The legislation allowing local authorities to set up public (or ‘free’) libraries dates from the 1850s but such libraries did not come into existence on any scale for a long time. A campaign to adopt the legislation in Lambeth started in 1866 but it took until 1886 for a decision to adopt a halfpenny rate to finance ‘free libraries’ in the parish. Nine library commissioners were elected by the Lambeth Vestry (the equivalent of the local authority) in February 1887 and after that there was rapid progress.
The commissioners included Edwin Lawrence, a member of the prominent south London building firm, William Lawrence & Sons. He was a Member of Parliament and very active commissioner and supporter of libraries. His wife Edith came from a wealthy family, originally from Liverpool, the Durning Smiths, who had lived since the mid-1850s in Ascot in Berkshire. After their marriage in 1874, the Lawrences continued to live in Ascot and Edith’s older sister Jemina stayed in the family home nearby. Later in life, Edwin was to be made a baronet and took the surname of Durning-Lawrence in honour of his wife’s maternal grandfather.
The sisters Jemina and Edith inherited a strong family tradition of philanthropy. Jemina had poor health and never married. With her sister and brother-in-law she supported many charities including churches (they were strong supporters of the Unitarian Church), schools and universities. Jemina also supported numerous medical charities.
Jemina’s interest in libraries was first aroused by her brother-in-law Edwin’s work as a Lambeth library commissioner. She endowed two libraries, both of which were named after her. The first was Lambeth’s second public library, the Durning Library in Kennington Lane, for which in 1888 she gave an initial endowment of 5,000 guineas. That was subsequently raised to 10,000 guineas for the purchase of the site and construction of the building which opened in 1889. She had no other connections with the area and the records do not show that she was subsequently involved in that library.
In 1890 Jemina paid for the conversion of the Post Office in her home town of Ascot into a private library, also named after her, with an endowment to provide an income; a trust was set up to manage the library. The Lambeth librarian helped with the selection of books for the new venture but since then there have not been any direct links between the two libraries. The Ascot Durning Library still exists but in different premises and is now managed by the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.
The Durning Library building in Kennington Lane
The Kennington Lane Durning Library was designed by a local architect, Sidney R.J. Smith, best known as the architect of Tate Britain. Thanks partly to the patronage of the philanthropist Sir Henry Tate, who had moved to Streatham Common in 1880, Smith left a substantial legacy of local libraries in the Lambeth area including those in South Lambeth, West Norwood, Streatham and Balham.
Smith’s libraries have been described in Pevsner’s Buildings of England as ‘enjoyable examples of minor late Victorian municipal showmanship’ and the Durning as being ‘in an elaborate polychromic Gothic, with arches of varies size, a gable and a tower.’ Thanks to its distinctive and quirky design, the Durning quickly became a prominent and well-loved local landmark at Kennington Cross. It was listed as Grade II in 1983.
The ground floor consists of a large reading room and smaller children’s area, with staff offices and other facilities. The upper floors contain a board room and residential accommodation, originally designated for the borough librarian and certainly in use for that purpose until the 1950s. Since the early 1980s, the upper floors have been used by tenants of Lambeth Housing (now Lambeth Living).