Shameful though it is, I’m not the only local who didn’t know that this library existed — we’ve all heard of “Morrab Library”, but assumed this was the town library on Morrab Road. Not so — that is Penzance Library.
The independent Morrab Library is a gorgeous little cultural pearl that lies about a hundred yards to the east, in the middle of Morrab Gardens. It’s one of only thirty remaining private libraries in the UK, and the only one in Cornwall.
Built in 1841 as a private residence for the Pidwell family, Morrab House sits in the middle of walled, tropical gardens which are now a park, open to the public (and free to enter) all year round.
Dawn Walker, member (and until recently secretary) of the Penwith Local History Group, gave us the background to the library. The need for a library arose in Penzance in the late 1700s as the town started to swell with the new “middle class” — local merchants, lawyers and doctors who had no access to books or other reading matter, other than the weekly Helston paper. Books — and extensive collections in particular — were the preserve of the gentry, who might return from the London season carrying selections from private libraries, or who may have books sent by boat to the local dock. These were not readily available to the locals.
In the 1780s, a group of local women founded one of the first local reading circles, ordering in books and circulating them within their group. Historical records in the Morrab Library archive show that these women ordered a wide range of titles including reference books on health, history, and politics, as well as fictional novels. (Time precluded looking into the archives today — note to self: must go back for a delve!)
By 1818, the group had expanded to include both men and women and a private library was founded, which moved from one property to another over the coming decades as the book collection expanded. In July 1888, Morrab House was secured by the County Council and the lease subsequently granted to the library (rather than the YMCA, as it was “more likely to be respectable”).
The library continued in force, attracting a wide membership and some generous donations, in particular an extensive book collection from one J Halliwell-Phillipps Esq., but in the 1930s it still came under threat of closure as independent bookshops and other private libraries opened in the area. The sale of a few treasured medieval manuscripts allowed the library to remain open and in situ. These days, it survives via its membership subscriptions, income from prior investments, and occasional gifts (a recent donation from local Dennis Myner and his sister, Patricia Eschen, has allowed the building of a new extension).
Currently the library holds about 60,000 books. Specific collections include local histories, Celtic history, and naval history — and a newspaper archive including that of The Cornishman.
There’s also an extensive archive of local photographs, spanning from the mid 19th century tourist era to the late 1970s. Scanned images are available on request, and are used by both locals and overseas members to trace genealogy or explore local history.
Morrab Library is a gem. What was once an early Victorian home is now graced by old books and new, from the floor to the high, decorated ceilings. Stained glass windows shed blue light on the stairwell, and sash windows overlook the walled, tropical garden. Readers can stare out at the sea, or turn the pages of old Victorian print editions in which ferns were used to create still vibrant images on the old paper.
It also has wifi, a new website, and plans to digitize its photographic collection to enable the images to be accessed online. As decorative and historically interesting as it is, Morrab Library is definitely part of the 21st century.
Family membership of the library costs just £25 a year (less than 7p a day) — or currently £12.50 for the second half of this year. Opening times are Tuesday – Friday 10am-4pm and Saturday 10am-1pm and full details of services and events can be found on their website.
My thanks to @penzancelitfest for what turned out to be a real treat.