William Morris put together an extraordinarily fine working library for his own use. In 1891, he told a journalist that in an ideal world such books would be available to everyone, with “a public library at each street corner…I should not then have to buy all these old books, but they would be common property, and I could go and look at them whenever I wanted them, as would everybody else. Now I have to go to the British Museum, which is an excellent institution, but it is not enough. I want these books close at hand, and frequently, and therefore I must buy them.”. Three years later, St Giles (later Holborn) public library opened.
On 3rd January, 1896 (he was to die on 3rd October that year), Morris attended the New Year’s meeting of the London Social Democratic Federation at Holborn Town Hall. It was the time of the Jameson Raid, which ultimately helped to start the Anglo-Boer War. Imperialism was the subject which had first brought Morris into the socialist movement.
Morris was received at the meeting with tumultuous applause, and brought laughter and cheers when he said that, as far as Africa was concerned, there was a kind of desperation egging on all the nations to make something of that hitherto undeveloped country; and they were no doubt developing it with a vengeance.
Holborn Town Hall at this point was located at the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Grays Inn Road.
The district of Holborn was formed by the Metropolis Management Act of 1855, from four Middlesex civil parishes and places. It was governed by the Holborn District Board of Works, which consisted of forty nine elected Vestrymen. The district was abolished in 1900, when the County of London was divided into twenty eight metropolitan boroughs. A new Metropolitan Borough of Holborn was created by the merger of Holborn District with the neighbouring St Giles District along with one of the Inns of Court, Lincoln’s Inn, and one of the Inns of Chancery, Staple Inn.
Historic England records that the first Holborn Town Hall was a substantial brick-and-stone pile, built in 1878-9 to the designs of Lewis Henry Isaacs, surveyor to Holborn Board of Works, and his partner Henry Louis Florence:
“Its siting was opportunistic, exploiting the road improvement scheme then under construction; the foundation stone of the town hall being laid by the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works, Sir James McGarel Hogg, on the same day that he opened the last section of the newly made Clerkenwell Road. The building was designed in the then fashionable Italianate-cum-French Renaissance manner, but its period of civic use was short, as it was sold in 1906 by the successor to the Holborn Board, Holborn Metropolitan Borough Council…
…Holborn Board grasped the opportunity for civic display. Behind lay a stoneyard and a single storey range post-mortem room and mortuary…
…Although some other municipal buildings of this date included a stoneyard within the complex, most notably the rebuilt Finsbury Vestry Hall of 1894-5, none apparently combined the practical and the polite so closely…
…After the creation of Holborn Metropolitan Borough Council in 1900 the building’s future came under review…it was decided in 1905 to build new council offices adjoining St Giles Library on High Holborn and to sell Holborn Town Hall…After 1906 Holborn Hall, as it then became, passed out of local government use, operating for a time as a concert venue. The building was demolished in the 1960s.”.
Holborn joined Hampstead and St Pancras in 1965 to form the London Borough of Camden.
The “My Primitive Methodists” website adds:
“In 1908, William (Pickles) Hartley (founder of the Hartley’s jam company) saw an opportunity to create a new central headquarters for the Primitive Methodist Church in London, and began negotiations to buy Holborn Town Hall…
…Some were apprehensive about taking on such a risk, but the scheme was completed. The Primitive Methodist Connexion did buy the property, to which William Hartley personally gave £17,500, and the new HQ became known as “The Holborn Hall”, one of the finest Church Houses in London.”.
St Giles’s Library of 1894 at High Holborn, by W Rushworth, now houses a restaurant. This is the eastern wing of what, with a centre and western wing added for the new Town Hall, came to be the completed building; four storeys, basements and attics. Both buildings form a symmetrical facade of nine windows.
My photograph above shows its early French Renaissance detail. This former vehicle entrance has an elliptical arch flanked by Corinthian pilasters supporting an entablature. The wrought iron gate is by the Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Art.
After I had taken this picture, I walked on to the church of St-Giles-in-the-Fields, in St Giles High Street, with its gateway commemorating the Borough of Holborn 1900-1965.
In 2016, Emily Rhodes reported from here on a day when Quaker Homeless Action were visiting with their mobile library. She wrote a piece for The Spectator of 15th October, entitled What books mean to rough sleepers – and the library that helps them.
Emily discusses books with John:
“In a matter of minutes his reserve has disappeared, so I ask a little about his day to day life. “I don’t have an Oyster card or anything,” he says. “Wherever I go I walk, so it’s more or less the same area, but occasionally I spend a few days in Richmond – it takes me all day to get there, and a whole day to get back, so I spend a few days there.”
I ask him where he stays: “You never tell anybody where you sleep.” But he smiles as he tells me the code names for churches which provide meals, used so as to stop “the wrong kind of people” turning up. “One church we call Stringfellows,” John explains. “Another one we call Spearmint Rhino, there’s another called Secrets, and we’ve got one called Annabel’s.” We are both laughing. Has he got friends, then, in Richmond? His answer comes quietly: “You do your own thing, really. You meet people, you know people, you know who not to know.” “.