Passmore Edwards Library, East Ham
John Passmore-Edwards was a running dog of capitalism, a Liberal politician, journalist, publisher and philanthropist. If you are a devotee of crumbling public buildings and are familiar with East London or other areas where his philanthropy was put to good use, you might have noticed his name on a number of ageing libraries.
His bequests funded a total of 70 major buildings and public works: “These included hospitals, 11 drinking fountains, 32 marble busts, 24 libraries, schools, convalescent homes and art galleries and the Passmore Edwards Settlement in Tavistock Place. He was also a generous donor to the Workers’ Educational Association.(source).” In Limehouse, he funded the magnificently-named Sailors’ Palace, a hostel for seamen. In Burgess Park, in South London, his money funded a public library, baths and wash-house combined – an excellent idea in those days of grim poverty, when cleanliness was next to Godliness but hard to achieve and when not everyone thought that the working-classes were thick, verminous uneducable chavs. What is most engaging about Passmore Edwards buildings, and others of that sort, is the quality, solidity (and, arguably, the grace) of the architecture; even Pevsner quite liked it. Unlike in later periods of public architecture, buildings for the very poor were grand in conception and built to last. They were meant to dignify the working class, not imprison them.
“Amongst the late Victorian philanthropists, Passmore Edwards will survive critical examination better than most. Not only were his motives beyond reproach… but his benefactions expressed deeply held and intelligent convictions about conditions of progress in his society.” (English Philanthropy 1660-1960, David Owen)
I’ll declare an interest. I love libraries. They are sacred places – in fact, the first one I joined, at the age of four, was in a converted church, so that might account for the confusion. My mother, ignoring the robber baron part of his career, spoke of Andrew Carnegie in reverent tones. Even in the digital age, to see parents, often from very poor or marginalised backgrounds, bring their kids into the library and help them choose their books, makes me happy. Libraries are a universal social good and, in part, we have the great do-gooders and busy-bodies of the past to thank for them.
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