Oasis in Nottingham -
the Bromley House Library

The Bromley House Library, Angel RowThere is an oasis, an unpublicised piece of Nottingham’s history, among the shops on Angel Row. Many people will have passed the cinemas and Bell Inn and failed to notice the elegant Georgian doorway beside Dr. Barnardo’s. Since 1822 this has been the entrance to Nottingham Subscription Library, familiarly known as Bromley House Library – an anachronistic reminder of Nottingham’s intellectual past. Founded in 1816 in Carlton Street by a group of Nottinghamshire professional men, in 1820 the library spent 2,750 on buying Bromley House, which had been built in 1752 by the banking Smith family. From the beginning, membership of the Subscription Library was open to a wide public. George Green, the mathematician of Green’s Mill, was a member, and so were William and Mary Howitt, the prolific radical authors. Famous visitors included Michael Faraday, whose signature can be seen in the old visitor’s book.

The library collections were wide ranging – a considerable amount of scientific and foreign literature was purchased (or donated) in the early years. Scientific instruments and maps were on display, and elegant long-case clocks and mahogany barometers still add character to the library rooms. During the 19th century the topographical and literary interests of the members were well served by judicious purchases – the travel section in particular was noteworthy. Unfortunately a large portion of this had to be sold in 1979 to provide funds for the future upkeep of the library, but much of interest still remains.

Collections

There is a fine collection of Victorian fiction, with many "three-decker" novels which are difficult to find outside the British Library. There is also a fascinating section – F Class – up in one of the attics, which is a mine of information on 19th-century history including the period of the Napoleonic Wars. The theology section, in a large attic known as the Studio, contains more Victorian sermons than are usually read nowadays, but also many important editions of the Church Fathers and other religious writers. The attics sound a gloomy place, but they are really quite pleasant rooms (though cold in winter) and have a special history of their own. They once housed the studio of the first professional photographer in Nottingham, Alfred Barber, who opened for business in 1841, and some traces of his equipment can still be seen.

Nowadays the library’s purchases are mainly in the fields of good fiction, travel, biography and history, though many peripheral subjects are touched upon, and members are encouraged to suggest titles to be bought. A range of newspapers and periodicals is available for members to read over their coffee in the comfortable leather armchairs, and recently a selection of talking-book tapes has been added to the loan stock. The books are used for a wide variety of purposes, from solving Christmas quizzes to aiding PhD research: some members come to escape from telephones, others to meet their friends, and some even to read!

The charm of the Georgian building is enhanced by the hidden garden with its tall trees, one of the few remaining town gardens in the city, and a tranquil place in which to sit out in the summer. In fact the whole of Bromley House is remarkably peaceful: somehow the city noise does not seem to penetrate the serenity of the building.

Links with St Peter's

Many members of St Peter’s have been connected with Bromley House Library. Robert White Almond, the Rector whose portrait hangs in the back of the church, was President of the Library 1819-1853: there is another portrait of him by Thomas Barber (who also painted the Agony in the Garden now on the ceiling of St Peter’s west porch), hanging on the handsome staircase in Bromley House.

Brian Dunn is the current President, and Leslie is a member, so the long tradition of involvement between St Peter’s and Bromley House continues, with many of the present congregation being members of the library. In fact the library can sometimes feel like a meeting of St Peter’s Social Group when several of us arrive at the same time!

The library’s collections also provide links with St Peter’s. Thomas Wylde, headmaster of the Free School (now the Boys High School), is buried in St Peter’s and is commemorated in a brass in the south aisle: his commonplace book, a manuscript giving details of his life and work as vicar of Beeston from 1758 to 1799, belongs to Nottingham Subscription Library. Another important manuscript owned by the library is the original text of Deering’s history of Nottingham: Dr Charles Deering (d. 1749) was buried at St Peter’s, though the exact position of his grave is not known.

Those of us who enjoy re-reading old favourites and finding unknown works by a favourite author are as well served by Bromley House as those who are interested only in the latest publications, though I feel that the latter miss much by not exploring the shelves for unexpected finds. Certainly anyone with an interest in literature or local history – or general quirkiness! – could do a lot worse than pay a visit to Bromley House (but please telephone 0115 947 3134 first to make an appointment with the Librarian).

Jean Hoare


http://www.stpetersnottingham.org/history/bromley.htm
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th November 1997