Monthly Archives: June 2020

A library for the twenty-first century

Library of Birmingham
Birmingham Central Library (2011)

My first memory of Birmingham, at the start of the 1960s, was of bulldozers battering buildings.

This activity was the life’s work of the City Engineer & Surveyor from 1935 to 1963, Sir Herbert Manzoni (1899-1972), who insistently proclaimed the need to get rid of the detritus of the past in favour of a brave new twentieth-century future.

I have a memory of spending an afternoon, sometime in 1971-2, in the clerestoried reading room of J H Chamberlain’s magnificent Central Library of 1882, manhandling bound volumes of The Times in search of a Victorian scandal.

The building was already doomed, being in the way of Manzoni’s Inner Ring Road, and the books were soon to be transferred from their galleried shelving, accessed by spiral staircases [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_Central_Library#/media/File:BCL_restored_after_the_fire_of_1879.jpg], into the replacement building, the Birmingham Central Library (1974) designed by the Birmingham architect John Madin (1924-2012).

John Madin was responsible for many of the significant buildings in Birmingham in the 1970s, and many of these unlovely structures have already disappeared.  I used the Central Library occasionally and loathed it.

It consisted of an unobjectionable three-storey lending library and an eight-storey reference library in the form of an upturned ziggurat.  Prince Charles dismissed it as “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”.

The design was repeatedly compromised by the City Council’s refusal to accept Madin’s specification of Portland stone or marble cladding and the glazing in of the central open atrium.  The bare concrete became grubby and the surrounding land was sold off and haphazardly developed.

There were some who valued John Madin’s claustrophobic library as a “… grand romantic gesture of the Brutalist period with subtle use of internal space, and remarkable tact in relating to [its] nineteenth-century neighbours” but the building gradually became too cramped for its purpose, as library users demanded monitors and keyboards as well as books.

Birmingham City Council was lucky to put its plans for a replacement in place in the nick of time before the economic downturn choked local-authority expenditure.

The Library of Birmingham, designed by the Dutch architect Francine Houben (b 1955) of the Mecanoo practice, occupies the site of a former car park on Centenary Square between the Birmingham Rep Theatre and the pre-war Baskerville House.  The project was launched in April 2009;  construction began at the beginning of 2010 and the Library was opened on September 3rd 2013 by Malala Yousafzai (b 1997), the world-famous activist who is a Birmingham resident.

It’s a fascinating combination of shapes and levels, rising from below ground to the rooftop, the main bulk of the building clad in gold, silver and glass behind a filigree of metal rings that commemorate the city’s Jewellery Quarter.  Its purpose, in the words of the director, Brian Gambles, is to be “no longer solely the domain of the book – it is a place with all types of content and for all types of people”:  https://www.dezeen.com/2013/08/29/library-of-birmingham-by-mecanoo.

At the top of the building, on Level 9, is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, which houses the Shakespeare Library and was transplanted first from J H Chamberlain’s 1882 library, and latterly from John Madin’s Brutalist ziggurat – a symbol of continuity, and of cultural value, linking the city’s nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century centres of learning.

John Madin’s library was demolished – to howls of protest from fans of Brutalist architecture – in 2016.

My first library

Attercliffe Library, Sheffield

When I was around six or seven years old, circa 1954, my mother would collect me from Huntsman’s Gardens Schools, in the depths of Sheffield’s industrial east end, and call round at Attercliffe Library for her weekly fix of books to read.  Though she had left school at fourteen, she was an omnivorous reader.

I have a clear memory that, while she browsed, I would make a beeline for the bottom shelf of the music section, dig out a score of Handel’s Messiah and stare in wonderment at the multiple staves of the ‘Halleluiah Chorus’, amazed to see how much music could be going on at one instant.

How I reached this I’ve no idea.  Somehow I must have known that the ‘Halleluiah Chorus’ was part of Messiah and that it had been written by George Frideric Handel, but the piece is actually buried at the end of Part II and so isn’t easy for a little kid to find.

Attercliffe Library, built in 1894, still exists, an elegant Jacobethan building next door to the older Attercliffe Baths of 1879.  It was designed by Charles Wilke, about whom next to nothing is known.

For nearly a hundred years it provided knowledge and entertainment to Attercliffe workers and their families and then, when the houses eventually came down, it closed in 1986.

It’s now a rather fine restaurant, spearheading the cultural renaissance of Attercliffe as a place to visit:  https://www.thelibrarybylounge.co.uk.

Happy resort

Felixstowe, Suffolk

Over years of driving into East Anglia I have only associated Felixstowe with processions of container trucks hammering down the A14.

When I stayed at the Woodbridge Station Guest House I took the train to Ipswich and then on to Felixstowe to a happy surprise.  “Felix” is, after all, Latin for “happy”.

The mouth of the River Orwell has been strategically important, both for trade and defence, since Roman times at least, and grew markedly after the arrival of the railway in 1877 and the opening of the port in 1886.

The passenger train-service now terminates at the latest of the town’s three stations, Felixstowe Town (1898), which was built in response to an upturn in tourism after the 1891 visit of Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (1858-1921), Queen Victoria’s great-niece and the wife of Germany’s last Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

The walk down Hamilton Road, now partly pedestrianised, leads to a clifftop view of the Pier (1905;  rebuilt 2017) [http://www.felixstowe-pier.co.uk], with the cranes of the distant docks to the right, and the promenade to the left.

On the way, you pass the former Ritz Cinema (1937;  still operating as the Palace) [http://www.palacecinemafelixstowe.com].

The seafront is dotted with opulent former hotels, of which the Felix Hotel (1903) is the most prominent.  This is where Princess Victoria and her family stayed in 1901 and, coincidentally, where Wallis Simpson took rooms while her divorce took place in nearby Ipswich in 1936.  (This was the occasion of the legendary American newspaper headline “KING’S MOLL RENO’D IN WOLSEY’S HOME TOWN.”)  The Felix closed in 1952 and became the headquarters of the fertiliser company Fisons Ltd for thirty years.  It is now, predictably, converted to apartments.

Landguard Fort [http://www.landguard.com] introduces visitors to the long history of Felixstowe’s defences.  This was the location of the last opposed invasion of England in 1677, and four of the original seven Martello towers in the town survive.

I had a typical seaside lunch, fish and chips at Fish Dish [http://www.myfishdish.co.uk].  When I told the guy behind the till that the place reminded me of Whitby he smiled and said he’d trained and worked at Whitby for thirteen years before setting up in Essex.

The pleasures of Felixstowe are simple.  On a sunny day you can sit on a promenade bench and watch vast container ships, loaded to capacity, making their way out of the port at surprising speed.

And, because Ipswich is a significant rail hub, you can visit Felixstowe from far afield without using a car.

The Great Sheffield Flood

Dale Dike Dam, South Yorkshire: marker ‘Centre Line Old Bank’
Dale Dike Dam, South Yorkshire: memorial

Sheffield has a poor track-record for civic monuments.

Apart from the statue of King Edward VII standing in recently spruced-up surroundings in Fitzalan Square, most of the other monuments that once graced the centre have been shipped off to suburban parks or, in the case of the Crimea Monument, dismantled:  https://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/sheffields-missing-crimean-war-monument.

Indeed, until recently there was no monument of any significance to those who lost their lives in the most dramatic incident in the history of Sheffield, the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864.

The Sheffield Waterworks Company, desperately trying to keep up with accelerating demand from the rapidly growing steel industry and the expanding population, devised a scheme to capture the waters of the Loxley Valley, north-west of the town.

The first of three planned reservoirs, Dale Dyke, was begun in 1859 and, after its alignment had been altered to avoid unexpected disturbed strata, was completed and filled by early 1864.

No sooner had the waters reached within two feet of the lip of the dam than cracks appeared and, within a day, the dam collapsed at 11.30pm on March 11th 1864, sending 700 million gallons of water down the Loxley Valley at a speed of around 18 miles an hour.  At least 250 people were killed, including 27 whose bodies were never recovered.  Around 800 houses were destroyed or abandoned and well over 4,000 flooded.

There was no firm agreement over the cause of the disaster, at least partly because of the Coroner’s intemperate handling of the inquest.  Among the possible contributory causes were –

  • slippage of unstable strata beneath the embankment
  • poor construction of the embankment surrounding the clay core
  • inadequate thickness of the clay core
  • settlement or undue pressure leading to fracture around the outlet pipes and consequent leakage

The jury’s verdict was that “there has not been that engineering skill and that attention to the construction of the works, which their magnitude and importance demanded…” and they went on to propose that “the Legislature ought to take such action as will result in a governmental inspection of all works of this character;  and, that such inspection should be frequent, sufficient and regular…”

Such legislation was eventually passed – the Reservoirs (Safety Provisions) Act (1930). 

Although designed in the same way as the failed dam, Agden Dam was resumed and its 629,000,000-gallon reservoir completed in 1869.  Further upstream, the Strines Reservoir (513,000,000 gallons) was finished in 1871. 

The new Dale Dyke Dam, a quarter of a mile upstream from the site of the original, was completed in 1875, though the reservoir was not brought fully into use until 1887.   It holds 446,000,000 gallons.

The final Loxley valley reservoir, Damflask, which holds 1,158,000,000 gallons, initially intended for use as compensation water, was constructed in the late 1870s but because of leakage through the strata at one side was not fully operational until a wing-trench was completed in 1896.

For many years the only physical memento of the original Dale Dyke Dam was a marker stone inscribed “CLOB” – Centre Line Old Bank – indicating the alignment of the 1864 dam.

For the 150th anniversary of the disaster, the Bradfield Historical Society cleared a trail around the reservoir and put up a memorial to the victims of the flood:  https://www.joinedupheritagesheffield.org.uk/content/organisation/bradfield-historical-society.

The Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour follows the course of the Great Sheffield Flood from the site of the original Dale Dike Dam through to the Lower Don Valley downstream of the centre of Sheffield.  For further details of the tour please click here.