Farewell East Greenwich Library, hello Greenwich Centre

East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015
East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015
East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015

A little bit of Greenwich history came to an end today, quietly swept under the carpet after decades of neglect.

East Greenwich Library, which first opened 110 years ago, shut its doors on Friday evening, ahead of its shiny new replacement at the Greenwich Centre opening today.

Without this place, I’m not sure I’d have developed a keenness for digging out facts and a general curiosity about the world around me. I was brought up just around the corner – never mind Wikipedia, I could have a pop at finding out stuff in the library. And I’d usually end up finding out a lot me.

Later on, I used to read its copies of Time Out. I’ve got its London news coverage and Jon Ronson columns to thank/blame for my decision to go into journalism.

East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015
East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015

This handsome building – donated to the community by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie – was the old central library of the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich. Some of its old books are used as props in rooms at Charlton House, with century-old labels in and warnings that the library must be told if your home housed people with infectious diseases.

In the 1980s, what was then called Greenwich Library still carried the pomp of its heyday – a proper reference library at the side, a large children’s library at the back, and rows and rows of big, wide shelves. A particular mystery for me were the stairs at the centre of the library – where did they lead to?

Of course, this heyday wasn’t to last. The rot – quite literally – started to set in at the end of the 1980s.

Greenwich Council stopped maintaining the building properly, and shortly after a new library opened a mile up the hill in Blackheath, closure was proposed. A local campaign saw it off, but the library only survived in an emasculated state, with opening hours slashed, part of it walled off and effectively left to crumble.

East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015
East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015
East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015

Five years ago – during my run as a Green Party council candidate – I was shown around the basement, which at the time was being used by Greenwich Community College’s music classes. It was prone to flooding and in a bad way.

Now, with the move down the road, the council can finally get the library off is books – something it’s wanted to do for at least a quarter of a century. Sorting out all the structural problems will be somebody else’s responsibility. It’s going to look ugly for a while, with shutters put up to stop squatters.

The building’s now going to be up for sale. but, I’m told, with a covenant that keeps it in community use. I’m pleased about this, as that was something we campaigned on five years ago. We’ll just have to watch to make sure Greenwich Council are as good as their word. (Update 29 June: There is no covenant on the building.)

Greenwich Centre, 12 June 2015
Greenwich Centre, 12 June 2015

The new library opens on Saturday in the Greenwich Centre, along with a new leisure centre – replacing the Arches, which also closes today – and a new council service centre.

There’s a very strange bit of public art outside, though. Forget the proud industrial history of east Greenwich, and never mind the health services which occupied this site for more than a century – there’s an artwork based on Nelson and Darwin.

Nelson’s links are with the posher end of Greenwich, and as for Darwin – that’s Woolwich, where his HMS Beagle was launched from. It’s all a bit Royal Borough™ Theme Park.

A spacious, open library gives east Greenwich a facility of the standard I enjoyed when I was young, and it’s good to see the old hospital site back in public use after 14 years. Hopefully, the old library’s contribution to the community won’t be airbrushed out of history. One to watch.

13 comments

  1. John

    Shades of the Thatcher years, when so many of Carnegie’s public buildings – and those other philanthropists had donated to the people – across the nation were sold for private profit. I do hope this building remains in community use.

    And before anyone asks – no: there are, it seems, no modern day Andrew Carnegies, so we are all screwed.

  2. maryorelse

    I have decided that the beardy man in the art work is George Livesey – happy to talk about him any time and bother non-local Darwin.
    Could also go on about East Greenwich Library building – but rising water table isn’t helping, and structural problems may date from when it was built or 1911 when the extension (which fell down in 1998) was built.

  3. sew2pro

    After discovering and falling in love with Anne Tyler, I discovered a small hoard of her books in the EG library and spent many a sunny hour reading them in the penniless summer of 95. It really was an oasis next to a rather forlorn section of Woolwich Road. Yes, I loved my library and never noticed the rot though it did seem airless and could get pongy if a nappy in the children’s area needed changing!

  4. Plumstead Resident

    I had no idea East Greenwich Library was closing. It’s been at least 10 years since I visited it.

    I suppose something similar happened with Woolwich library, but I must say the new library is vast improvement on its stuffy, cramped and uneven Calderwood St predecessor.

    How big is the new Greenwich library, is it as big as Woolwich’s?

  5. fromthemurkydepths

    The new library is in a much better position. The old library I assume never recovered from the flyover next to it being built. Then the public realm around it became absolutely horrible for pedestrians and very ugly and cluttered. It’s that grotty outside street environment that will not help any other group looking to take on the building, in addition to its very poor condition.

    I also recently read that the former fire station next door and then ‘hotel’, has been used illegally to house dozens of people long term for over a decade. The owners then applied to change it to residential, I think, and it was approved as it had been used for that use for so long. The council had to approve by law given its current use for so long.

    On the subject of libraries, another one to keep an eye on is Abbey Wood. There’s plans for a new one at Cross Quarter by the rail station. This could well mean closing the existing library on Eynsham Drive at Abbey Wood estate. Unlike East Greenwich, it gets a decent number of visitors, and moving it could harm an already badly neglected estate. The plans for a new library would be just a stones throw from a new Bexley council library and leave the large, neglected area between Plumstead library (another by Carnegie and seeing big changes) and the new Abbey Wood library with a very long walk to facilities. It would be the latest move in a long term retreat from Greenwich council in maintaining and funding east Plumstead and Abbey Wood – see Plumstead gardens for more proof. The whole area is starved of funding.

    Much like elsewhere, I can see focus becoming fixated on a very small area to the detriment of the wider area – that being a small slither by Abbey Wood Crossrail getting all the attention and elsewhere continued to be ignored. They may think that will benefit all of Abbey Wood & Plumstead but for many living there the station is miles away and a very long walk, particularly for many on Abbey Wood estate, west Abbey Wood and east Plumstead.

  6. Darryl Chamberlain

    Interesting point about the grotty “hotel” – I knew a student who was living there in 1997, so I suspect it’s actually residential for most of its life (the fire station shut in about 1985 before being squatted for a bit).

  7. The Greenwich Mummy

    As a resident of this new development site, I am quite happy with what’s been done with it at the moment. That’s not to say that I wasn’t sad with the closure of EG library but like others have said, the ugly, cluttered and busy road and flyover outside really detracted me from visiting it more frequently. I remember taking my son to the Arches just a few months ago and could see the bad state it was in.

    The floor tiles looked dirty and cold, the swimming pool sides had so much calcium being drawn out of it, I couldn’t rest my back on the side and instead of a metal bar being installed to the walls for support, there was still the old rope being used. That rope piece was also falling apart. I just hope both the Arches and EG library are not demolished as the buildings are beautiful and should be used for something good. I think there was a survey going around or a meeting being held for people to offer their opinions on what they’d like it to become.

  8. Kelly Salambasis

    Hi All,

    It was announced last night at a council meeting that the building is indeed being sold onto Developers for the highest bid – presumably to help to fill the council’s £60 million deficit. We too (we’re a social enterprise) had been told only a fortnight ago by people who shall remain nameless in the council that it could be considered for a community valuation so it could stay within the community. The council have “lost” any covenants related to the building and their lawyers have claimed without a covenant at the time of sale the purchaser can do as they wish with the building. If anyone would like to join their voice to ours we would like to get our heads together to see what we can do to oppose this. I am hoping to get it onto the agenda of East Greenwich Residents Association – next meeting 30th June.

  9. Suky

    It’s depressing to learn RBG Council have already sold off East Greenwich Library to highest bidder – why bother asking the local population -democracy anyone? – i’m sure the Arches will not be not far off -I was unable to attend the EGRA meeting on Tuesday – any news..?The Carnegie Trust still have active UK presence -surely they could have assisted with archive research- failing that the US office or the Carnegie family directly -I’m sure they would be interested to learn what is happening to their legacy?

  10. emma@chell2.orangehome.co.uk

    Hello, are you absolutely sure the covenant on this building cannot be located? Southwark council wanted to put the Livesey Building on the Old Kent Road up for sale (in 2008). Council officers were adamant that they could sell it but myself and other local people stopped the sale by digging in archives and finding the covenant document. Now it is used by an educational charity. Similarly London South Bank University has a Passmore Edwards building (formerly a Southwark Library) on Borough Road which they have to keep in community use due to the covenant. Emma

  11. emma@chell2.orangehome.co.uk

    Hi, I just checked. The Livesey building’s sale was prevented because long ago Southwark used the covenant to register the building with the Land Registry. We requested from the Land Registry a copy of the registration documents then used those documents to prevent sale of the building.

    You might not be so lucky with a Carnegie library but most likely any restrictive covenants would be with the deeds.

    Here’s the link to land registry. I think there’s a fee but not much. It’s worth a try!

    https://www.gov.uk/topic/land-registration/searches-fees-forms

    Emma