When I’m back in London there’s a building I like to visit. If you’re an art lover and you’ve been to London you may know the place. It’s the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End. But it’s not the art that I go for, it’s the building itself or rather its new-old addition – the former Whitechapel Library.
The original gallery building opened in in London’s East End in 1901. It seemed like an odd location. The neighbourhood was dodgy. Outsiders were scared to set foot in the area. In his book
People of the Abyss
, the writer Jack London tells of the horrified reactions of people when, in 1902, he told them he was planning on living there for a while. “You don’t want to live down there!” they said alarmed.” London fared no better with the good folks at Thomas Cook and Son, an English travel company that sent intrepid travelers all over the world and refused to take him a stone’s throw away to the East End. You can’t do it you know,” they told him “It is so – ahem – unusual. Consult the police.”
Fortunately this was also the age of philanthropists with the winning combination of a zeal for social reform and deep pockets. Samuel Augustus Barnett, a social reformer and clergyman who’d moved to the East End, believed that the poor folks, native born and immigrants, in the crowded Whitechapel tenements deserved a library no less than Londoners in wealthier areas. He persuaded John Passmore Edwards, another social reformer, to dig into his wallet and fund a library for the residents of Whitechapel. The library opened in 1892. And what a library it was.
They called it The University of the Ghetto and it acquired legendary status. The area was home to vast numbers of poor Jewish immigrants with a thirst for knowledge. Because of Jewish borrowers the library built up the largest collection of Jewish and Yiddish literature in any British library. It was a refuge and meeting place for all-sorts: radical thinkers, school children, dockers, office workers and down and outs. They browsed the shelves and sat at the wooden tables in the reading room. And the list of writers and artists who got their start at number 77 Whitechapel High Street was long.