Harpenden Free Library

From the Red House to Harpenden Hall

Harpenden Dairies built a new block on their former yard, with an entry alongside the newly built Post Office, The library was above the Dairy shop. This section of the block was demolished when the Post Office was extended in the 1960s
LHS archives

In the early twenties a group of Harpenden people, aware that no library facilities existed for the general public, took steps to initiate what has by now become the Public Library.

The suggestion came from Miss Mary S. Aslin, Librarian at Rothamsted Experimental Station, and was energetically taken up by Mrs, afterwards Lady, Bowley, who enlisted interest and support on all sides.  A committee was formed with Lady Bowley as Chairwoman.  Other members were Mrs Henderson Smith, Mrs Roberts of St George’s, Miss Lodge, Dr Laurie, Miss Aslin, and this committee met frequently to discuss the constitution and working arrangements of the Library.

First, the Red House, then ..

The initial difficulty of premises was met by an offer from Sir Halley Stewart of a room, rent and maintenance free, at the Red House.  The only condition made by Sir Halley Stewart was that bookcases should be fitted with locked doors as the room was lent to other bodies, chiefly the Society of Friends for Meetings on Sunday mornings.

Money was subscribed to provide bookshelves, gifts of books poured in, a group of voluntary helpers undertook the staffing, and on 21 October 1925 the Free Library, as it was then called, a public library in miniature, was opened, two days a week, from 5-7pm, with a nucleus stock of 800 books, catalogued and classified – 350 of its own, and 150 from the newly established County Library, which were changed quarterly. The Free Library’s only source of income was from voluntary subscriptions and donations: it was not rate-supported.

An Elizabethan Pageant was held in rothamsted Park in 1926 in order to raise funds; leading parts were taken by members of the then committee, and over £100 was raised.

.. Above the dairy in Station Road

For the first two years, the Red House room and the short hours, seemed adequate, but stocks and borrowers alike increased, with 300 books a week being issued. Larger accommodation was needed, and on 1 January 1927 it moved to no.17a Leyton Road (site of Mary Ellen/Inn on the Green).  On 30 June 1930 the library moved again to rooms above Harpenden Dairies, 15 Station Road. The move from Leyton Road to Station Road only took three hours, with the help of volunteers from TocH and Boy Scouts. 

The use made of the library had been constantly growing: in 1932-33 it issued 25,681 books (an average of 535 a week for 48 working weeks, since it closed down in August). By then it owned 4,790 books, plus 1,200 from the County, which were changed every six months. But its financial situation was difficult. A statement of accounts for 1933/4 showed a turnover of £165 (subscriptions and donations £37; fines £24; rent £52; cleaner’s wages £13; books £10; telephone £6) with all staff voluntary.

However in 1934 the first paid assistant was taken on – Miss Wood was appointed as permanent Librarian, though helped by a body of voluntary workers.  Chief among these voluntary workers were Miss C.F.S. Johnson, late secretary to the Director at Rothamsted, and Dr Malcolm Laurie, a retired biologist.

Opening hours were extended to five days a week, and with Miss Wood on the spot every day the scope of the library increased significantly. It was affiliated to the County Library, which supplied books, and this greatly enlarged the efficiency of the local effort.  So much so that at last the Urban District Council recognised the work done for the community, and when the Library again became too large for its surroundings, the Council, which had by then taken over Harpenden Hall for council offices, provided a large and airy ground floor room, with a pleasant outlook.

Move to Harpenden Hall

By this time Lady Bowley and some original committee members and helpers had left Harpenden or had resigned, and the Committee came under the chairmanship of Mr Frederick Griggs, Chairman of the U.D.C.   Mrs Henderson Smith, who had acted throughout as Secretary, continued in this office.  Miss Clare Rose served on the committee and did useful work in mending and re-binding torn books. The Library, now well established, embarked on a period of increasing usefulness and source of pleasure to the community.  A grant of money was made by the Council to buy new books, the County Library increased its quota, the County Librarian paid visits, and the Free Library became a valued institution.

Miss Wood continued to be responsible for book selection, indexing, cataloguing and classification, though relieved for a short time by Mr Edwards of Tennyson Road, but she resigned in 1940, and was succeeded by Mr Corbett of Cuttsfield, who had long been one of the supporters of the Library.

At this point in the development of the Free Library, the writer left Harpenden and so cannot give any further account of its history.

The library moved to the old school in Victoria Road in 1947.

Comments about this page

  • A brochure for Harpenden Free Library, dated February 1927, has been found in the Society’s archives. This gives the date when Sir Richard Lodge opened the library as October 1925 “in a room lent by Mr Halley Stewart”. By February 1927 the number of Readers’ Tickets had increased to over 1000, with up to 300 books being borrowed per week. The Library had clearly outgrown the accommodation at the Red House, and the Library Committee, chaired by Mr Bernard Scattergood, obtained a lease of two rooms at No.17A Leyton Road at an annual rent of £32, which, it was felt, would allow for some development. 

    The 1927 report pointed out that the Library had no income other than voluntary subscriptions and “a trifling sum from fines”, but had raised £100 at a Fête at Rothamsted in 1926. The Committee had therefore decided to have a more permanent constitution, and to “institute a group of subscribers to the Library consisting of all persons who subscribe 10/- or more annually to its funds, and that such subscribers and the voluntary helpers at the Library should elect the Committee at an annual Meeting and so have influence in the management”. Readers were invited to subscribe and so help the Library obtain the income it needed.

    The Library evidently outgrew the rooms at 17A Leyton Road, since Kelly’s Directory for 1930 lists it at 15A Station Road, and the accounts for 1932-33 record that in 1931 the Education Department of the County Council, through Harpenden Urban District Council, made a grant of £150 “to defray the expenses of moving to 15A Station Road”, as well as furnishings and the “the purchase of urgently needed books”. The Annual report for 1933 proudly stated that the Library owned 4,790 volumes, supplemented by the loan of 1,200 volumes from the Hertford County Public Library. It opened on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 pm, and on Friday from 6 to 8 pm.

    From entries in Kelly’s, the move from Station Road to Harpenden Hall had taken place by 1938, where it stayed until it became (merged with?) the County Library in the old Victoria Road school – established by 1949.

    By Rosemary Ross (12/02/2015)
  • Does anyone remember a form of library existing at Dr Laurie’s home in Wordsworth Road. As a very young boy I remember going there with my mother. Not long after that the move to the premises over the Harpenden Dairies took place. One evening there the bell from HMS Harpenden was installed.

    By Colin Gaskin (13/07/2012)

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