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The Carnegie Library Luton

The Carnegie Library about 1920 [Z1309/75]
The Carnegie Library about 1920 [Z1309/75]

The Free Library, often known as the Carnegie Library, occupied a site at the junction of George Street and Williamson Street, immediately north-east of the Town Hall. It was built on the site of a previous library. William Austin in his 1928 volume The History of Luton and its Hamlets says: "The Public Library, the gift of Mr. Andrew Carnegie, was opened by Mr. Whitelaw Reid, the American Ambassador, on the 1st October 1910. Me. Carnegie, who was present, expressed himself well pleased with the building; this land had cots twelve thousand pounds, which was entirely met by him. Mr. Carnegie was subsequently presented with the Honorary Freedom of the Borough. Mr. Whitelaw Reid for several years was a near neighbour and occupied Wrest Park House, Silsoe".

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was an American millionaire and philanthropist. He had been born in Scotland but emigrated to the United States with his parents as a child. He made his money in steel and subsequently gave most of it away building libraries and other public institutions in the USA, Britain and other parts of the English speaking world. In all he gave away $350,000,000 leaving him with around $30,000,000 at his death which was donated to charities and pensioners.

The Rating and Valuation Act 1925 specified that every piece of land and building in the country was to be assessed to determine its rateable value. Most of Bedfordshire was valued in 1927. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service is lucky in having the valuer's notebook covering most of George Street. Evidence in the book shows that the survey of George Street took place in 1928.

 Ground floor plan of the Central Library in 1959 [X812/16/9]
Ground floor plan of the Central Library in 1959 [X812/16/9]

The valuer visiting the free library [DV1/R7/4] noted the following features on the ground floor: the entrance lobby; the magazine room measuring 25 feet by 38 feet; the lending library and office divided into three areas measuring 23 feet by 9 feet, 18 feet by 35 feet and 15 feet by 20 feet; the reading room measuring 25 feet by 26 feet; the news room measuring 25 feet by 46 feet. Upstairs were: the ladies' reading room measuring 25 feet by 31 feet; a small office measuring 10 feet by 11 feet; the Russell Reference Library measuring 25 feet by 46 feet.

A basement store measured 20 feet by 17 feet. Also in the basement were: two book stores measuring 29 feet by 38 feet and 25 feet square respectively as well as a staff room measuring 15 feet by 11 feet.

Basement plan of the Central LIbrary in 1959 [X812/16/9]
Basement plan of the Central LIbrary in 1959 [X812/16/9]

The next door lecture hall measured 25 feet by 42 feet 6 inches with a platform measuring 18 feet by 12 feet 6 inches. A room off the platform measured 11 feet by 13 feet 3 inches. A room under the platform measured 24 feet by 8 feet 6 inches. A public lavatory and cloakroom completed the building. These figures should be compared with the plans set out below, which were drawn up in 1959.

In February 1959 Town Clerk A. D. Harvey drew up particulars of the Central Public Library, as it was then known. It had been decided to sell it as soon as the replacement public library was constructed nearby. The particulars are as follows [X812/16/9]:

First floor plan of the Central Library in 1959 [X812/16/9]
First floor plan of the Central Library in 1959 [X812/16/9]

  1. The Central Library is a two storey building in Georgian Renaissance style constructed in brick with stone facings up to first floor level and stone dressings above occupying a commanding position in the heart of Luton at the junction of the town's main shopping street (George Street) and Williamson Street opposite the Town Hall. The site has a combined frontage of approximately 182 feet to those streets. The floor area of the building is about 14,500 square feet.
  2. The site was acquired in 1878 by the Trustees of the Luton Free Library and Museum who provided, and for many years maintained, a free library until the Council of the Borough in 1894 adopted the Public Libraries Acts 1892 and 1893, when the property together with the stock of books and the furniture and effects were transferred to the Corporation.
  3. The present building was erected by the Corporation with the assistance of a gift of money by the late Mr. Andrew Carnegie and was formally opened on the 1st October 1910 by the American Ambassador (the Hon. Whitelaw Reid) and Mr. Carnegie. It is substantially constructed and has been maintained in excellent condition.
  4. When the present Library was opened it was well suited for its purpose and adequately served a population of 40,000. The stock of books was 8,300 and the annual issue 78,000. There were 3,500 readers and a staff of six. Since then the population of the Borough has grown to 120,000 and, even without extension of boundaries, is likely to increase to 145,000 by 1971 [in 1971 the population was actually 161,405]. In the same period the Public Library Service has developed in a remarkable manner. At the present time there is a stock of 171,490 books increasing at the rate of 6,000 annually, and the annual number of book issues from the Central Library, two Branch Libraries and a Mobile Library is about 1,500,000. Of this stock more than 100,000 volumes are kept at the Central Library which has 30,000 readers and a staff of 40. The Central Library issues more books annually than any other single library in the country and holds the record for the largest day's issue ever recorded - nearly 6,000 volumes.
  5. The question of rebuilding or extending the Central Library has been before the Council for several years but, for many reasons, action has had to be deferred. Congestion has now reached a state where the service to readers is being seriously affected. Every department is overcrowded, the stock is badly displayed and the staff has to work under very difficult conditions.
  6. An urgent review of the problem has recently taken place and, very reluctantly, the Council has reached the conclusion that it is not practicable, for many reasons, for the rebuilding or extension on the Central Library to take place on its present site, particularly as it would be essential for the service to be fully maintained during the progress of the building operations. Another site in the Central Area, already in the ownership of the Corporation, has been allocated for a new Library and will be formally appropriated for the purpose when all necessary consents have been obtained. A scheme will be prepared and, when tenders have been obtained, application will be made to the Ministry of Education for consent to the raising of the necessary loan.
  7. When the new Library has been completed and is ready for occupation the site of the present Central Library will become surplus to requirements and it has been decided to dispose of it. The Council are, therefore, prepared to receive offers. It has not yet been decided whether to sell the freehold or to grant a lease for a term of 99 years. Although it may well be that it will be the policy to retain the freehold interest in all their properties in the Town Centre made available for development, the Council are willing to give serious consideration to offers on either basis before coming to a decision.
  8. Luton is the principal shopping centre in the south of Bedfordshire and immediately adjoining it are the Borough of Dunstable and built up or developing areas in the Luton Rural District … No Town Map for Luton and Dunstable has yet been approved by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. After the Inquiry into the County of Bedford Development Plan the Minister requested that further consideration should be given to the proposals for inclusion in the Town Map owing to large scale extensions in the motor car and other industries giving rise to a need for more houses which were then projected and have since partially taken place. As a result of subsequent decisions, development Ion the area has been approved by the Ministry which will ultimately cause an increase in population to 190,000 [the population of Luton Borough in 2001 was 184,371].
  9. As a result of the rapid growth of Luton in the last 50 years, the Central Area is inadequate in size and arrangement and there is a shortage of shops which has caused great competition for available space and a consequent rise in values. The Council have prepared plans for the improvement of the Town Centre but these are subject to inclusion in the Town Map and its approval by the Minister. A survey to obtain information in the form required by the Ministry to justify the proposals is now being conducted and it is hoped that it will be possible to secure the submission of the Scheme to the Ministry before the end of 1959, after which a Public Inquiry will doubtless be held.
  10. The Central Library site will not be adversely affected by these proposals but, as a result of them, should gain in importance. No part of the property will be required for road widening. It is proposed that the property opposite the Williamson Street frontage shall, in due course, be demolished and the sites left open as part of the new Town Square. Although application for planning consent to a change of use would have to be made in the normal way, it is expected that the site and any buildings now or hereafter erected on it would be available for any approved commercial purpose appropriate to a central area, including shops, a store or offices. Plans for the rebuilding or alteration of the property would be subject to approval.
  11. Attached to these Particulars will be found a block plan showing the position of the site and floor plans indicating the size and arrangement of the existing accommodation. The yard at the side of the Library in Williamson Street will be included in the sale or lease and the existing public conveniences will be removed … Inspection of the premises can be arranged by appointment.
  12. The Council will not be able to give possession until the new Central Library has been erected and equipped ready for use. Judging by the experience of conditions since the end of the 1939-1945 War, there is a constant possibility of Government policy in relation to the sanctioning of capital expenditure by public authorities varying according to the economic state of the country. This makes it difficult to forecast accurately when possession of the property could be given. If conditions remain as they are at present this should be possible at the end of about three years.

Sadly the old building had only three years left. It was demolished in 1962, after a life of just over fifty years, to be replaced by commercial premises, themselves being replaced by a new commercial development at the time of writing [2010].

Artist's impression of buildings on the former Free Linrary site June 2010`
Artist's impression of buildings on the former Free Linrary site June 2010