Former Public Library


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Former Public Library, West Stockwell Street, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1HE


Ordnance survey map of Former Public Library
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Statutory Address:
Former Public Library, West Stockwell Street, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1HE

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

Colchester (District Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Former Public Library built in 1893 to the designs of Brightwen Binyon and opened in 1894.

Reasons for Designation

The former public library, built in 1893 to the designs of Brightwen Binyon and opened in 1894, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* the handsome neo-Jacobean façade has an irregular yet balanced composition in which the importance of the public reading room is expressed architecturally through the elaborate treatment of the oriel and the window above;

* the dark, prominent moulded timber is softened by the delicate patterns of the sgraffito panels, both evincing craftsmanship of a high standard;

* the lofty reading room with its Queen post roof and strapwork ceiling gives the impression of a baronial hall, and the bas-relief depicting the opening of the Great Exhibition is exquisitely carved;

* a high proportion of the windows, doors, joinery and plasterwork have been retained, and the original plan form remains legible;

* it is by a notable architect already recognised as being of national significance through the listing of nine of his buildings, two at Grade II*.

Historic interest:

* it is a particularly good example of a late-Victorian public library, demonstrating through its architectural quality the civic pride of the town.

Group value:

* it has strong group value with the adjoining Grade I-listed Town Hall.


There were very few public libraries before the mid-C19 as even private subscription libraries were often unable to afford to build their own premises. In 1850 an Act permitted local authorities to build libraries but only 125 were erected until Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887 stimulated a flood of libraries dedicated as permanent memorials. A further Libraries Act in 1892 made it easier for urban authorities to raise funds, and thenceforth libraries were built in unprecedented numbers. Private benefactors funded libraries, such as Andrew Carnegie, and other patrons endowed one or a small group of libraries that took their name. In most early libraries the public did not have free access to the book stock but had to make their choices from a catalogue. It was only in the 1890s that large lending libraries with open shelves supervised from an issue desk became customary.

The former public library in Colchester was established through the gifts of local benefactors. It was built in 1893 and was opened in October the following year by the Right Hon Baron Herschell, Lord High Chancellor of England. In 1904, the Rev W W La Barte bequeathed 1400 volumes. The library was built by Charles E Orfeur of Colchester and the architect was Brightwen Binyon (1846-1905) whose design was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1893. Binyon trained under Alfred Waterhouse and travelled on the Continent before settling down in Ipswich where he established his own practice. In 1879 he replied to an advertisement by the newly instituted Swindon School Board which led to a series of commissions for Board Schools in the town, the Mechanics’ Institute and Swindon Town Hall. He was a very successful and prolific architect involved in the design of numerous country houses and municipal buildings across England which he won through national competitions. He has nine listed buildings to his name, including two at Grade II*.

The library was built on the site of a public house to the rear of the Town Hall which was itself rebuilt in 1898 to the designs of John Belcher (listed at Grade I). The Ordnance Survey map of 1923 labels the building as a library but on the OS map of 1969 it is labelled as municipal offices, evidently having been taken over as extra space by the adjoining Town Hall. The main alterations necessitated by this change of use were the insertion of WCs in the room to the left of the entrance hall. At some point, the floor plan between the entrance hall and the staircase to its left was slightly altered. In 2013 work began to convert the former library into a restaurant which involved the creation of a professional kitchen in the room to rear of the staircase. The restaurant closed in 2017.


Former Public Library built in 1893 to the designs of Brightwen Binyon and opened in 1894.

MATERIALS: rich red brick laid in Flemish bond with dressings of dark timber, rubbed brick and terracotta, and a roof covering of small red clay tiles.

PLAN: the library adjoins the north side of the Town Hall and faces east onto West Stockwell Street. It has an approximately rectangular plan consisting of two parallel ranges with the public reading room to the north and a suite of private rooms to the south.

EXTERIOR: the two-storey library is in a picturesque neo-Jacobean style. It has a steeply pitched roof with a cross wing over the north range surmounted by a decorative lantern. A tall panelled chimney stack with oversailing brick courses passes through the ridge of the main range. The principal elevation is dominated by the two gabled bays either side of the entrance. This has a large doorcase with square pilasters resting on terracotta bases and plinths, and a plain terracotta frieze with a moulded pediment-within-a-pediment. The double-leaf door, set within a moulded terracotta semicircular keyed arch, has multiple raised and fielded panels surmounted by a pediment which rises into the semicircular fanlight. Directly above is a small three-light, wooden-framed window.

The bays either side have a tall brick plinth pierced by openings to the basement; those to the right have gauged brick arches with keystones embellished with ogee mouldings. The gabled bays are slightly different in design. The left one takes the form of a double-height canted bay lit on both floors by eight-light casement windows, the top panes filled with small square glazing bars, set within moulded wooden frames. Positioned between the two rows of windows are four sgraffito panels bearing a strapwork design. The head of the gable is in the form of a moulded wooden triangular gable filled with more decorative sgraffito and the date 1893. The gable on the right hand side has a tall, multi-light oriel window with small square panes and a central semicircular wooden glazing bar filled with heraldic stained glass. The oriel has a carved timber frieze and a pedimented cornice. Its base, which rests upon a brick corbel carved with a scroll design, bears five panels of delicately ornate sgraffito. Above the oriel, the eight-light window is flanked by wooden terms supporting a heavy entablature with carved capitals. To either side and above, in the gable head, is more sgraffito in an elegant strapwork design.

The side elevation to the north is divided into three bays by brick piers. At ground-floor level there are openings to the basement with gauged brick arches. Along the top, immediately below the eaves, each bay is pierced by large nine-light windows in wooden frames, which light the public reading room. A slighter lower polygonal projection extends from the north-west corner of the library lit by smaller windows in the same style. A red brick wall behind this projection terminates in a tall, panelled chimney stack with oversailing courses.

INTERIOR: the entrance leads up a flight of steps through a double-leaf door with a fanlight consisting of a square-within-a-square design. The small entrance hall has a moulded plaster ceiling and an elliptical arch recess with arches to each side, that on the right leading into the public reading room. This large double-height space has a canted ceiling and elaborate Queen post roof truss in dark timber with moulded Queen posts and drop finials. The ceiling has a heavy cornice with a dentil course and is divided by moulded timber ribs into square plaster panels decorated with strapwork. Panelling (painted) consisting of small rectangular panels with a moulded base and cornice lines the room up to a third of its height. The reading room is divided into five bays by recessed full-height, elliptical arch panels of moulded plaster. Along the south wall, the second and fourth bays are pierced by wide double-leaf doors with six moulded panels and glazed panels above, set within pedimented doorcases. The fifth bay is lit by a nine-light window with small square panes. Along the north wall, the first and second bays have been knocked through to create two doors, and the other bays are lit by nine-light windows. On the end wall is a large bas-relief by G Oldofredi of Milan depicting Queen Victoria opening the Great Exhibition of 1851, commissioned and donated by James Paxman, who is shown as a young man in the crowd. Flanking this are large stone plaques commemorating the erection and opening of the library. The small annex on the north-east corner of the reading room has a similar strapwork ceiling and panelling incorporating a corner fireplace with a semi-circular arch inset.

To the left of the entrance hall the original floor plan has been altered to accommodate WCs at the front of the building. To the rear is a large room which was probably the original stock-room, since converted into a professional kitchen. It retains windows with top-opening panes in moulded frames along the rear (west) wall. A dogleg stair with stone steps and twisted iron balusters leads up to four first-floor rooms which presumably were staff-rooms and offices used for the running of the library. The landing has a moulded skirting board and dado rail, and five-panel doors lead into the four rooms which are otherwise plain. An extensive basement, which runs along the east side of the building, has exposed brick walls, painted white.


Books and journals
Pevsner, Nikolaus, Bettley, James, The Buildings of England: Essex, (2010)


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

End of official listing

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