Our visit to the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Our sincere thanks to Perdita Jones for providing us with such excellent material on our visit.  Tower Hamlets Archive is situated on Bancroft Rd E1 in a building constructed in the 1860s as the Vestry Hall for Mile End. Mile End Workhouse – now the site of a hospital – stood next door. The building became a library for the Boroughs of Stepney, Poplar and Mile End in 1900. The original building was extended in the 1930s to include a children’s library and a lecture room. The storage area on the first floor, which now accommodates periodicals and some objects, formed the original lending library; a gramophone library was added in the 1960s. The building remained in use as a public library until 2005 when it was replaced by the modern Idea Store Library at Whitechapel. A very ornate plaster painted and gilded ceiling has recently been repaired and conserved in the main reading room.

Stewart's Dry Dock on the right and Glen Terrace on the left; the bowsprit of the barque Milverton overhangs the dock wall Manchester Road, 1918. Copyright: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Stewart’s Dry Dock on the right and Glen Terrace on the left; the bowsprit of the barque Milverton overhangs the dock wall Manchester Road, 1918. Copyright: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

The library and archives serve those interested in family and local history, school and university students, planning authorities, solicitors, businesses and even TV researchers – most recently for “Call the Midwife” and “Life in the Victorian Slum”- and sometimes a celebrity or two – eg Tracey Emin. The collection is a large one; very well organised and catalogued. The library holds over 20,000 printed books and pamphlets dating from the 17th Century to the present covering a wide range of different aspects of Tower Hamlet’s History. There are over 400 boxes of cuttings – many of which date to 19th Century. Over 30,000 images – mainly photographs-  include street scenes arranged alphabetically, with the remainder of the collection arranged by subject.

The map collection consists of over 4000 items dating from Elizabethan times to the present and includes large scale OS maps, street plans, parish and estate maps as well as transport maps. Specific items include the Booth Poverty Maps, Map of the Jewish East End, Bomb damage maps and maps locating air raid shelters. Various local newspapers are held on microfiche, together with parish registers and some London trade directories. There is additionally an audio- visual collection of over 100 oral history recordings as well as videos and DVDs of local interest.

Tower Hamlets Archives has been involved in projects of local interest involving the Somali community, archiving shopfronts and signs and looking at Fish Island in the advance of development. It runs a programme of events and mounts regular exhibitions concerned with local history.

We were very fortunate to be introduced to some special items – some of the Whiffin Photographic Collection, the Island History Archives, the Ledger Book of William Cubitt, pamphlets and reports concerning the development of the Isle of Dogs (1970s) and some early maps and plans of the West and East India Docks. This was a fascinating morning and we would like to thank Perdita Jones, the Outreach Officer, for facilitating our visit and giving us such an excellent introduction to all that is on offer. The archive and library is open daily Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (late night until 8pm) and on Saturdays (1st & 3rd in the month). It is well organised and very welcoming – a fascinating place to spend a lot more time!

With repeated thanks to Perdita Jones, Outreach Officer, who gave us an introduction to the building’s history, the library and archives collection as well as arranging for us to view selected items from both collections, and to Jill Napier for arranging the visit.



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