The Bishop Wilson Memorial Library


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
The Bishops' C of E & RC Primary School, Beardsley Drive, Chelmsford, Essex, CM1 6ZQ


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Statutory Address:
The Bishops' C of E & RC Primary School, Beardsley Drive, Chelmsford, Essex, CM1 6ZQ

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

Chelmsford (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


Primary school library, 1983 to 1986 to the design of the architects Colin St John Wilson and partners.

Reasons for Designation

The Bishop Wilson Memorial Library, designed by Colin St John Wilson and partners, built 1983-1986, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* by the eminent architect and academic Sir Colin St John Wilson, whose other listed libraries include the British Library (Grade I) and the University of Oxford St Cross Building (Grade II*); * for its accessible modernist design which, in the architect’s first use of a symbolic form, references earlier circular library and memorial buildings; * for the generously lit, bright and playful interior oriented to primary school-age readers, which survives in its original form including fixtures and fittings.

Historic interest:

* as a memorial library to Henry Wilson, Bishop of Chelmsford (1876-1961).


All Saints’ School, Springfield, a National School for boys and girls, was built in 1813 at the south-east end of Springfield Common (Essex). The school served the then rural village situated about 1.7km to the north-east of Chelmsford. Adjacent to Whittles Hall and the village almshouses, the school was extended in 1894. Chelmsford continued to grow, subsuming Springfield village which became a suburban area to the north-east of the city centre. During the 1970s and 1980s, new primary schools were built in locations to the north-east of the old village centre, including a new Church of England school which incorporated the former All Saints’ School. The old All Saints’ School was demolished.

The new Bishop Wilson Church of England Primary School was architects Thomas, Mowle and Chisnall’s first school project. The local practice, based in Colchester, worked on the project in association with Colin St John Wilson and partners. Colin St John Wilson’s father, Henry Albert Wilson (1876-1961), was Bishop of Chelmsford from 1929 to 1950. He had been chaplain to St Monica’s School, Clacton, whose Old Girls Association launched a fund to build a proposed Bishop Wilson Memorial Hall. When St Monica’s School closed in 1970 it was agreed that the fund could be applied to a building at a new school. This led to Springfield’s new Church of England Primary School having a memorial library, designed by the highly influential architect Colin St John Wilson in commemoration of his father. Rolfe Kentish was the project architect for the library, and the school was built by CG Franklin Building Ltd. The new school was dedicated by the Right Reverend John Waine, Bishop of Chelmsford, on 6 March 1987. Following expansion and alterations in the early 1990s the school was renamed The Bishops’ C of E and RC Primary School and re-dedicated on 12 June 1992 by the Bishops of Chelmsford and Brentwood.

Colin St John Wilson’s memorial library design was noted in the pages of the Architectural Review for its references to both older circular libraries and reading rooms, such as the Radcliffe Camera (1737-1749, Grade I) and the mausoleum form or round church, such as Temple Church, London (1150s, Grade I). Further influences included the Grade I-listed twelfth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge (where Wilson held the university's chair of architecture from 1975 to 1989) and the semi-circular children's story-telling room in Gunnar Asplund's Stockholm Public Library (1923-1928). Linked to the cloistered main school building, the Bishop's School library is reminiscent of a monastery’s chapter house and Wilson also drew for inspiration on Antonello da Messina's painting 'St Jerome in his study'.

Wilson himself, whose British Library scheme (1975-1978, 1982-1999, Grade I) was under construction at the same time as the memorial library, is reported as saying that this school library design was his first adoption of a symbolic form (Menin and Kite, 2005, 153). Internally, the library’s constellation-pierced canopy provides a Soaneian lighting effect, spilling daylight from the cylindrical lantern above onto the reading desks. Designed to motivate pupils’ imagination and aspiration, Wilson intended the interior space to embody ‘the richness of the simultaneity of the inner and outer experience’ (ibid.). Just as Wilson’s aim at the British Library was to create a pleasurable reading environment in a building that fitted sensitively into its context, at a completely different scale he intended his peaceful memorial library to inspire the primary school pupils whilst meeting their practical needs in a busy school environment. In this sense the memorial library exemplifies Wilson’s ‘alternative modernism’ which advocated ‘the continuing relevance of architecture’s humane mission’ (Harwood 2013), and is one of the number of library designs in which Wilson and his partner Mary Jane Long came to specialise.


Primary school library, 1983 to 1986 to the design of the architects Colin St John Wilson and partners.

MATERIALS: tapered slate roof coverings and a lead cap, banded red brick laid to Flemish bond with coloured mortar to match. Inside, a steel frame supports a pressed steel panel canopy below the library lantern. Windows are timber-framed throughout, except in the library lantern which is powder-coated aluminium.

PLAN: circular on plan, linked to the school's south elevation by a small rectangular vestibule.

EXTERIOR: the circular library extends from the middle of the south elevation of the school with a continuation of the shallow brick plinth that carries around the building. Its single-storey drum with four square four-light windows supports a truncated conical roof of graded and tapered slates, surmounted by a cylindrical lantern of alternating fixed and casement windows, capped by a slate and lead cone with a pinnacle.

INTERIOR: the circular library is attached to the school's south range by a short link that forms a vestibule between the south range corridor and the library building. The vestibule comprises, to the west, a dwarf wall in red brick laid to stretcher bond with fixed glazing above and to the east a door leading to the school playground. A wooden panel displayed on the vestibule’s north-west brick pier lists teachers from 1947 to 1968 with university degrees. Above the library’s double-leaf doors a memorial plaque records the dedication of the building to Bishop Wilson, its presentation to the Diocese of Chelmsford by the former members of St Monica’s School, Clacton, and the architect’s details. The red-painted doors, each with a circular door light, lead into the single space (7.8m diameter).

Inside, the doorway is emphasised by a simple pedimented door frame. Four fixed rectangular reading desks radiate from the central space, terminating against the outer wall below square four-light fixed windows. Seating includes original three-legged stools with round seats, in plywood, and a range of new stools in mixed materials. Curving shelves fill the wall space between the desks, whilst display boards cover the walls between the windows. Portable shelving blocks, designed to stand on the desk ends, currently (2019) stand on the floor. The door frame, desks, shelves and the wall coverings framing the display boards are painted bright yellow. Pairs of bright red-painted columns rise from either side of the inner ends of the desks, supporting the lantern above. A further pair of vertical steel members rises from the inner end of each desk, carrying a horizontal frame with strip lights over each desk and supporting the central pressed-steel canopy. The canopy, purpose-made by a boat-builder in Harwich, forms an inner dome below the lantern, as a truncated octagon with an oculus. Each panel in the blue-painted canopy is pierced by circles arranged in the shape of a zodiac constellation.


Books and journals
Menin, Sarah, Kite, Stephen, An Architecture of Invitation: Colin St John Wilson, (2005), pp152-153
Stonehouse, R, Colin St John Wilson, (2007), pp362-367
'Wilson's Drum' in Architectural Review, , Vol. 176, (October 1984), p41
'Essex Oculus' in Architectural Review, , Vol. 181, (June 1987), pp92-95
Architects’ plans and elevations (held at The Bishops' School) dated 1983, 1984, 1985, 1990.
Harwood, E, ‘Wilson, Sir Colin Alexander St John [Sandy] (1922–2007)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2013) [online, accessed 13 Feb 2019]
Ordnance Survey 25” county series (Essex) (1874 edn)
Rolfe Kentish, personal communication (8 April 2019, 21 August 2019)


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 s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed building but not coloured blue on the map, are not to be treated as part of the listed building for the purposes of the Act. However, any works to these structures which have the potential to affect the character of the listed building as a building of special architectural or historic interest may still require Listed Building Consent (LBC) and this is a matter for the Local Planning Authority (LPA) to determine.

End of official listing

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