The London Library: A History | St James's London


The London Library: A History

The London Library was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle. In honour of this wonderful institution, we have compiled our very own timeline of anecdotes from the library, from a wheelbarrow of books for Dickens to the story of a Buckingham Palace chef lost in its famous stacks by Alan Bennett.

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Scottish philosopher, writer, and historian Thomas Carlyle makes this oft quoted speech, setting out the need for a lending library for all.

“How could a man take [a book] into a crowd, with bustle of all sorts going on around him?… a man can do more with it in his own apartment in the solitude of one night, than in a week in such a place as the British Museum. London has more men and intellect waiting to be developed than any place in the world ever had assembled. Yet there is no place on the civilised earth so ill supplied with materials for reading for those who are not rich… There is not a peasant in Iceland that cannot bring home books to his hut, better than men can in London.”


The London Library opens in its current home at No.14 St James’s Square, then a Georgian home known as ‘the worst house on the square.’


Charles Dickens writes A Tale of Two Cities with the help of two whole cartloads of books selected from the library.


Poetry powerhouse and Victorian celebrity, Alfred Lord Tennyson becomes president. “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”


The library is reconstructed behind the old Georgian façade as one of the first steel-framed buildings in London, and includes the launch of the library’s idiosyncratic shelving system, ‘the stacks’.


Describing her occupation as ‘spinster’, Virginia Woolf takes out lifetime membership four days after the death of her father Leslie Stephen, who had been library president for fourteen years.

She later recounts in her diary of an infuriating chance meeting with E.M. Forster. “…met Morgan in the London Library yesterday & flew into a passion. ”Virginia my dear,” he said. “You know I’m on the Committee here. And we’ve been discussing whether to allow ladies.” Oh but they do – I said. There was Mrs Green… “Yes yes – there was Mrs Green. And Sir Leslie Stephen said, never again. She was so troublesome. And I said, haven’t ladies improved? But they were all quite determined. No no no, ladies are quite impossible.” See how my hand trembles. I was so angry.” 


A devoted member, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes a new Sherlock Holmes story – An Illustrious Client – mentioning the library.

“Now, Watson, I want you to do something for me.” “I am here to be used, Holmes.” “Well, then, spend the next twentyfour hours in an intensive study of Chinese pottery.” He gave no explanations and I asked for none. By long experience I had learned the wisdom of obedience. But when I had left his room I walked down Baker Street, revolving in my head how on earth I was to carry out so strange an order. Finally I drove to the London Library in St James’s Square, put the matter to my friend Lomax, the sublibrarian, and departed to my rooms with a goodly volume under my arm.” 


On the night of 23 February, 1944, enemy planes dropped a bomb that destroyed four floors of the new stacks and the beloved new Art Room. Shrapnel can still be found in some volumes pencilled ‘e.a.’ – damaged by enemy action. During the war, staff worked stoically to protect the library, and the formidable Mr Cox who manned the front desk was overheard to simply say that “it wasn’t what we were used to.” But this time, with the loss of whole sections, there were legendary reports of a librarian shouting in desperation, “we’ve lost our religion!”


Iris Murdoch writes in her diary about an early romantic encounter with future husband John Bayley.
“I wanted terribly to embrace and kiss him. & told him so. He said – “we’ll go to the London Library”… It was fantastic. We walked up and down the long dark alleys of books. Always here and there a reader, hidden. We kept climbing up more and more iron stairways. At last we found a floor where there was no-one. We leaned against the shelves in the half darkness and clung to each other. J. wept.” 


Nobel Prize winner T.S. Eliot becomes president. “Whatever social changes come about, the disappearance of the London Library would be a disaster to civilisation.” 


The Anstruther Wing is completed with environmentally controlled space for the library’s special collection. With books pre-dating St James’s and from Henry VIII, half of the special collection is still available to take home. 


Sir Tom Stoppard becomes president. “Whether you read purely for pleasure (the best reason) or for instruction, or both together, membership of the London Library is something to be cherished.”


Alan Bennett writes a humorous story – The Uncommon Reader – about the Queen discovering and developing an insatiable appetite for reading. In the story, Norman is a commis chef at the palace.
“Having finished the Nancy Mitford sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, the Queen… sent Norman down to the London Library to borrow more. Patron of the London Library she had seldom set foot in it and neither, of course, had Norman, but he came back full of wonder and excitement… saying it was the sort of library he had only read about in books and had thought confined to the past. He had wandered through its labyrinthine stacks marvelling that these were all books that he (or rather She) could borrow at will. So infectious was his enthusiasm that next time, the Queen thought, she might accompany him.” 


New architectural works are completed, creating the Lightwell Reading Room, the new Times Room, staff offices, and the rightful restoration of the Art Room. 


Stephen Fry enthuses about the library (and St James’s) in his blog.
“What gyms can do for your body, this magical place can do for your mind… you can clamber across the marvellously mysterious original 1890s catwalks and gantries or luxuriate in the light and modern Art Room. They never throw a book away and there are NO FINES!” 


With over 1,000,000 titles covering over 2,000 subjects in 55 different languages, the library has books and periodicals dating from the 1500s to 2015, including a number of St James’s previous newspapers.