A Virtual Museum - Your Town, the Borough and its History

Gravesend Library, Windmill Street, Milton-next-Gravesend:

Mayor G M Arnold officially opens the library, 28 September 1905Gravesend Library was opened by George Matthews Arnold (1826 – 1908) on 28th September 1905.
The building was paid for by Scottish-American millionaire Andrew Carnegie, although the books, staff and site all had to be paid for locally.
Gravesend began its public library service in 1893 in two rooms in what is now the Victoria Adult Education Centre in Darnley Road and moved to the splendid purpose built library in Windmill Street in 1905.
The first Borough Librarian in the Windmill Street building (there had been two previous librarians) was Alex J Philip (1879 – 1955), who was librarian 1903 – 1946. In his very long period as Borough Librarian the local history collection was established – Philip personally saving the Gravesend Gravesend Childrens Library, 1948Corporation Archives from being pulped in World War Two by the town clerk who could see no reason for keeping them. Philip also had to fight the Gravesend Corporation against shutting the library during World War One because the same short sighted town clerk wanted to save the penny rate! Philip won both battles – indeed during World War One he was the Gravesend Rationing Officer and also organised fire watches from the library – he gained the MBE after the war for his efforts.
In 1924 Gravesend Library became “Open Access” – in other words the public could choose their books directly from the shelves – previously under the “Closed Access” system, people chose from a printed catalogue and only handled the book once it was fetched for them from the enclosed stacks in the staff area.
In 1936 Philip wanted Gravesend Library moved to another site or to be expanded – he watched with obvious envy the extension of neighbouring Dartford Library during that year.
The Second World War saw branch libraries being established in order to improve home front morale – these were in temporary locations at Denton, Kings Farm and Dashwood Road. Philip could have retired in 1939 but his mistrust of the town clerk (which turned out to be very valid) meant he stayed on in case the library was to be closed to save money.
West Front of Gravesend LibraryAfter the war in 1945 the Gravesend Corporation began a programme of building purpose built branch libraries every five years, replacing the temporary locations and building new: Denton (1949), Dashwood (1954), Kings Farm (1959), Riverview Park (1964) and Marling Cross (1969). All these branches were situated within the boundaries of the Gravesend Borough – before 1948 people living outside had to pay a subscription to borrow books, or their councils were charged for their citizens’ use – an example was Northfleet who argued about their people being forced to pay subscriptions – but until 1974 both were different library areas.


Northfleet, Meopham and the rural areas:

Northfleet Urban District Council turned down a gift from Carnegie in 1904, once the councillors realised they had to contribute rates towards the library service – so Northfleet residents received no public library until 1924.
In 1921 Kent County Library was created by Kent County Council – this brought public libraries to huts, pubs, halls, schools, post offices, shops and peoples front rooms in those places that did not already have their own library service.
Gravesend LibraryKent County Library set up collections of books staffed by volunteers – the one in Northfleet began in a room in the cellar of the Factory Club in the High Street in 1924. Eventually Northfleet was shamed into providing more funding to bring their citizens a decent public library service at a time when people could not afford to buy their own reading. In 1940 a Victorian house at 1 London Road, Northfleet was opened as the town’s first full time public library.
Elsewhere in Gravesham it was schools and village halls that were used as volunteer library centres with books brought by a library van (after 1924) three to four times a year.
In 1935 when Chalk Parish was taken over by Gravesend Borough, the village lost its Kent County branch, which had been in the school, and Chalk residents lost their local service altogether.
In 1961 Coldharbour Library was opened in Northfleet to support the area that was developing rapidly after 1945 – this like all the libraries outside of Gravesend itself was part of Kent County Library who added two mobile libraries which ran from Coldharbour out to Dartford villages and the Hoo Peninsula, Medway valley and the north down communities.
In 1974 all of Kent’s independent public libraries were joined with Kent County Library, unifying the service but this was not popular with Gravesend Library.

In 1976 Meopham Library was opened in accommodation forming part of Meopham Secondary School and later Vigo (1981) and Higham (1987) libraries were opened – Vigo in the Village Hall, Higham in a lovely purpose built building.
Coldharbour Library was completely refurbished inside in 2006 as part of the “Love Libraries” campaign which was a national initiative at modernising libraries – the results have been a great success in library usage and public feedback. Both Marling Cross and Gravesend libraries are in line for refurbishments working in close collaboration with Gravesham Borough Council and other partners.

Christoph Bull, January 2009.