Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The Livesey Museum in Old Kent Road is a handsome, Grade II listed late Victorian red brick building in Old Kent Road. It was built in 1890 and opened as the Livesey Free Library in October of that year, mostly paid for by George Livesey who presented the building to the Parish of Camberwell in perpetuity. Livesey was the Chairman of the local South Metropolitan Gas Company whose gas holders can still be seen on the north side of Old Kent Road today. It was due to Livesey's act of generosity that led to Camberwell Vestry adopting the Public Libraries Act that enabled local authorities to raise money locally through taxation to provide and maintain public libraries that the public could use free of charge.
At the time the library opened, it boasted 6,588 volumes and the beginnings of a reference library. The opening ceremony was performed by the Solicitor General, Sir Edward Clarke with Livesey and local dignitaries present. Sir Edward took the opportunity to comment on the regret expressed at the recent opening of another free public library that three quarters of the books borrowed were fiction, saying “the reading of fiction was not a bad but a good thing, and did as much to form the character of the child or the man or woman as the dullest and driest books the most careful historian ever produced.” A barrister as well as politician, Sir Edward went on to represent Oscar Wilde five years later in both the criminal libel trial against the Marquess of Queensbury and the subsequent criminal trial faced by Oscar Wilde.
The Livesey Library closed in 1966 when a new library opened just a short way along the road at the North Peckham Civic Centre. The building remained empty for some years but reopened in 1974 as a children’s museum that mounted annual exhibitions featuring historic objects and artworks from Southwark Council’s collections. Admission was free. Sadly, the Council made the decision to close the Museum in 2008 to save on running costs of £140,000 per annum.
At one time, the Council had hoped to sell the building but, as the building had been given to the parish of Camberwell, “in perpetuity” it meant legally they were unable to do so as they were not the owners but only the Trustees. The Friends of the Livesey Children’s Museum was formed who hoped to raise sufficient funds so the building could continue as a children’s museum but the Council decided to let the building to Theatre Peckham. Theatre Peckham required £5,000,000 to bring the building up to their required standard and had to pull out of renting the building when they were unable to raise the money.
In February 2014 Southwark Council announced they had commenced renovation works on the building to bring it back into use. Treasure House, a Community Interest Company who work with children who are unable to access mainstream education, moved in shortly afterwards. They will be rehabilitating the building and working with other organisations to offer a range of services to the local community that include educational and cultural programmes such as photography, art and gardening.
The inscription on the book reads "The word of the Lord endureth forever"