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Whitley Library: the architecture of hope

Whitley library

Whitley library was built in 1935 in the classical and confident municipal style of the time, and is a stand-alone building in smart red brick, with a lovely scrolled Bath stone cartouche at the top with “LIBRARY” written on it. It stands on Northumberland Avenue next to a roundabout at the heart of south Reading. There is a very similar library building in Palmer Park and the style does seem to project a pride in civic life, education and the burgeoning welfare state with that glorious dawn of the National Health Service just a war away.

Just a few years after this building was opened, the locals would be involved in a desperate struggle for our nation’s very existence. The library was an ARP (air raid precautions) warden post in 1940 and several Whitley residents were killed or injured in the air raid on the town in 1943. A library in these times would have been a very important peaceful refuge and the ordered symmetry of this building would have stood out as the architecture of hope. As Churchill once said “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Albert Gregory (far left) , assistant librarian at the south Reading branch library (aka Whitley library) from 1935-1936. Photo used with permission (c) Reading Borough Libraries.

The building will soon be emptied and the library absorbed into a newly refurbished community centre on Northumberland Avenue, which is a building of a similar style from the same era. The community centre itself once housed a remarkable group of large paintings, which I hear are now near Darwin Close, painted by Italian prisoners of war (nearby Rabson’s Rec. was once divided between Italian and German POWs). Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing to see them restored and back on the walls after the refurbishment?

I will be sad to see the library move, but I can see the logic and the new place is virtually over the road. The Community Centre is having a real resurgence and the good works of the Café, Social Club and Whitley Museum are making a difference in the area. Having the library there as well would be provide a handy central base and access for all.

Arthur Swain, Whitley librarian assistant c. 1937. Photo used with permission (c) Reading Borough Libraries.

I would love to see the Whitley library building kept in the same shape or form whoever its new owner or tenant will be. It would be nice if it was still in public use but, realistically, I suppose it could be sold for a commercial venture. There are not many historic or stand-out buildings in south Reading and we could at least protect the palimpsest of this building by keeping the structure. It is disheartening to live in a town that places more value on bland and unaffordable flats than homes specifically for local families and people on lower incomes.

I often see a small group of fairly well behaved teenagers hanging about outside the Whitley library and I imagine them to be a bookish group of toughs with full library membership defending their literary island with fierce pride, or maybe even a modern day Reading version of the Bow Street Runners.


I sat in the smaller junior room in the 1970s and quietly read the Look ‘n’ Learn magazines, Commando war strips or comics with stories like Billy’s boots, Tupper of the track and Roy of the Rovers. This was the only time I ever was truly quiet! The Guinness book of records was very popular at the time and I was transfixed by things like those overweight American twins on mini-motorbikes, the world’s tallest man, Robert Wadlow, and the vocabulary of budgerigars – I couldn’t understand why my budgie, called Polly, couldn’t get beyond a whistle. I then graduated to the bigger adult room and became a bit obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I don’t think it was until I was 14 or so that I first found out he was a fictional character. I think Conan Doyle was having us all on when he promised us the story of the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant. Groucho Marx once said “outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

My Mum would get her large bundle of Agatha Christies with other whodunnits and detective stories from the library; their lurid covers usually had a cadaver and Cluedo-type weapon on the cover. If the homicide team are ever short-handed or need a lead I would recommend they talk to her, as there can’t be anyone more knowledgeable on the subject of murder. I once found a luncheon voucher for 2/6 in old money and some green shield stamps in the leaves of a book. It was quite a place for finding the odd train ticket or note too; although the rumour that spies used rarely-borrowed library books for leaving secret messages seems a bit far-fetched, I did once find a note from someone called Fred asking ‘darling’ to meet him at the Cowsey for the ‘usual’ Friday night.

Whitley library c. 1985. Photo used with permission (c) Reading Borough Libraries.

In the 1980s a friend of mine went for job a interview at the Whitley library and he reckoned there were at least six librarians in the small room behind the desk, all furiously stamping books. There always seemed to be standing water in the road outside and I often wondered if it was built over an ancient stream. I must say I do find the present opening hours fairly baffling, but over the years the librarians, some of whom have put in many years of service, have been very friendly and helpful, apart from one period when the incumbent librarian used to pointedly ask me if I wanted anything when I was obviously browsing, as if he was an eager salesman or intrusive shop assistant. He also openly discussed and criticised book choices in front of the lender; surely on every librarian’s not-to-do list, he is thankfully now ex-libris.

I have watched the restoration of the Abbey Quarter and follow recent developments at the prison with delight and I am behind any attempt to preserve true heritage in Reading, but history is not just about the medieval times or the rich and famous in their opulent dwellings and vainglorious ecclesiastical buildings. Britain was built at the factory gate as well as Agincourt; there is great history in the suburbs of Reading and not just in the town centre. It was 1980s band the Redskins who sang “it’s a crying shame, when our past is buried and our victories go un-named, while our history books talk of kings and men of fame”.

Whitley library, c. 1935. Photo used with permission (c) Reading Borough Libraries.

I will be asking Reading Borough Council if we can at least preserve the skin and bones of this lovely, tidy, modest, plucky little building which has played its part in the history of our town for the past 80 years. Perhaps if it could at least be locally listed there would be a chance of saving the building or at least exploring other options about its future use. Go and visit this building on an evening or afternoon when the sun is directly shining on the red brick, look on and think on this from architect Louis Khan: “architecture appears for the first time when the sunlight hits a wall. The sunlight did not know what it was before it hit a wall.”

Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.

  1. Whitley Library
  2. Reading library catalogue
  3. Whitley social club and café
  4. Reading conservation areas
  5. Locally listed buildings in Reading
  6. Assets of community value in Reading
  7. Reading Abbey Quarter
  8. Councillors for the area served by the library: Church ward, Whitley ward, Katesgrove ward and Redlands ward


  1. This is a fascinating story and the bit about the children’s room took me back to the 50s in Bournemouth where we had a whole separate juvenile library! Recently I was in Ilkeston for the first time where they had a Carnegie Library still in use.
    I wonder who the clergyman is with the first librarian. I seem to recall that St Agnes Church was built about the same time so maybe he was the first vicar thereof?

  2. Matthew Farrall

    2 December 2017 at 10.22 am

    I must look into that John and name them all if possible but I think Vicar of St Agnes is most likely. The oldest picture of the library makes it look like a charming little colonial outpost !

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