Ipswich Icons - Looking back at Ipswuch’s first museum established in what is now Arlington’s Brassiere, in Museum Street

icons may 28

icons may 28 - Credit: Archant

The industrial revolution at the turn of the 18th Century brought an abundance of agricultural workers into the towns to work in the newly-established factories, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

These populations became detached from their family roots, from their home parish and from the simpler life they had enjoyed previously. With it came poor living conditions and for those without employment abject poverty, starvation and squalor. However, for those in work came a desire for entertainment, material goods and knowledge.

This cultural and intellectual energy was to a certain extent, bottled up inside the workforce. It was recognised, among others by the nation’s progressive elite, the newly wealthy with their factories, mills and mines. The response, albeit only by a few, was to spend considerable proportions of their wealth on social provisions, parks, libraries and religious buildings, a contribution to the greater social good of society. Foremost among the aims of these benefactors was to persuade the population towards temperance and moderation.

These philanthropic offerings would allow the working classes, or a least the few that put their minds to it, the opportunity to improve themselves, gather knowledge and contribute to the society in which they lived. Foremost among these most generous of individuals was Andrew Carnegie, who helped establish some 380 libraries across Britain (and 1,700 in the USA).

There had been a number of circulating libraries since the 18th Century, run by booksellers and publishers who provided a place, not to sell but to lend books to what was becoming an increasingly literate population. These libraries usually charged a fee; monthly, quarterly or annually encouraging regular visits by members.

There had of course been earlier libraries, Norwich claims the first subscription library, established in 1608. Thomas Bodley had founded the Bodleian in Oxford six years before but its membership was strictly limited. Chetham’s Library in Manchester was founded in 1653. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th Century that libraries paid for from public funds and freely available to all became common place.

They started with the Museum Act of 1845, which gave local authorities the power to create, not only museums but to make their collections of reference books available to visitors. Both Warrington and Salford established libraries within their museums from the beginning. The Public Libraries Act of 1850 was more direct, in that it gave local authorities a remit to establish free public libraries.

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In Ipswich the first museum was in Museum Street in 1847 in a building that is now Arlington’s Brassiere. Designed by Ipswich architect Christopher Fleury, it has a distinctive neo-classical frontage, originally with a portico over the pavement. On July 4, 1851 HRH Prince Albert visited the museum and after inspecting the exhibits had lunch in the museum library.

The contents of the museum and its library were moved into a new building in the High Street, designed by Horace Chesterton in 1880. This building was altered and extended on three occasions before 1905; including the commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 (a bust of Queen Victoria can still be seen over the door to what was then the town library).

The library moved to Northgate Street in 1924, into a building by renowned local architect Hugh Munro Cautley. Built in a collegiate Tudor style, red bricks with stone decoration, of particular note are the animals in the arch over the front door, a reflection of the fact that the library had started in a museum with an extensive collection of British wildlife. All libraries hold an extensive resource, a collection of knowledge in many different forms but at the entrance the owl represents wisdom, the squirrel is storing knowledge, and the snake with an apple represents the temptation of knowledge. Carved above the door is the date the library opened, in the midst of the stonemason’s tools.

The library service transferred to Suffolk County Council with local government reorganisation in 1974 and was amalgamated with other Suffolk libraries to provide a comprehensive county-wide service. An extension in 1994 by county architects (Jos Dalley – project architect) is unobtrusive from Northgate Street and distinctive in Old Foundry Road.

A couple of works of art are worthy of a second glance if you’re visiting. The windows of the long barrel-vaulted reading room above Northgate Street are in contemporary stained glass with life-size images of Geoffrey Chaucer, Francis Bacon and Thomas Wolsey, commissioned by Munro Cautley, and in the Old Foundry Road entrance a hanging glass sculpture by Jeff Bell.

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