Ipswich Icons: Town was a pioneer in the early days of public libraries

Rosehill Library, which is now 110 years old.

Rosehill Library, which is now 110 years old. - Credit: Archant

Ipswich was one of the first towns in the country to open a public library, following the 1850 Public Libraries Ac, writes John Norman, of the Ipswich Society.

A leaflet for the Ipswich Victoria Free Library in Alston Road, Ipswich.

A leaflet for the Ipswich Victoria Free Library in Alston Road, Ipswich. - Credit: Archant

There is claim to it being the second oldest municipal public library in the country (Norwich was the 11th).

Ipswich’s Victoria Free Library was established in 1887, run from the southern wing of the new Museum in High Street – you can still see the relief portrait of Queen Victoria above the doorway. The term “Free Library” indicates free access to the library stock as distinct from a public subscription library, such as that operated from The Ancient House in Butter Market. Anyone living in Ipswich, paying rates or being educated in the town could borrow books without charge.

Ipswich opened branch libraries to serve outlying parts of the town which supplemented the facilities offered by the library in the museum. The earliest of these branches was at the junction of Clapgate Lane and Mildmay Road (the site of the present Gainsborough Library). Additionally there were

branch libraries at Norwich Road (later moved up to Westbourne Library, Sherrington Road), Tomline Road (Rosehill Library) and in Stoke Street (later incorporated into the new Stoke High School, Maidenhall Approach).

In the pioneering days of public libraries it was thought innovative that tickets were interchangeable and books could be returned to any of the branch libraries. The Central Library in Northgate Street was built in 1924 and was partly funded by the Andrew Carnegie Trust. Today it is listed grade II and is a fine example of the work of architect Henry Munro Cautley.

Rosehill Library

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The Victorian suburb of Rosehill to the east of Ipswich grew rapidly from the 1870s and had its own railway station; Derby Road (opened in 1877), its own library in Tomline Road, and a wealth of other amenities including a direct tram service to the centre of town.

Rosehill Library was opened in 1905, however it wasn’t the first branch library in the area, a branch of the Victoria Free Library had been opened in a private house in 1895.

An article in the EADT for February 28, 1895, read: “The necessity of establishing a branch of the Ipswich Victoria Free Lending Library in that district of the town comprising parts of the parishes of St John, Holy Trinity, and St Bartholomew has on more than one occasion been recognised. With a view of carrying this into effect, the Rev J H Jennings, curate of Holy Trinity, summoned a meeting of residents in the Rose Hill district, who readily fell in with the proposal of establishing a branch library in connection with the central one in High Street. Active measures were immediately set on foot, and with the formation of a committee … rapid progress was made. With the co-operation of the Victoria Free Library, and a ready response to the subscription list, a library comprising 450 books has been started at Winterbourne House, Alston Road, through the kindness of Mr R E Adams, who besides lending the room, has undertaken to act as honorary librarian.”

There were very limited opening hours: two evenings and one afternoon per week. Winterbourne House no longer exists, but is commemorated by ‘Winterbourne Terrace 1879’, four cottages, in the same road. A notice was issued appealing for donations of books.

The purpose-built Tomline Road branch library was opened on May 24, 1905 by the Mayor of Ipswich, Alderman J H Grimwade. It was built on land purchased by the Mayor Aldermen and Burgesses of Ipswich in 1897 and the building which we see today was designed at no charge by Mr Frank Brown, architect and diocesan surveyor.

A number of eminent gentlemen of the town donated money towards the construction of the library: Goddard, Birkitt, Brand, Burton, Cobbold, Cowell, Tozer, Fison, Grimwade, Whitfield King and Paul. One of the patrons was H. Rider Haggard, author of She and King Solomon’s Mines.