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Celebration as Willesden Green Library marks its 125th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 15:43 17 July 2019 | UPDATED: 15:43 17 July 2019

Willesden Green Library after 1907 extension. Picture: Brent Archives

Willesden Green Library after 1907 extension. Picture: Brent Archives

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A celebration tomorrow marks the 125th birthday of Willesden Green Library.

Willesden Green Library in 2019. Picture: Philip GrantWillesden Green Library in 2019. Picture: Philip Grant

A programme of activities has been curated by Brent Museums and Archives to reflect the heritage of the library in the High Road and celebrate the cultural centre it has become.

It's taking place in the ground floor family space, children's library and historic reading room from 4pm to 6pm with face-painting, family crafts, badge making, speeches, music and a talk.

It is to the community's credit that some of the front façade still exists - for the main building is long gone and a residential block built in its place.

The opening of the Willesden Green Public Library on July 18, 1894, was a grand occasion that included a concert of classical music and songs.

Willesden Green Library and the High Road around 1900. Picture: Brent ArchivesWillesden Green Library and the High Road around 1900. Picture: Brent Archives

It had all started, according to historian Philip Grant, in January that year, when neighbours met at the home of a Mr W B Luke in Chapter Road to discuss the possibility of opening free public libraries in the area.

A majority of rate payers in the district would need to vote in favour of paying an extra penny in the pound on their rates every year for the Willesden Local Board (WLB) to adopt the Public Libraries Acts,

Mr Luke and his supporters petitioned the council to hold a ballot, promising that, if successful, each of the three centres in the area - Harlesden, Kilburn and Willesden Green - would have its own library.

Not so, however. In the columns of the Willesden Chronicle in February, 1891, one anonymous letter was headed "proposed pauper libraries for Willesden Parish", with the copy reading: "Acquiring a taste to waste time reading foolish and frivolous literature may be less bad than acquiring a taste for some habits of a more actively vicious description. Nevertheless it is very much the reverse of desirable."

The 1894 Opening Ceremony music for Willesden Green Library. Picture: Brent ArchivesThe 1894 Opening Ceremony music for Willesden Green Library. Picture: Brent Archives

Rev William Smith, chairman of the Willesden school board, hit back: "People must have recreation, and a certain degree of excitement. If they do not take it out in poetry and fiction, they will have it in drinking and gambling."

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Willesden's rate payers voted in favour of free libraries, by 2,257 to 1,070, in February, 1891.

Philip added: "It was only 20 years since free elementary education for all children had been made compulsory in this country."

Willesden and Brent Chronicle's 1984 article that Willesden Green Library's front is saved. Picture: Brent ArchivesWillesden and Brent Chronicle's 1984 article that Willesden Green Library's front is saved. Picture: Brent Archives

WLB set up separate library committees, and acquired sites for the three libraries, and split the amount raised by the penny rate - about £1,100 a year - in proportion to the population to be served by each.

When it opened, the library had a stock of 4,968 books, many of which had been donated by locals.

By 1901 Willesden's rising population meant growing pressure on the often congested library, which now lent 70,000 books a year.

The library committee applied to the American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who donated £3,000 for an extension.

The wings of the building were increased from one to two storeys, and a bigger library was opened on April 26, 1907.

Fast forward several decades. In 1980 Brent Council published its Willesden Green District Plan, voting to demolish the building four years later. A successful campaign by locals saved it and it was instead expanded.

Philip said: "The new Willesden Green Library Centre finally opened in October 1989. It was hailed as 'a space-age library for the 21st century', and Brent Council had borrowed £5million, repayable over 60 years, to pay for it." Later, a £3.1m Lottery grant enabled the Brent Archives to move there.

The community came out fighting again in 2011, the year Brent Council closed six libraries, when the council's regeneration department said the building was "poorly designed and inefficient to run". Brent suggested a compromise: the library closed in July 2013 but work was soon under way to build the new Cultural Centre.

The deal involved 95 new private flats on the 70 per cent of the former library site that the council had given the developer in exchange for the new community building.

Elayne Coakes, executive officer of the Willesden Green Town Team, said: "There was a concerted campaign from many local residents to save the old library. It was something that really mattered to the community. [...] It is now recognised by architects as an excellent design but without community pressure it would not have happened. It was disappointing that the existing area of community space to the front was not retained, but by saving the large tree and providing seating, the side area has become an area for our community edible and sustainable garden to flourish alongside."

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