Darwen Library and Theatre, and attached railings


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Darwen Library and Theatre, Knott Street, Darwen, BB3 3BU


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Statutory Address:
Darwen Library and Theatre, Knott Street, Darwen, BB3 3BU

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

Blackburn with Darwen (Unitary Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Darwen Library by architect Raymond Harrison, funded by Andrew Carnegie, opened in 1908. Not included in the listing is the C20 fire escape stair and adjoining single storey building to the SW elevation.

Reasons for Designation

Darwen Library and theatre, of 1908 by architect Raymond Harrison, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: as a striking and well-designed civic building, executed to a high standard and demonstrating high standards of craftsmanship; * Layout: as a good example of the mature response to debates on library planning of the period, combining elements of both closed- and open access systems; * Fixtures and fittings: for high quality fixtures and fittings, including joinery, plasterwork and retention of original issue desk and other library fixtures; * Historic interest: as a good example of a Carnegie library, unusually replacing an earlier library, which was one of the first non-borough libraries and one of the first to adopt open access.


Darwen’s first library facility was located in the newly established Mechanic’s Institute, which was set up in 1839. In common with other such facilities, the library and reading room operated on a subscription basis of six shillings per year or £5 life membership. Darwen was the first non-borough town to adopt the Public Libraries Act in 1871, following the passing of a successful motion at a meeting of the Overseers of the Poor on 2 March. At this time the Mechanics Institute Library was handed over to the newly appointed Library Commissioners, in the Local Board premises on Church Street. Thereafter books were available free of charge, although usage was restricted to those over the age of 12, and on the list of electors. Darwen became a borough in 1878, and the council took control of the library services from 1890, in which year the first female head librarian, thought to be the first in England, was appointed – Betsy Bannister. Open access was adopted in 1895, only the third library in the country, the first in the north-west, to do so.

By the early C20, the existing premises were no longer suitable, and a number of applications were made to Andrew Carnegie for funding for a new library. Dunfermline-born, Carnegie was an iron and steel magnate and prolific philanthropist who was passionate about the availability of free libraries, funding approximately 3,000 libraries during his lifetime in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and the US. In 1904, £8,000 was awarded based on the provision of a suitable site and approval of plans.

Initial plans submitted to Carnegie, which included an art gallery and museum, were drawn up by architect Raymond Harrison, but were not accepted. Council Chairman Ralph Yates undertook a personal visit to Carnegie at his Scottish home, and an additional £2,000 was offered, conditional on replacement of the museum and gallery with a juvenile library. The steep Knott Street site was selected, enabling provision of a lecture room and stores in the undercroft. Robert Sharrock was appointed Contractor and the foundation stone was laid in 1906. Andrew Carnegie himself opened the library on 27 May 1908. The undercroft was extended and converted to a theatre in 2000.



Yorkshire stone public library, built 1908 to designs by Raymond Harrison. Edwardian Baroque style.

MATERIALS: the library is completely built in rock-faced Yorkshire stone, with ashlar dressings. The roof is slated, with flat section over the former lending library, and copper dome and finial over the cupola.

PLAN: the plan is irregular to fit the steep corner site, with a series of rectangular rooms arranged about a central octagonal entrance hall fronted by a quadrant vestibule at the junction of Knott Street and School Street, at the E. The entrance is located over a ‘moat’ and is bridged, while the rear of the building is three storeys in height. The basement (now theatre) is accessed via a new public entrance at the NE.

EXTERIOR: the library is elevated over an undercroft and is three storeys high at the W and N elevations, where the land falls steeply away. There are two primary elevations of unequal length, four bays to Knott Street at the NE, and ten bays to School Street at the SE, joined by a quadrant entrance bay at due E which is topped by an octagonal domed cupola. The entrance is accessed by a bridge from street level, over a deep channel formed by a curved stone retaining wall along the junction of Knott Street and School Street, and the building is buttressed to the rear elevation.

The entrance bay has two pairs of windows to either side of the principal entrance, each flanked by Ionic columns resting on projecting piers at undercroft level, and supporting a plain frieze with cornice and balustrade parapet over. A datestone and commemorative plaque is included to left of the entrance door. The windows are original timber-framed casements in moulded ashlar reveals with shouldered apron panels. They are aligned directly over larger fixed four-light windows with three-light top casement openers to the undercroft, set in plain rock-faced reveals with stepped ashlar lintels and projecting sills. The principal entrance is round-arched with moulded archivolt, flanked by wide banded ashlar pilasters which rise to an open-bed segmental pediment embracing the Darwen Coat of Arms featuring three cotton bolls, with festoons of flowers and fruit, and the date ‘AD 1907’. Above, the copper-clad dome rises over a tall octagonal drum, each facet framed by simple pilasters and containing a group of three leaded lattice windows with stained glass top panes; each set of windows is surmounted by an ashlar panel, that to centre having the carved letters ‘LIBRARY’.

To the SE, the easternmost bay lights the stairwell and is slightly set back, having two simple casements over a Diocletian window. It has a solid rock-faced parapet over ashlar frieze and cornice, and first floor window bays divided by plain pilasters resting on a string course between floors. The first floor windows are timber-framed, generally comprising two lights with three top panes, and lugged apron panels. The undercroft windows are segmental-headed. To extreme left of the SE elevation is a tall arched opening with replacement doors, Corinthian pilasters and ashlar voussoirs, originally providing direct access to the lecture theatre, now (2016) in use as a fire escape.

The NE elevation has similar, although subservient detailing, without dividing pilasters and having simple rectangular openings to the undercroft. Public access to the theatre is now located to the secondary NE elevation, within a contemporary porch addition.

Other elevations are plainly detailed, with a variety of irregularly spaced openings, having simple flush architrave surrounds throughout. The channel is bounded throughout by original cast- and wrought-iron railings on a stone plinth.

INTERIOR: the library is contained on the first floor, and the original layout is principally retained with minor alterations. The original detailing and several original furnishings are intact. It is accessed via a small porch, with original internal glazed timber double doors having their decorative brass handles. Prior to reaching the octagonal entrance hall is a narrow vestibule, shown on original plans to have accommodated newspaper advertisements, but now (2016) partitioned at either side to form stores and a disabled toilet.

The octagonal entrance hall has timber paneling in a simplified linenfold style to dado level, is lit from above, and has stucco ornamentation including round-headed recesses to each facet. The floor is bordered terrazzo, with a central panel representing the civic Arms and motto, and an original brass pendant light fitting hanging from the ceiling. All the doors are varnished timber, with margined geometric leaded glazing to the top panes, moulded architraves and entablatures, and brass furniture. Directly ahead is an open entrance to the main lending library, articulated by panelled timber piers with central lozenge motif. Over the entrance is a plaster tympanum detailed with cherubs flanking a bronze plaque acknowledging the gift of Andrew Carnegie, and commemorating the opening on 27 May 1908. A respondent plaque over the main entrance commemorates the involvement of other dignitaries.

To the left of the library entrance is a former separate door to the news room (now – 2016 - infilled with a notice board), which has now been incorporated into the main library, and further left is a door to the basement. To the right is the former juvenile library, which was originally accessed by two doors, one to the juvenile lending and one to the juvenile reading room, but the original partitions have been removed, and the eastern portion of the room is temporarily partitioned to create a separate exhibition space.

On entry to the main library is the original panelled timber attendant’s counter with the glazed overscreen, truncated, but remaining in its original location. Part of what may have been the original panelled dividing screen (an original example of which is retained between the former news room and reference library to SW) remains along the line of the original partition. Although now incorporated, the main part of the library can still be read as two rooms, divided by a lateral beam supported on cast iron columns. The former newsroom has a Barrel-vaulted ceiling with plaster ribs sprung from piers between windows (a detail repeated in the former reference library), while the former lending library is lit from above by an octagonal lantern, also supported on columns. Within the library, a spiral stair leading to the former book store below is retained within a recent enclosure, and the original polished timber book hoist is also in situ.

Original half-glazed multi-panelled timber partition screens inset with bottom-hinged casements are retained between the reference library at the W, the office to the NW, and the juvenile library to the NE. Original gilded signage is retained to the glazing on doors to principal areas. Some original shelving and storage is retained within the reference library and office, although the furniture generally has been replaced. The juvenile library has a suspended ceiling.

There have been a number of alterations to the undercroft, commensurate with its new use as a theatre. The layout, which comprises the former lecture hall to the SW, and a range of stores and working areas around an octagonal hub to centre, remains broadly unchanged, but the detailing has been substantially altered throughout.


Books and journals
Duckworth, A, A Never to be Forgotten Day, (2008)
'Darwen Walk', Lancashire Telegraph, accessed 20 September 2016 from http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/leisure/walks/lancashire/4129799.Darwen_walk/
Information on Darwen Library from Cotton Town Blackburn with Darwen, accessed 20 September 2016 from http://www.cottontown.org/Culture%20and%20Leisure/Libraries/Pages/Darwen-Library.aspx#


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(s) is/are 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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