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.
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.
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.)
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.