Southwark, London



The London Library

The London Library

(Keep It Down There Mr Darwin)

Need to write something? Want to get that drawing project you started months ago finished? Well, your house is beset with devilish traps to prevent you from doing so. Really. A kitchen full of tea to be made. An Xbox just feet away. A whole world of pointless tasks you can happily procrastinate over. And that’s before actually risking going anywhere near the internet. A total lack of will power prevails and before you know it you’re playing Portal in between another round of Earl Grey.

After piteously moaning about this utter lack of creative discipline a friend offered to loan me their library membership. Well, that’s very sweet. Okay. So slightly discouraged by thoughts of ‘Children’s Book Day’, clusters of cold dodging old folks, crazy people talking to the large print books and other previous library encounters I set off to Westminster. To The London Library.

I then find out why my slight reticence to venture here caused several smiles of amusement.

Set in a gorgeous Georgina town house The London Library turns out to be a fairytale establishment straight out of your favourite fantasy fiction. A deceptively narrow little door on St Jame’s Square leads into a labyrinthine warren of floors. Delightfully confusing. Books shelved up to the ceilings. Crackly old leather armchairs. Oil painting from centuries ago. There’s even a quirky Edwardian cataloguing system. Books filed by subject matter, so random finds of interesting reading matter abound. The place itself is initially so fascinating there’s no chance of getting any actual writing done. But a least I now have a better class of distraction.

This is a place where you imagined Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. Agatha Christie plotted fiendish crimes. Henry James thought about ghosts and governesses whilst Charles Darwin contemplated evolution. And turns out they did.

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The London Library was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle. His founding vision was for an institution which would allow subscribers to enjoy the riches of a national library in their own homes.

Carlyle was joined in his vision by eminent early supporters: The Earl of Clarendon, the enlightened early-Victorian politician, was the Library’s first president, Thackeray its first auditor; Gladstone and Sir Edward Bunbury were on the first committee and early members included Charles Dickens and George Eliot.

Over the past 170 years, The London Library’s collection has grown to more than one million volumes covering 2,000 subjects. It has enjoyed the patronage of many eminent writers, academics, politicians and readers throughout its history and has long played a central role in the intellectual life of the nation.


Sadly admission costs here but beg, borrow or steal membership if the opportunity ever arises. Or there’s a free tour on Monday evenings. Just a look round the building alone is worth your time before even getting started into the books shelves.

Oh, and if you’re feeling flush avid readers can adopt their favourite book to make sure it always gets looked after with the care and attention it deserves. Bless.

Eventually, despite a fascinating book find about hidden London tube stations and a guide to Victorian underwear, some writing did get underway. Hey, two thousand words without the aid of Jaffa Cakes. And convinced I may well be sitting in Charles Dickens old chair I didn’t immediately start shoe shopping online. I had a nasty feeling he might be watching.

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