Guildhall Library: The Library of London

29 September 2014

Guildhall Library has the largest library collection in the world devoted to the history of a single city. It offers books, pamphlets and periodicals from the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries on all aspects of life in London, past and present, and on national, local and social history. It also offers a varied programme of events including talks, library and City walking tours, workshops and regular exhibitions.

Early and Modern History

The original Guildhall Library was built between 1423 and 1425 being an enterprise undertaken by the executors of Richard Whittington, of ‘Dick Whittington’ fame, and William Bury, both of whom were mercers. It was of stone with a slate roof and ornamented with Whittington’s arms and Bury’s initials. The books, mainly theological, were all in manuscript and chained in their bookcases. The catalogue of the first Library has not survived. It was described by contemporaries as ‘Libraria communis’, common library, at Guildhall. ‘The London Encyclopaedia’ records an extensive history of the Guildhall and its institutions such as the Art Gallery, Chapel, Clock Museum, School of Art and Drama and the Library.

Mention of the Library appears in John Stow’s book ‘A Survey of London Written in the Year 1598’. His detailed description of the city and its suburbs was an immediate success when it first appeared and has remained a popular classic of English history ever since. He was born in London in 1525 into a simple City household in the parish of St. Michael, Cornhill. As son and grandson of a tailor, he completed his apprenticeship in the family business in 1549, becoming a master tailor. He took an active interest in the activities and developments of his native city which had grown very quickly during his own life time. Spurred on by the rapid change, towards the end of the sixteenth century, Stow began to record all he knew of London’s past history and its present state of change. It was the first of its kind to be published providing a classic history of the City before the devastating effects of the Plague and Great Fire of London in 1666. It is also a crucial source of information on the architecture and buildings to be found in Elizabethan London. A revised edition of the book was issued in 1603 and a new edition in 2005 is proof of its topical interest and enduring popularity.

During WW2 on 29 and 30 December 1940 around 25,000 volumes were lost through destruction of some of the store rooms, but damage to the building itself was not extensive. After the war the library continued to grow and flourish expanding into the Guildhall crypt for some much needed extra stack space. It now shares a building with the City Business Library allowing users to move readily between current and historical business resources. In 2014 the Library is holding exhibitions and other events on ‘Remembering the First World War’.

Today the Guildhall Library is a public reference library which specialises in the history of London providing free access to a range of online resources. Its printed books collection comprises more than 200,000 titles from past centuries to the present day. In addition it holds extensive collections covering maritime history, business history, English local history, family history, clocks and clockmakers, food and drink, historic English law reports, British parliamentary papers and statutes, collections devoted to Samuel Pepys, John Wilkes and Thomas More and the libraries of the Clockmakers’ Company, Gardeners’ Company, Fletchers’ Company, Antiquarian Horological Society, Gresham College and the Charles Lamb Society. Three archive collections of the Livery Companies, the Stock Exchange and the Lloyds Marine Collection are still held at Guildhall Library.

The Clockmakers’ Museum

In 1631 London clockmakers were granted their own guild by King Charles I. This ancient Livery Company still flourishes today. Its members transformed the City into a clock and watch making centre which dominated the world from 1600 to 1900. The Clockmakers’ Company Museum began in 1813 and first opened to the public in 1873. It is housed in a single room at the Guildhall Library and is the oldest of its kind in the world. It consists of numerous exhibits telling the story of time from the perspective of the famous Clockmakers of London.

Ita Marguet, August 2014

Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It follows a visit to the Guildhall Library, Clockmakers’ Museum and a walking tour of the City monuments and places to discover ‘Forgotten London’, August 2014.