‘A really brawny old building’ – Sheffield’s Central Library

But I remember going with my mum to the main library. It was quite daunting because it’s a really brawny old building isn’t it? I think it’s a lovely building … (Judith G)

… when we used to go out in the afternoon we used to watch them building the new library. … we used to watch the cranes, the big stones. Very interesting that was. I was with that library right from the beginning. … I think it’s a fine building that is.’ (Ted L)

Sheffield Central Library

Here is Sheffield’s Grade II-listed Central Library and Graves Art Gallery, now over 80 years old.  In his 1959 West Riding volume, Pevsner was concerned that the building was:

… in an incomprehensibly insignificant position.  However, the plans for a civic centre, not yet in a final form at the time of writing, are to incorporate the building and provide a better context for it.

The 2004 Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield says rather more.  The ‘dignified Beaux-Arts’ Central Library and Graves Art Gallery, ‘steel-framed, faced with Portland stone, with giant Ionic pilasters and a high parapet wall around the top-lit galleries’ and ‘oak fittings with restrained Art Deco details’ were ‘intended to form one side of a grand civic square, first proposed in 1924 by Patrick Abercrombie’s Civic Survey as the setting for civic offices, law courts and a college’. This square, never built, was presumably where the Millennium Galleries and Winter Gardens are now.  The result was that the library was ‘never really seen to best advantage’.

This is true enough, and the situation is made worse now by the brutality of Arundel Gate just below the library.  This major thoroughfare cruelly – Pevsner might have said ‘incomprehensibly’ – exposes the back of the building.  At one time, there was a plan for a ‘Peace’ mural by Edward Bawden here but sadly it came to nothing.

Sheffield-city-library-2016

The library and gallery, designed by City Architect W G Davies in collaboration with Joseph Lamb, the City Librarian, were opened in July 1934 by the Duchess of York (better known to us as The Queen Mother).

They were a reason for civic pride.  Local diarist G R Vine was among many invited to view them and wrote: ‘Magnificent! The arrangements are wonderful.’  There was considerable coverage in local papers, with the Sheffield Telegraph saying in a special feature that the building ‘resembles no other in the country’.  .

Home of Sheffield's first public library

Home of Sheffield’s first public library (public domain)

The music hall, looking like an illustration from Jane Austen

The music hall, looking like an illustration from Jane Austen (public domain – {{PD-US}} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.)

The old and woefully inadequate central library had been on more or less the same site in Surrey Street, housed in a former Mechanics’ Institute and an old music hall next to it.  Neither could be re-modelled or expanded.  They perfectly illustrated the poor condition of Sheffield’s library service in the early 20th century.  ‘Revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally’, with dust ‘nearly an inch thick with the accumulated filth of years’ and staff ‘long used to repression and neglect’, says the library’s official history (p.29).  The new building, which in the end cost £141,700, symbolised the reformed, improved and expanded service and, less tangibly, cultural and educational aspirations.  It housed lending, junior, reference, science and commercial libraries, a basement stack, study cubicles for students, rooms for archives and special collections, offices and staff facilities and a theatre/lecture hall.

The old one was cramped. There were smaller rooms and these lines of shelves up all close together. Quite a lot of people all mugged up sort of thing. When this new one opened everything was beautiful and spacious, art gallery upstairs, and I think they’ve got a theatre underneath … (Ted L)

Over the next 20 or so years, Sheffield City Libraries became nationally respected (for example, for its scientific and technological information exchange scheme for local businesses).  Issues rose from 1.2 million in 1922-23 to 3.7 million in 1945-46.   This was due largely to the imagination and expertise of the two City Librarians of the period, Richard J Gordon (1921 – 1927) and Joseph P Lamb (1927 – 1956) and a committed Council committee.

But all this success might never have happened as the Council was originally uneasy about this major project at an estimated cost of £95,000.  Happily, one of their number, Alderman J G Graves, offered to help.  John George Graves (1866–1945) was a pioneer of the mail order business and a local benefactor.  The original plan had been for a library alone but in 1929 Graves offered a generous donation if a gallery was added:

… I am willing to defray the entire cost of the Art Gallery Section, and also to contribute £10,000 to the cost of the Free Library portion, making altogether a contribution of £30,000  …

Graves donated part of his art collection to the gallery, where it can still be viewed.  The librarians and Council committee had doubts, as the gallery significantly cut down the library’s space, but it was too good an offer to miss, and so Sheffield got its new library.

Even so, the depression of the 1930s saw cuts in book and publicity budgets and issues fell accordingly for some years.  The official history of Sheffield Libraries says sharply: ‘so much easier is it to destroy than to build’.  (Words worth bearing in mind today perhaps.)

The library was fortunate in World War II.  The worst air raids, known as the Sheffield Blitz, were on 12 and 15 December 1940* and there were huge fires across the city.  The building was at one point ‘bracketed in lines of flame from the Moor and High Street’ (Raiders over Sheffield, the official history of the Sheffield Blitz).  But the damage was relatively light – windows blown out and, more seriously, a long crack across the marble floor of the entrance hall, caused by a bomb in nearby Fitzalan Square.

Blitz damage, thought to be in Sheffield

Blitz damage, thought to be in Sheffield

Today, the building is now showing its age a little.  Library services have changed a lot since the 1930s, and so layouts and systems have altered.  Funding is still, of course, an issue – today more so than for many years.  So it is interesting to reflect on those 1930s aspirations, revealed in the fine carvings by local stonemasons, Alfred and William Tory, on the outside of the building.  As the 2004 Pevsner guide says:

… around the main entrance medallions representing Literature, Music, Drama, Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Mathematics, Chemistry and Astronomy. High up on the splayed corner a figure of Knowledge holds the ankh and asp to represent the choice between good and evil.

Sheffield-city-library-decorative-carving-7

Sheffield-city-library-decorative-carving-3

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And as a library user said:

As soon as I was eight, I was allowed to catch a bus into town and go to the Central Library which I thought was wonderful, just to have a thousand books rather than perhaps fifty to choose from. But I think that it was significant, the Central Library in Sheffield. I know a lot of people went to that rather than a local library. (Diane H)

 

* 660 people were killed, 1,500 injured and 40,000 made homeless.

2 thoughts on “‘A really brawny old building’ – Sheffield’s Central Library

  1. Yes, thanks. I have added Ted’s very vivid memories of both the new and old library. His are the only memories I’ve read, outside the official histories, of the old library.

  2. One of Reading Sheffield readers, Ted Lowe, watched appreciatively as this magnificent building was being built while he was a student at the art school in Surrey St.

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