Virginia Woolf’s libraries

John Passmore Edwards

Earlier this month there was an interesting comment by Anthea Arnold on my post from July last year about Virginia Woolf’s essay collection The Common Reader, vol. 1, and in particular her essay ‘Lives of the Obscure’. Anthea pointed out that when picturing herself reading obscure books in an ‘out-of-date, obsolete library’, Woolf seemed to be conflating three different ones.

Passmore Edwards library facade

Inscription reads: Passmore Edwards Free…The library underwent major renovations in 2010

Anthea went on to give outline histories of all three. One of them particularly caught my attention. She said that St Ives Library in Cornwall was opened by John Passmore Edwards in 1897. This reminded me of the library in my own city of Truro. I’ve seen his name emblazoned on its side countless times, without paying it much attention. I decided to research him a bit more.

John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911) was born in Blackwater, near Truro in Cornwall. After making his fortune as a journalist and writer, he dedicated his life and wealth to charitable and philanthropic causes. Between 1889 and 1903 he donated over 250,000 pounds to various such causes and established over seventy institutions all over the country, many of them in London, including libraries, cottage hospitals, convalescent homes, schools and art galleries – and even drinking fountains, so that the working classes would be able to drink uncontaminated water.

Edwards supported the abolition of capital punishment, the suppression of the opium trade and the abolition of flogging in the services. He also helped direct the Political Reform Association, and published and edited various magazines, promoting among other things peace and temperance.

He was offered a knighthood twice, but declined the honour.

Edwards facade Library

Inscription: Library

The Passmore Edwards library in Truro was built by local firm Clemens and Battershill to a design by Silvanus Trevail (see below) of Plymouth limestone with Bath stone dressings on a granite base. The foundation stone was laid on May 24th, 1895, and the building was opened with a great ceremony on April 30th, 1896: ‘thousands of people thronged the gaily decorated streets’. It was described as ‘a gift of Mr Passmore Edwards to the citizens of Truro without distinction as to creed or financial status’. In a speech he stated that he was planning to open nineteen institutions in Cornwall, as there were nineteen letters in his name. The three-storey Central Technical Schools for Cornwall were built on to the library in 1899.

Edwards foundation stone

The library foundation stone commemorates Passmore Edwards

Edwards was a delegate for the London Peace Society to various Peace Conferences, 1848 -1850, and stood unsuccessfully as an Independent parliamentary candidate for Truro in 1868. In 1880 he was elected Liberal Party MP for Salisbury, an office he held for five years.

Some of his major beneficiaries were the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the London School of Economics. I remember friends from my undergraduate days who lived in an LSE student hall of residence named in his honour.

Silvanus Trevail (1851-1903), the Truro library architect, was born in the parish of Luxulyan, just outside St Austell in Cornwall. After training as an architect in London he returned to his native county, where he went on to design some fifty of the new ‘board schools’ as a result of the 1872 Education Act, which broadened the need for compulsory education for children. He also designed the St Lawrence Hospital in Bodmin and some of the most prestigious hotels in Cornwall, including the magnificent terracotta-coloured Headland in Newquay, and the Carbis Bay Hotel just outside St Ives. He designed many of the Passmore Edwards buildings in Cornwall and London, for he shared that philanthropist’s passion for improving the living conditions and welfare of the working classes.

He participated actively in Cornish local politics as a councillor, and became Mayor of Truro. He was elected Fellow of the RIBA, Vice President of the Society of Architects in 1896 and President in 1901 – a position he still held when he died.

He apparently suffered from depression, and shot himself on a train as it approached Bodmin Road station in 1903.

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