photographer or another. The library has a camera from the times, as well as examples of the studio’s work on display, so you can have a gander at the frankly intimidatingly serious faces of your dour Victorian forebears. Oh, did I mention that out back there’s one of only two walled gardens in Nottingham? It’s decorated with trees planted almost 150 years ago, and is as fine a place to park your bum and relax during summer as you’ll find in the city.

The library is both a registered charity and a subscription library, which means you stump up some cash every year to be a member. Those subscriptions make up two thirds of the running costs, with the remaining third coming from rent from the three shops downstairs: MSR, Barnardo’s and Nando’s. Yes, your cheeky chicken feasts have paid for book restoration, you’ll be pleased to know. Indeed, the library restores old books, cleaning, re-gluing and binding old volumes so they can be shelved and lent and read again. The oldest tome in the library is a 1578 copy of Dante’s opera, in the original Italian.

The library is also a focal point for literary life in Nottingham. It’s where the recent successful bid for Nottingham to become a UNESCO City of Literature held its launch meeting, and it regularly plays host to book launches, exhibitions, lectures and afternoon teas. Given the state of libraries in the country today, Bromley House’s health and security is something to be treasured and supported in every way possible. Lambeth Council are turning half their libraries into gyms this month alone.

It’s a treasure trove of books about Nottingham. If you’re going to dig around the history of the county and city, Bromley House is an indispensable resource. And not just for the obvious books on local history, but on the donations of collections of local folks that the library eagerly scooped up. How better to dig into the minds of Nottingham’s citizens than by finding out what they were reading in their spare time?

And even if you’re not fussed about history, there are some truly beautiful books available to leaf through that can provide hours of pleasure. Here, for example, is the 1790 illustrated edition of Remarkable Oaks at Welbeck, by Major Hayman Rooke (for whom the Major Oak is named); over there is the 1869 Birds of Sherwood Forest, by WJ Stirland; here’s a fantastic picture of a sloth lazing in the branches of a tree in the pages of Adam White’s Popular History of Mammalia.

Something I’ve done more than once is wander round pulling completely random books off the shelf to flick through. You might come across the Hitler’s Whistle, by AG Street, which intriguingly begins, “For security reasons I cannot give its rightful name, but I will call it Sedgebury Wallop”. Do tell. Or perhaps you’ll get a cheap laugh like I did at the sight of Naomi Jacobs’ epic tale of the Gollantz family, a book unfortunately named Groping.

If you want to join the 1,400 current members, you’ll need a couple of things. Two references declaring you aren’t some ne’er-do-well out to half-inch the library’s precious books (your mum and your mate Crazy Dave the Baby-Stealer do not qualify), and the yearly membership fee, which is just under a hundred quid right now. That’s a few hundred pounds less than a season ticket for Forest, and though there’s less football on offer at Bromley House, there are comfier chairs and less of the inevitable heartbreak as it becomes clear mid-table mediocrity will be your eventual reward.

On Wednesdays the library puts on tours at 2.30pm and 4.00pm, so you can turn up and be shown around to see if it takes your fancy. It’s by far the best way to find out if joining is for you. You might end up being one of the select few who stay members for fifty years, at which point they shrug and say fair dos, your membership is now free.

A dirty little secret: I’ve been a member for almost ten years, and I’ve never taken a single book out on loan. That seems odd, I know, but Bromley House is about two things: primarily it’s about books, but it’s also a quiet space away from the world. I’ve a bookcase full of unread books at home that is growing faster than I can read, so when I visit on a Saturday morning I find a comfy chair and read the papers, or pull out a book and read while a cup of tea cools beside me. It feels like a private club, a refuge from everything and everyone.

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photo: Raphael Achache

 

Bromley House Library celebrated its 200th anniversary on Saturday 2 April 2016.

Bromley House Library website

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