Kensal Rise Library is very proud to be the only library in the world opened by the celebrated American writer, Mark Twain – on September 27th 1900.
It is now run by and for the community via the registered charity, Friends of Kensal Rise Library (FKRL), charity no 1141606.
The community formed FKRL in 2011 to campaign against library closures and in particular, to regain and refurbish historic Kensal Rise Library, following its closure as a public library by Brent Council and subsequent sale by the freeholder, All Souls College, to developers.
FKRL operates the library independently of the local authority, employing a Library Manager, and relies on public donations and volunteers to keep going.
We aim to maintain an innovative, exciting library and public space at the heart of our neighbourhood, that is free and welcoming to all in our diverse, crowded community, offering a range of services for both adults and children to further literacy, the arts and community cohesion.
As well as book loans, computers, printing and other library services, we provide a meeting place for local groups and private hire space. Our eclectic range of cultural events adds vibrancy and excellence to community life, and makes the library a destination for visitors from further afield.
‘Naughty books’, strippers and other memories
Until the mid-1960s, to enter or leave the library you had to pass through the highly polished, wooden check-in/out. The polish on all that dark wood permeated the building like incense, still fondly remembered: “…and the smell….just so special, ” says Kensal Rise native, Thelma Doyle.
Like an old ship, the check-out’s components were all of an organised complex piece, including long shiny counters behind which the librarians worked, and myriad pigeon holes for cardboard cards in pastel shades. It was magical – and the best bits moved, making delectable sounds, like the clicketty wooden turnstiles and the heavy date stamp.
This was also where books thought too racy for the shelves had to be requested – by means of more wood. “I remember the ‘naughty’ books that were made of wood on the shelves, just showing their title”, says Thelma. “These had to be taken to the check-out counter to get the real thing – not that I ever borrowed any of those, of course!”.
Pamela Foster, who worked at the library in the 1960s and lived in Bathurst Gardens, adds: “ I found the wooden books really funny – some were just sex education. ‘Lady Chatterley’ was wood also…how strange to think of that now!”
The head librarian would judge whether you were sufficiently worthy to swap your wooden dummy for the real thing – which she kept, along with other incendiary titles, primly locked away in the darkest depths of the check-out.
Such prudishness contrasts with a visit, 30 years later, recalled by Anne Mullane, who was a library assistant in the 1990s: “On the day Fred was leaving, we were working upstairs and it was announced that someone important had arrived for him.
“We could hardly believe our eyes when a woman in a raincoat – a stripper – was ushered in. We female librarians were sent downstairs. The men didn’t even have the decency to look ashamed! She was up there for ages! Different times, I guess.
“I think Brent’s library management didn’t know the HALF of what went on in their libraries! … And I bet that stripper never worked in another library – before, or since!”
Thelma recalls the library’s layout: “I can remember when there was a staircase up the middle to the Children’s Library on the first floor to the right, the library check in/out in the middle of the ground floor at the base of the stairs, the silent reading room was downstairs on the left and the general library to the right”.
Pamela says: “All the lending areas were downstairs; upstairs was where the new books were processed, and the Schools Library was upstairs too. If you went another floor up to the attic, there were really old books there. I wonder what happened to all of them…?
This cute, contextual animation takes the campaign up to when we were appealing to All Souls College Oxford to return the building to the community.
The campaign to re-open
To be continued as we complete our new website…
Mark Twain was already a renowned transatlantic celebrity when he opened Kensal Rise Library on September 27th 1900. So this was a considerable coup for the little London neighbourhood. Twain is still widely recognised as one of America’s greatest writers and we are extremely proud of this unique history. You can see a photograph of Twain with the Library Committee, displayed near the front door.
Twain had spent the summer at nearby Dollis Hill House, in what is now Gladstone Park. As part of the opening ceremony, Twain gave five of his own books to the Chair of the Library Committee. What became of those precious volumes is a mystery! In return, Twain was presented with an inscribed silver key, now owned by scholar/collector Kevin MacDonnell in Texas, who acquired them from Twain’s daughter.
Locals requested the site for a Public Reading Room/Library from major landowner, All Souls College, which was greatly profiting from the area’s rapid development in the 19th century. On strict condition that the site could only be used to build a reading room or library, All Souls donated the land to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1896.
Money to build the reading room came from public subscription and local taxes – not All Souls College.
The reading room was immediately popular: in the first week after Twain’s opening, 80 people a day used it to read papers, rising to 150 after 6 months. Books came to be donated – an act of generosity that resonates with today’s public, who have donated almost all the books on our shelves.
By 1901, such was the demand that the library committee appealed for money to enlarge the building, asking the then famously richest man in the world – Andrew Carnegie, the Scots-American steel magnate and philanthropist, who endowed over 2,500 libraries globally. Carnegie happened to be a good friend of Mark Twain, which may be why he responded with a grant of £3,000 in September 1903. The result – the attractive, redbrick building you see today at the crossroads of Bathurst Gardens and College Road (both named after All Souls College), was officially opened in 1904. The plaque commemorating both Carnegie and Mark Twain hangs today by the library’s front door.
In 1922, Kensal Rise Library became the first in the borough of Willesden to allow people to choose their own books from the shelves, instead of librarians fetching them from storage – censored books excluded (see ‘naughty books and other memories’ above). In 1928, an extension was built between the original building and the first house in Bathurst Gardens.
In 1934, a Children’s Library was established on the first floor. This was decorated with murals from children’s literature, painted by Dudley Holland and the celebrated Maurice de Sausmarez (later, teacher and partner of Bridget Riley), while they were still students at Willesden College of Art. Very sadly, these murals were lost in the Council’s night raid in 2012 (see below).
During World War II, the building suffered minor damage from heavy bombing, due to the neighbourhood’s proximity to the railway. At night, fire watchers sat in the attic windows surveilling the views across London to St Paul’s. The ‘war effort’ also claimed the library’s iron railings, which were removed from the perimeter wall, possibly for munitions.
In 1964 there were major structural changes, including, sadly, the removal of the handsome stone staircase, the wooden check-in/check-out (see ‘naughty books and other memories’ above) and the mosaic floor in the entrance lobby; the courtyard was also filled in. The Children’s Library moved downstairs to the 1928 extension. The vacated rooms upstairs were eventually used by the Schools Library Service, after responsibility for the library passed to the newly formed London Borough of Brent in April 1965.
In 1988 Brent Council was making cutbacks and as a branch library, Kensal Rise was threatened with closure. In protest, locals occupied the premises. Parents and children slept overnight on the library floor. The Council was about to sell the building to a Japanese property company, but protest leaders rediscovered the All Souls’ covenant, protecting the building’s use as a reading room/library. The Council capitulated, refurbished the library, and it lived on in public hands…
..Until 2010, when the Council once again announced closure plans – this time of half the borough’s 12 libraries. In response, the community formed the campaigning charity, Friends of Kensal Rise Library (FKRL). It created a business plan setting out how the community could run the library, organised public meetings, petitions, fundraising events and diverse other interventions.
The campaign was fought for many years; a collective community response attracting national and international media attention and the support of notables, including writers like Alan Bennett, Zadie Smith, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, performers such as Tamsin Greig and Alexi Sayle, and politicians including Alan Johnson.
“Closing libraries is child abuse. Libraries have to be local. They have to be handy. They shouldn’t need an expedition.”Writer Alan Bennett, speaking about the closure of Kensal Rise Library on the BBC Newsnight programme, 2011
Early on, the case was even taken to the High Court, but a judicial review challenge and its appeal were dismissed, and in 2011, the library doors were locked.
The Council then came to take the books, ignoring the All Soul’s covenant whereby without the books, the entire building would revert to the College (which had not paid a penny to build it). However, the campaigners – including children from the local primary school – kept guard every day outside, and the council’s removal men left empty-handed.
Fearing further confrontation, in the dead of night and with police reinforcement, in May 2012 council officials seized the books and the totemic original plaque commemorating Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie. The library’s other treasures, the de Sausmarez and Dudley murals, were lost in the raid – and the entire building, which had been public for over 100 years, reverted to All Souls College.
“The wanton destruction of the Kensal Rise Library – its books removed, its history erased – is a gross act of philistinism which will bring lasting shame to all involved, ”Sir Michael Holroyd
Undeterred, FKRL created a pop-up library outside, with books, toys and games donated – and enthusiastically used by – local residents, writers and publishers. Under makeshift awnings, rain or shine, books were loaned out by volunteers who had swiftly organised a shift system. There were adults’ and children’s sections, bisected on the crossroads by a city piano. This continued to prove the need for a library on the site, and retained the press and wider public’s interest in that need.
Despite FKRL’s appeal to All Souls to return the building to the public (which had paid for it), the College sold the building to developer, Platinum Revolver. However, due to FKRL’s campaign, as a condition of the sale, All Souls stipulated that part of the ground floor must be reserved for the community. FKRL then managed to extend that community space at Brent Council’s Planning Committee to two thirds of the ground floor. In addition, FKRL negotiated with the College a peppercorn rent for the lease, 10 days shy of 1,000 years. The rest of the building is now private apartments. Without FKRL, what is now Kensal Rise Library would have been out of community hands forever.
We then To be continued….
Authored & created by: Stephanie Schonfield
Images: Allen Samuels, Stephanie Schonfield
In this section...
Join the Library
Why not join the library and read a book? It's great fun!How to apply →
Make a Donation
The library depends on donations to keep open. Thank you for your support.