Today we turn to the possible final chapter in the history of two Wearside libraries
COST-CUTTING plans to shut nine libraries – including two serving Wearsiders for over a century – have left an architectural historian almost lost for words.
Hendon and Monkwearmouth libraries – built with money donated by philanthropist Sir Andrew Carnegie – are among those earmarked for closure to help save £850,000.
Only one local Carnegie library, opposite Sunderland Royal Hospital in Kayll Road, has survived the proposed cuts – although opening times are likely to be limited.
“I am fundamentally opposed to all library closures, but especially the Carnegie ones,” said Michael Johnson, a local architectural historian and university professor.
“Hendon and Monkwearmouth are of historic significance, built with altruistic and philanthropic ideals, to help people. It is tragic this idealism is being swept away.”
Scots-born Carnegie, who made millions in the American steel industry of the mid-19th century, went on to become one of the greatest philanthropists of his generation.
Indeed, from 1883-1919 he funded 3,000 libraries across the US, Canada and Britain – including three in Sunderland – with the aim of promoting literacy and education.
“Competitions were held to find local building designs, but each had to follow a basic plan produced by Sunderland librarian John Alfred Charlton Deas,” said Michael.
“As a result, the libraries at Hendon, Monkwearmouth and Kayll Road are remarkably similar – each built of red brick in the Baroque style fashionable during the Edwardian period.”
It was left to Deas to draw up the basic outlines for all three libraries, with the results being hailed as ‘the last word in library design’ by the Sunderland Daily Echo.
Indeed, according to the paper’s report on May 7, 1906, his ideas maximised space by omitting corridors. ‘It is wonderfully simple and compact,’ the paper revealed.
“Librarians at the central desk had a clear view between the stacks of books and into the reading rooms thanks to the use of glass partitions,” said Michael.
“The general plan provided space for 14,000 books, but it was intended to open each library with around 6000 books and gradually increase the number.”
Sunderland’s Carnegie libraries were among the first in the North East to operate on the ‘open access system’ devised in America, allowing visitors to browse for books.
Another innovation revolved around the classification system, invented by Melvil Dewey in 1876, when books dedicated to specific subjects were grouped together.
“In each library, the books were carefully selected to be relevant to the citizens of a shipbuilding town, with special attention paid to the technical side,” said Michael. “Undoubtedly, books on subjects such as engineering, navigation and naval architecture would have been invaluable to the skilled workers of Sunderland.”
The first library to be built with Carnegie funds opened in Hendon in 1908. Designed by Edward Cratney, of Wallsend and Sunderland, it was sited on busy Villette Road.
“A monumental square pediment gave dignity to the building, and the upper portion of the walls were lined with masonry pierced by ‘bulls eye’ windows,” said Michael.
The West End Branch Library, in Kayll Road, was the next to be built, with the designs drawn up by Sunderland architect Hugh Taylor Decimus Hedley in 1909.
“The central porch had an undulating pediment resting on Baroque columns. Outer wings were emphasised by stone pilasters with block rustication,” Michael said.
Monkwearmouth, the last of the Carnegie libraries, was also designed by Cratney – and featured a concave facade plus windows inspired by Ancient Roman bath houses.
“All three libraries are typical of the extravagant Baroque style that was very popular in Sunderland during the Edwardian era – as shown by the Empire Theatre,” said Michael.
“They were all part of a philanthropic effort to make reading material accessible to the working classes and each represents the core of Sunderland’s architectural legacy.
“I would hate to see any of them close down, or be pulled down. They are the closest thing Sunderland has to a civic-style architecture in the early 20th century.”
•What do you think about the proposed library closures? Write to the Echo’s Letters Page to express your views.
The long road to books for all
l Wearside’s first library was at Sunderland Parish Church in the 18th century.
l The first subscription library was founded in 1794 at High Street West. The annual subscription fee of two guineas limited membership to the well-off.
l It was not until 1858 that the town’s first public, or free, library opened, housed in the Athenaeum. Initially reference only; lending was introduced in 1866.
l Such was its popularity that a much larger base was soon needed. In 1879, Sunderland Corporation opened the Central Library and Museum in Borough Road.
l It was not until the opening of Hendon Library in 1909 that readers were at long last able to browse the shelves and pick out books for themselves.
l Carnegie provided funds for two public libraries in Sunderland, but the chief librarian, Charlton Deas, managed to eke the money out to create three.
l The foundation stone for the first, in Hendon, was laid by Councillor J Hindmarch, of the Museum and Library Committee, on February 26, 1908.
l The two other Carnegie libraries, in Kayll Road and Monkwearmouth, opened the year after, with Carnegie himself carrying out the honours at Monkwearmouth.