Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The former St Saviour’s Library, situated at the corner of Southwark Bridge Road and Union Street, was opened in 1894 and although has not been used as a library for many years, the carved inscription ‘St Saviours Public Library’ still remains over the entrance. Described as being built in the “English Renaissance” style, the building incorporates decoration on the façade fashionable in late Victorian and Edwardian times and is constructed from beer stone and white Suffolk bricks.
The rate-payers of Southwark had voted in 1891 by about three to one in favour of building a free library. There had though been some opposition as by then the resident population had declined to 14,000 while the working population during the day and mostly travelling in from outside the parish was 80,000 and it was this group who would take most advantage of the library.
Commissioners for the building of the library were appointed and they began to look for a site. The site on Southwark Bridge Road was owned by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and is shown on the 1879 ordnance survey map as a public house. The Library Commissioners approached the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who asked for £3,600 for the site which was prohibitive. Negotiations began and finally, as the site was to be used for the building of a public library, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners agreed a price of £1,500 while the market value was estimated to be £2,500.
The foundation stone was laid in July 1893 by Richard Causton, later Lord Southwark, MP for Southwark West. The Prince of Wales agreed to perform the opening ceremony of the completed library in November 1894 but at the last minute had to pull out to embark on a journey to Livardia where the Princess of Wales’ brother-in-law, Czar Alexander III of Russia, had died. It was to have been a festive occasion but the opening ceremony of the library was a more low-key affair than had been originally planned with Richard Causton MP stepping in to perform the ceremony.
The library included a newsroom and a magazine room which had separate tables for women and boys. At the time of opening, the library had 9,000 volumes, which included the beginnings of a reference library, and would be able to accommodate a total of 30,000 books.
St Saviour’s Library closed when the John Harvard Library was opened in nearby Borough High Street in 1987. The building was modernised and refurbished in 2007 and is now home to the Lifeways organisation, one of the UK's leading providers of support services for people with diverse and often complex needs in community settings.