This is the story of Norwich’s lost libraries, all of which have disappeared in my lifetime. Some have been totally lost, destroyed by the demolition man or burnt to the ground; in other cases the buildings remain but the books have been moved to a new home or dispersed.

Armada House stands on St Andrew’s Street at the St Andrew’s Hall end of Princes Street, and back in the 1970s it was still the library of the Norfolk Archaeological Association. I used it quite a bit, not for its up-to-date information because, apart from its own publications, its books were nearly all pretty ancient. I never remember meeting anyone there, although there must have been someone in charge to allow access. The reason I enjoyed it so much was largely on account of the musty atmosphere of nineteenth century learning. It was called Armada House with reason – it dates from 1589 and is said to incorporate timbers from wrecked Spanish galleons. Sitting in the alcove looking out on St Andrews Hill among the bookshelves you were transported to a remote time. More prosaically it is also known as Garsett House, and as that was the name on official Archaeological Society documents I suppose I ought to use it.

The main reading room was on the first floor. They had all sorts of unexpected things in their collection in those days. Now that the library is in the Close under the eye of the cathedral the assortment of books and artifacts is more relevant, but in those days I remember it contained an assortment of  Victorian stereoscopic slides together with a viewer. They were fascinating but quite unrelated to Norfolk archaeology, being of such things as views of India or zoo animals.

I was reading history at university, and I should have been concentrating on the latest books, but there wasn’t much material available in Norwich. I could probably hunt out just about enough to keep me in touch during the long vacation, but I was an inexperienced researcher. Now I would go to the UEA library which has all of the history books I would need, bur then the UEA was still pretty basic as far a library books went, and did not welcome non-members of the university to its meagre store. Now too I would have access to learned journals on the internet on my university account, but in the 1970s the internet was decades in the future. Except for local history where the Colman and Rye Library had an unsurpassed collection of East Anglian books, resources available at the City Library were not great. They still are not great, although much better than they were forty years ago. All the same, the collection was in one crucial respect far superior to what we have today; the collection of local photographs and images which was accessed from a card index on the first floor in the Local Studies library. This priceless collection bore the full force of the fire which destroyed the library in 1994, and many images were lost forever. Even the catalogue went up in the conflagration, so we do not even know what we have lost. It was a devastating blow only partly compensated for by a much superior building,  the Forum.

The Public Record Office was in the basement of the old library but you were made to feel ill at ease in using it. It was meant, they said, only for very serious people who knew exactly what they wanted. It certainly wasn’t intended for browsing. People who just wanted to research their family history for example were firmly discouraged. It was small and cramped by comparison with the Archive Centre on Martineau Lane, but even allowing for the lack of space the attitude was certainly unwelcoming in comparison to today.

Norfolk and Norwich Subscription Library, Guildhall Hill

Norfolk and Norwich Subscription Library, Guildhall Hill

The third library was the oldest and most remarkable of all, certainly in Norwich and probably in the whole country. This was the Norfolk and Norwich Subscription Library which traced its origins back to 1784. Where Armada House was intimate, the Subscription Library was on a grand scale. Books ran up the wall of the impressive main hall far too high for anybody to reach, were it not for a narrow gallery which ran around the room. Even then you needed a ladder to reach the volumes on the higher shelves. It had long since ceased to buy new books, and the income from subscriptions must only just have been enough to pay the librarian’s salary. It had many valuable old books including a complete run of the 18th century Gentleman’s Magazine and (my own favourite) bound volumes of Punch, the humorous weekly, from the first issue in 1841. This magazine had cartoons from the start. The magazine finally ended publication in 1992. It had produced good copy right up to the end, employing such journalists as Malcolm Muggeridge, H. F. Ellis and Basil Boothroyd during the post war period. Alan Coren was writing for the publication until it finally closed. These were the journalists who wrote for Punch when I remember it; the Norfolk and Norwich Subscription Library had long ceased to buy the journal by the time these writers were at work. By the time Punch itself closed the Norfolk and Norwich Subscription Library had turned into the Advice Arcade, having closed in 1976.

To the right as you entered there was a more intimate reading room where I remember they served coffee in the morning. It was a peaceful corner of the city, though within a few steps of the busy marketplace. It was not as unvisited as Garsett House, but there too you entered a past world. There would be a few other readers – but not many, and I was by far the youngest of the subscribers as far as I was aware.

You may not be aware that before the local government re-organisation of 1974 Norwich and Norfolk were two completely separate councils of equal powers. Norfolk County Education Committee had no control over the schools in Norwich for example. As a result there was completely separate main library for the county at 52 Thorpe Road. This was housed in a number of interconnected temporary feeling buildings – they were pre-fabs – set, remarkably for an urban institution, in a wood. The rooms were light and airy as windows went all round the walls, and they looked out onto trees. County branch libraries (and there were nothing like as many as now) took most of the stock of fiction books, but the county’s main reference library was housed in Thorpe. As far as content was concerned it was even worse than Norwich City library, but I am perhaps being hypercritical. I had had after all experienced a world-class library in the Bodleian at Oxford Unversity. After 1974 when it became just Thorpe Branch Library rather than Norfolk County Library the stock became mainly fiction, and therefore of limited interest to me. It soon closed altogether.

I will end with a mention of the Norwich Free Library which stood on the corner of St Andrews Street and Duke Street. This was the precursor of the Norwich Central Library which burnt down in 1994. The Free Library was opened in 1857 and moved to the site opposite St Peter Mancroft in 1963. I was just too young to remember it well, but I do recall that it was very cramped. One thing I do remember about it was the selection of daily papers which were kept on tall wooden desks where you had to read them while standing. The papers could not be removed, being held down with string. A number of tramps congregated there away from the cold and wet. To discourage them and other feckless people from wasting their money betting on the horses, the lists of runners and riders was obscured by printer’s ink on a roller being run over the pages before they were put out in the morning. Nevertheless these pages were pored over intently because some at least of the information could be still be seen through the black ink.

There are still at least four libraries in the city. I have mentioned three of them in passing – the Millennium Library in the Forum, the Archaeological Society Library at 64 The Close and the University Library. The fourth i the Cathedral Library which has been there for many years, but has has relatively recently been opened up to the public. As you would expect, this holds religious works and books of church architecture. These are the libraries that I know of as having a relevance to the historian. There may be other specialist libraries on subjects such as law and medicine that I am not aware of.

JOSEPH MASON                                                                                                                                              



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