It’s a bit hidden away on a side street, and now that the main access is through an unglamorous corridor from the main lending library few people even notice it. But if you venture down Altenburg Gardens to the old main entrance, hidden away behind Clapham Cycles, it’s quickly clear that Battersea’s reference library is quite an unusual building. It was built back in 1924, at a point when the streets and houses around were already fifty or so years old, and when the main library building facing Lavender Hill was already thirty years old and had already had one extension at the back to create what’s now the children’s section.
The main library facing Lavender Hill was an important building for Battersea: the town had been growing enormously as it industrialised, going from being not much more than a rural village in 1850 with 12,000 inhabitants, to a substantial industrial town with well over 100,000 people. Despite being by far the larger town Battersea was still managed by its much smaller neighbour Wandsworth, which had caused years of frustration. Finally the Council – or ‘Battersea Vesry; as it was then known – managed to detach itself from Wandsworth, and the new library which opened three years after the separation in 1890 was one of the brave new local authority’s first big construction projects, and was given a prominent site on Lavender Hill.
They ran a design competition for the main library, which received ten entries, and the winner was local architect Edward Mountford. It was his first commission from the Battersea a local authority, and a possibly helpful factor in him winning was that his design was the only one of the ten that could be built within the £6,000 budget! It proved an excellent move on his part, and the Council clearly liked his design – as he was soon also commissioned to design the much larger and bigger-budget Battersea Town Hall (now Battersea Arts Centre).
The Battersea library proved a success – and a few decades later in 1924 the library grew again, to incorporate a reference library, which was built with the aim of helping with the education of the Borough’s young adults. This was an interesting time to be building something: the 1920s typically mixed post-First World War optimism with years of economic depression, and there was generally a shortage of both money and materials. Optimism was clearly the approach here, and the spirit of the new library investment is reflected in the Latin motto carved in stone over the entrance, – Non Mihi, Non Tibi, Sed Nobis – which translates as ‘Not for Me, Not for You, But for Us.’ When people did manage to get things built in the early 1920s there were quite a variety of architectural styles, stretching from very traditional styles that were essentially continuations of Victorian designs, all the way to the first signs of the modern streamlined designs that would become very popular in the 1930s.
The reference library could have just taken the obvious approach and built in a similar style as Edward Mountford’s original library, or the Voctorian terraces around it – but instead it adopted a quite different style to the neighbouring Victorian terraces, and built a design that was, and remains, really quite unusual for the area. The architect was Henry Hyams, and he adopted an ‘Arts and Crafts‘ architectural style, a phase of architectural design that focussed on traditional materials, techniques and craftsmanship, as a movement against what was seen as the increasing mass-production of buildings and materials at the time. Arts and Crafts was a big movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but by 1924 it was becoming pretty clear that commercial forces the movement had tried to counter were unstoppable, and the Arts and Crafts movement was declining; no further public buildings in Battersea were ever built like this one.
This becomes very apparent looking at the building, which only has a small street presence but which really goes long on hand made details including intricate carved stone arch above the door, copper and glass lamps, mosaic tiling on the doorstep, hand made metal guttering, and lots of use of oak and Portland stone.
Compared to the original library project where money had been tight and where Edward’s success had relied on getting a lot of mileage out of a limited budget, it’s pretty clear that by 1924 Battersea was a rather wealthier place and that it could afford to splash out on a building of the very highest quality. The whole library is now Grade II listed, and it is maybe a pointer to the quality of the build that it’s still doing exactly the same as it was when it opened in the 1920s. There may be more computers and photocopiers and wifi, and there have been a few lifts and ramps added over the years to improve access – but it is still well used, and its main focus is still serving its basic purpose as a calm and pleasant space for quiet study.
The new reference library was a building that set out to show the skill and style of traditional building crafts, and nearly a century later while the battle against mass-produced buildings may be well and truly lost, the reference library’s old-world charm and meticulous attention to detail still pays testament to those skills and remains an impressive (if underappreciated) part of Battersea’s architectural heritage.