Bethnal Green library helped us win the war. Don't let a pandemic close it

Kate Thompson
·6 min read

When it opened, it stood as a beacon of hope for east Londoners, and became the scene of one of the second world war’s great resistance stories. But as Bethnal Green library approaches its 100th birthday, the celebrations have been put on ice. For this week, council leaders in east London are set to decide its future. This symbol of working-class defiance during the blitz may end up a shadow of its former self.

As a historical novelist, I wonder how many of the people wielding the axe know anything about the remarkable backstory of the building and those within it, who ensured that, even in the darkest of times, working-class East Enders had access to books?

Bethnal Green’s first public library opened its doors on a crisp October morning in 1922. “The council is handing down future generations a legacy of knowledge and sweeping away the misery and poverty of the past,” said the mayor in his opening speech, a thinly veiled reference to the fact that only two years previously an asylum stood on the site, notorious for its cruel treatment (even today, locals refer to the park around the library as barmy park). Yet despite these hopeful beginnings, there were trials ahead.

In September 1940, a bomb crashed through the roof of the adult lending library at 5.55pm, marking the start of the blitz. In a split second, an orderly and well-equipped library became a scene of destruction. And here the story takes a surprising twist. Rather than hurrying for the nearest shelter, librarian George F Vale and his deputy Stanley Snaith pulled a tarpaulin over the shattered glass dome roof and set about planning a pioneering social experiment that would transform the lives of wartime Londoners.

‘I used to borrow Milly-Milly-Mandy’ … the library today.
‘I used to borrow Milly-Milly-Mandy’ … the library today. Photograph: Mike Booth/Alamy

Bethnal Green underground was a half-completed stop on the Central line when war broke out. Builders were working on connecting it to Liverpool Street, but from 1939 it had been locked up and left. One week after the blitz began, East Enders defied Churchill’s orders not to shelter in tube stations and claimed their right to safety. At 78 feet below ground, it was one of the few safe places to shelter in the area and was referred to by locals as the “Iron Lung”. Over the next 12 months it was transformed into a fully-functioning subterranean community with an astonishing array of facilities.

Metal triple bunks sleeping up to 5,000 people stretched three-quarters of a mile up the eastbound tunnel. There was a shelter theatre, which hosted opera and ballet, a cafe, doctor’s quarters and a creche, which enabled women to go out to work. But here’s the best part: there was a library, too!

I love surprises in history and finding out about George and Stanley’s underground library, built over the boarded-up tracks of the westbound tunnel, felt nothing short of magic. I first discovered its existence when I sat down with inimitable 91-year-old East Ender Pat Spicer: “I used to borrow Milly-Molly-Mandy from the underground library. I didn’t worry about the bombs when I had my head buried in a book,” she told me.

A trip to Tower Hamlets local history library and archives revealed Pat’s memory to be sharp. There was a photograph of George himself, calmly stamping books, alongside copious written memories. “Libraries in converted shops, in village halls, in mobile vans, are common enough. But libraries in tube shelters are something new under the sun,” Stanley wrote in the Library Review in 1942. “When Londoners took possession of the tube, it was quickly evident that a new social situation was in being.”

The wheels of bureaucracy clearly moved fast in wartime and a grant of £50 was soon approved by the council. “The borough surveyor was quickly on the job,” wrote Stanley. “All last summer the caverns echoed to the din of hammers and saws. The result was a triumph.”

The library, which had a captive audience during a raid when the doors were locked, was open from 5.30pm to 8pm every evening and loaned out 4,000 volumes of consciously chosen stock. Romance sat alongside literary classics, children’s books, poetry and plays. Stanley wrote movingly of his patrons: “Each dusk sees the first contingent making its way down to the bowels of the earth. The well and the ill, the old and the young, they come trooping down, carrying carpet bags, parcels, bedding in sheets or drab sacking – here a docker, there an undersized lad with an Atlas load improbably poised on his head, playing prieux chevalier to a crippled mother – rough people, nice people, typical East Enders.”

He added: “In the library the youngsters are vocally busy with their book-selection, but why should they not chatter to their heart’s content?”

These “youngsters” are now in their 90s and memories of the little library are embedded in their hearts.

“It was a sanctuary to me,” Pat told me. “By 1943 I was 13, there had been so much horror, the blitz, the tube disaster (when 173 people were crushed to death on the steps down to the shelter when a mother carrying a baby tripped. It wasn’t even enemy aircraft, but the government testing anti-aircraft missiles from nearby Victoria Park). You can’t imagine what that library represented to me as a place of escape and learning. It had a profound effect on my life.”I wonder how George and Stanley would feel at the plans to sweep aside 100 years of history? Proposals on the table include slashing the library’s opening hours from 50 to just 15, or closing it altogether. How many jobs will be lost? How many librarians left out of work after toiling heroically through the pandemic to support their users?

I feel emotional writing this. Does history count for nothing? How is it, that during a climate of fear, deprivation and economic instability, our wartime predecessors found the imagination and means to extend library opening hours and open new branches? The blitz and Covid-19 are different beasts, but the effect on reading has been the same. Never have we read so voraciously or needed and valued our libraries more.

“Reading became, for many, the supreme relaxation,” wrote George Vale of his wartime patrons. Sound familiar?

In Tower Hamlets, where hundreds of children live in cramped, overcrowded homes, many rely on the borough’s precious libraries as sanctuary spaces. Let’s hope that when lockdown eases and people emerge from their homes, they don’t find their library door locked.

  • Kate Thompson is the author of a series of fiction and nonfiction books set in wartime east London.