Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Dulwich and Nunhead libraries are two of the remaining four libraries in London still in use as libraries that were built from money donated by philanthropist and reformer John Passmore Edwards. Born in Cornwall of modest parents in 1823, John Passmore Edwards was a remarkable man. He became a voracious reader and developed a desire both for self improvement and “an ambition to be useful” in his childhood and by hard work and zeal became a wealthy and influential man, never forgetting his desire for reform and helping others up the ladder. From the 1890s onward he funded the construction of 71 public buildings which apart from libraries included buildings for education, the arts, health and for orphans and the disabled. In Southwark, other buildings funded by Passmore Edwards include the North Camberwell Library, the Borough Road Library, the South London Gallery and the Camberwell College of Art. More can be found out about his life and works here and the author of that piece, Dean Evans, has also written a book “Funding the Ladder – The Passmore Edwards Legacy” which is highly recommended.
At the end of the nineteenth century, both Dulwich and Nunhead fell within the area of Camberwell Vestry’s administration and the chief librarian of that parish wrote to Passmore Edwards asking for financial help in establishing libraries for the public's free use. A temporary free library had opened in Lordship Lane in 1891 and had proved to be very popular, and the need for a permanent library was very apparent. Passmore Edwards wrote back to say he could offer either £2,500 for a library at Nunhead or £3,000 for a library at Dulwich. He had a preference for a library at Dulwich as for a short time upon his arrival in London he had lived in Camberwell Grove and knew the area better.
The Dulwich Estate donated the land but in order to do so an amendment had to be made to the Free Libraries Act. The library was dedicated to Edward Alleyn, the actor and businessman who had purchased the estate of Dulwich and founded the charitable foundation, and to continue the theatrical theme, the foundation stone of the library was laid in October 1896 by leading actor Sir Henry Irving. Designed by Dulwich Estate architect Charles Barry, the building was completed a year later. Costs had increased and Passmore Edwards' final donation for this library was £5,000.
Passmore Edwards now offered to fund the construction of a library at Nunhead, acknowledging when he laid the foundation stone in April 1896 there had been a massive increase in population within the Camberwell area. Happily, both libraries are both still open and popular, and hopefully will remain as working libraries for many years to come.
Dulwich Library, 368 Lordship Lane, SE22
Nunhead Library, 88 Gordon Road, SE15