Bromley House Subscription Library has seen some action during its 200 year history. From the top window you can see out over Market Square which, until 1929, was home to the Goose Fair, Europe’s oldest travelling fair. Here you would have seen travelling menageries that included everything from giant rats to the exotic snake woman who gets a mention in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). Then of course there was the Reform Riots of 1831 when we burned down our castle, an event recorded in the diary of Mary Howitt, one of Bromley House’s former members.
It originally began life on Carlton Street in 1816 before moving to its current premises on Angel Row in 1822. But only its 1400 members seem to know it’s here due to its rather humble surroundings; the library is bookended in between MSR News and Barnardo’s and has a largely unimpressive exterior. I call it Platform 9 ¾, after the hidden platform at King’s Cross station that whisks apprentice wizards off to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter serial. Expect a similarly magical journey once you step inside.
Inside the Grade II Listed Building you’ll find a spiral staircase which shakes when you walk up it. This has featured in issue 13 (Mary Howitt) and issue 14 (Stanley Middleton) of Dawn of the Unread. It’s so delicate only one person is allowed up it at a time. Be prepared to encounter Grandfather clocks on your travels, various newspapers and magazines scattered invitingly over tables, an attic that was once home to Nottingham first photographic studio (1841 to 1955) as well as a stunning walled garden outside if you want to temporarily forget you’re in the city. But the real treasure for me is a copy of Dante’s Opera which dates back to 1578. I’m learning Italian at the moment and intend to read this at some point in the future.
The library is full of quirky intriguing oddities to keep you inside a lot longer than you had originally planned. The 45,000 books spread over four floors are catalogued in the original pre-Dewey Decimal System which means instead of alphabetically lumping all authors together they are determined by a relative location and relative index. This allows new books to be added to the library in an appropriate location based on subject. This cataloguing system creates a sense of serendipity as you are more likely to encounter new authors. You’ll also discover donated bookshelves from various authors, including one from Alan Sillitoe.
Throughout Dawn of the Unread we have debated the role of libraries in the 21st century; in particular, whether they are functional spaces that simply act as warehouses for books or if they have a more meaningful role to play within communities. Stepping inside Bromley House Library is like jumping down the rabbit hole. It’s a provocative space that constantly demands your attention and is full of intriguing distractions that inspire you to discover more.
There’s a Meridian dial that consists of a fine line pointing North/South that runs across the floor up to a shuttered window with an aperture. At the solar noon, a small patch of sunlight passes through the shutter and crosses the line. Bingo! Here is time. The Meridian Line was the original inspiration for issue 9 of Dawn of the Unread, Bendigo versus Nottingham whereby Market Square is dug up and a Time Mine is discovered.
Over the years the library has witnessed some right drama. Guns have been fired in the billiard room, recorded in the minutes of a committee meeting of 1832. In 1849 an abandoned baby was found in a back room, and perhaps most shocking of all, a librarian once did a runner with the funds. Needless to say some of its more valuable stock has been flogged off over the years in order for it to stay open. The most pressing concern at present is ensuring the building is renovated to a safe standard. So far this has been made possible by generous donations such as Harry Djanogoly, who funded the restoration of the Georgian plaster ceiling in the Neville Hoskins Reading Room. I admire this every month when I sit on the board of Nottingham City of Literature. We relocated here from the Nottingham Writers’ Studio when we got UNESCO accreditation on 11 December 2015.
Bromley House celebrated its 200th birthday on 2 April. There are a variety of talks being put on throughout the year. If you would like to join and help it survive for another 200 years, please see the website for more details.
Students at NTU have created a documentary about Bromley House Library which we will be uploading soon.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- Bromley House Library website (bromleyhouse.org)
- Guide to Local History Resources at Bromley House (bhlibrary.wordpress.com)
- Giant Rats at Goose Fair (sillitoetrail.com)
- Rowena Edlin-White: literary history of Bromley House (dawnoftheunread.com)
- Elaine Aldred pictorial guide (dawnoftheunread.com)
- 200th birthday! (leftlion.co.uk)