Plumstead Library


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Plumstead Branch Library, 232 Plumstead High Street, London, SE18 1JL


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Statutory Address:
Plumstead Branch Library, 232 Plumstead High Street, London, SE18 1JL

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
Greenwich (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Public library, 1903-04 by Frank Sumner.

Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that the 1936 extension to the building is not of special architectural or historic interest and is excluded from the listing.

Reasons for Designation

Plumstead library, 1903-04 by Frank Sumner, is listed at Grade II, for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural interest: an impressive principal elevation, well suited to the improving nature of the building, and built from quality materials with good detailing and workmanship that survives well overall; * Plan: the good survival of a series of well-articulated spaces planned around a central hall; * Interiors: there is plaster detailing and good-quality joinery throughout, with parquet flooring and terrazzo in many areas; * Historic interest: as one of the earliest Carnegie-funded libraries, designed to be part of a civic ensemble.


The Libraries Act of 1850 gave local corporations the power to raise funding for the development of libraries although only 125 were built between 1850 and 1887, the imposed penny rate often limiting the means of poorer local authorities to build libraries. However Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 prompted a wave of celebratory libraries, while a further Libraries Act in 1892 made it easier for urban authorities to raise funds. In parallel, support emerged from wealthy benefactors such as Andrew Carnegie, who believed in education for all via access to free libraries, such that the number of libraries expanded rapidly in the late C19 and early C20.   

Plumstead Library was constructed in 1903 to the designs of Frank Sumner, Borough Engineer, and officially opened in 1904. Woolwich Borough Council was endowed with £15,250 from Carnegie, and the library is one of the earliest of the many funded by the philanthropist. It was part of a focal centre of civic and social buildings which included police and fire stations, a swimming pool and wash house, now demolished. The library was originally laid out with the reading room in the very well-lit north-east room, the newspapers and magazines in the large north-west room, and the adult lending library was held in the south-west, with a book store, offices, and a ‘music, art and study room’ partitioned off opposite. The issue desk was positioned at the entrance to the lending library. Evidence exists to suggest the library may originally have operated on a closed access system. The first-floor museum was opened in 1919.

A single-storey extension was added to the building in 1936 by MW Tee, Borough Engineer. The plans for the extension detail provision to build an additional bay on the south side, and a first floor, providing an extension to the museum accommodation. These were never added. Contemporary with the 1936 extension was the addition of a detached staff room, enclosing the garden courtyard at the rear.

The museum was closed in the late C20, and much of the former library accommodation is now used as offices and for storage. The lightweight partitioning that originally defined various rooms has generally been removed, though the glazed screens are in place above. Plans show that a spiral staircase once went from the adult’s lending library into the reference library above; no evidence of this remains on the ceiling, but on the floor of the reference library is a low raised platform in the location of the stair. A book lift has been inserted into the corner of the adult’s library, serving all floors. All original bookcases have been removed.


Public library, 1903-04 by Frank Sumner.

MATERIALS: the street-facing elevations of the building are constructed from smooth red brick in Flemish bond with limestone dressings. At basement level a rougher brick is used, and the rear elevation is built from yellow stock brick. Windows are metal-framed.  

PLAN: the building occupies a corner plot with the principal elevation facing north onto Plumstead High Street. The building is rectangular in plan with an extension on the south-east side (excluded from the listing), creating a courtyard garden on the south-west. The entrance leads into a central hall with the children’s library (formerly the reading room) on the left and the main library (formerly the newspaper and magazines room) on the right; the porter’s flat stands above this section and there is a basement below. There is a wide dogleg stair rising from the hall, before the entrance into the open-plan hall (formerly the adult’s lending library) to the rear, which has the former reference library and museum on the first floor.   EXTERIOR: the principal, north-facing elevation is a symmetrical composition of three bays and two storeys and basement. In the central bay is the front door reached by four steps; it is recessed behind a moulded stone architrave, with a chamfered round arch and hood mould. The set of double doors, shaped to fit the arch, are solid timber, each with six fielded panels. A brass panel affixed to the wall records the origins of the building. To either side of the doors, occupying almost the entirety of the remainder of the elevations, are large bow windows consisting of three tiers of seven mullioned and transomed windows with nine-pane casements. Octagonal pilasters articulate the bays and terminate the elevations, where they are topped with domed finials. There is a wide stone storey band, which is inscribed in the central bay ‘PUBLIC LIBRARY’, with ‘1903’ above the doorway below. On the first floor there is a central three-light window with stone mullions, and three pairs of two-light windows to either side. There is an egg and dart moulded cornice beneath a balustrade parapet. A gablet rises from the central bay and has a relief carving of the Woolwich Borough Council crest in the tympanum.

The return elevation facing east is made up of three distinct sections; on the right is the gable end of the main front range; the ground floor has a pair of large, nine-light mullioned and transomed windows each with a nine-pane casement. The wide stone storey band continues from the front elevation, above which are three small windows, irregularly sized and positioned. The gable has moulded coping stones, and stone dressings. To the left is a section with a balustraded parapet; on the ground floor is a doorway in a flush stone surround with alternating stone quoins resembling a Gibbs surround beneath a segmental arched hood mould. There are four, square, nine-light casements to the left, with similar surrounds, and on the first floor a six-light mullioned and transomed window interrupting the storey band. Also on the first floor is a shallow arched opening with an iron grille with scrollwork and the initials ‘WBC’ for the local authority. Further left again is a long, regularly composed seven-bay section, which previously held the museum on the first floor. Bays are articulated by plain pilasters and the ground floor of each has a six-light mullioned and transomed window above a stone-clad plinth. The left-hand end bay has a round-arched doorway with a keystone and a radiating fanlight. It has a pair of solid timber doors, each with three fielded panels. The moulded edging to the wide storey band continues along the elevation, but with brick, rather than stone infill. The first floor is blind with marginal brick mouldings within each bay. There is an egg and dart cornice, as on the front elevation, and a blind brick parapet with stone copings.

The single-storey extension on the left is excluded from the listing.

The rear elevations are plainly detailed.

INTERIOR: internally all walls are plastered with moulded detailing including cornices, picture rails, and skirtings, and in the hall, shaped corbels support arched openings. A hipped lantern lights the hall, and a large vaulted lantern lights the main library. In the children’s library the architrave to a hatch to the porter’s office remains in place. The glazed tops to partitions survive within the divisions between the bays, though the partitions themselves have been removed. The former adult lending library has a row of five columns with octagonal bases and moulded capitals; five square columns have been added subsequently. A number of the original fielded panelled doors remain, as do most cast iron window fittings. Floors are herringbone-laid parquet in many rooms; some terrazzo remains in one set of toilets.

The dogleg stair, equipped with modern handrails and tread coverings, rises to a first-floor lobby which is lit by a hipped lantern; there is a hatch into a small room, possibly originally a ticket office for the museum. The first floor is divided axially into three: there was a reference library in the western portion, which is divided into a row of three square rooms with plaster mouldings, a deep cove to the ceiling and uplighting. A set of half-glazed panelled double doors with Art Nouveau-style handles leads to the central and eastern rooms. These were formerly the museum, and are largely open plan; the central room has illuminated tank-style display cabinets built into the walls.

The porter’s flat was not inspected.

Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that the 1936 extension to the building is not of special architectural or historic interest.


Pre-1940 Public Libraries in London: a survey by Roger Bowdler and Steven Brindle with contributions by Elain Harwood. English Heritage London Region, June 1992, updated July 1994


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

The listed building is shown coloured blue on the attached map. Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’), structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed building (save those coloured blue on the map) are not to be treated as part of the listed building for the purposes of the Act.

End of official listing

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