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Memories of the Old Library

The Old Library is a beautiful heritage building in Newbury town centre. It is listed on the West Berkshire Council local list of heritage assets and lies within the Newbury Town Centre Conservation Area.

Built in 1905-6 as Newbury Free Library, it is located in a prominent position in the town centre on the corner of Cheap Street and Carnegie Road and is a Carnegie Library. Built with money donated by Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and through public subscription, it is one of 660 Carnegie libraries which were built in the UK between 1883 and 1929. It was designed by the Newbury Borough Surveyor and built by local builders and was an important part of the social fabric of Newbury for nearly a century. It continued in use as a public library until July 2000, re-opening soon afterwards as a Prezzo restaurant which closed in 2018.

It is a much-loved heritage building in Newbury, remembered as the town library by many. The Corn Exchange (Newbury) Trust are transforming the interior of the building to once again become a hub for the community and a permanent home to creative participation activity for people of all ages.

The Old Library, 2024

Here are some memories of the Old Library from our community:

‘Through the staff door towards the front of the library, a staircase, with rubbery edging to the steps and a rubbery smell, that I thought somehow would not have been out of place in the 1950s, led up to a large room at the front of the building, we called the Workroom, where all of the 'behind the scenes' work of a public library took place… Some staff who had worked there for a long time told me of the Workroom Ghost who sometimes moved some of the books around when nobody was there. I doubted this, but late one afternoon I was working there alone and all was still and quiet until there was a small thud from the other side of the room. I got up and went over and found a book lying on the floor that had previously been lying peacefully on the shelf by itself. "Hello, Ghost!" I whispered.’

Postcard of Cheap Street, 1912

‘The librarian said I could take up to 10 books home or something like that. Well! It was just the most exciting feeling…and all these books for free! I remember the smell of the library and the peace it gave me. The light in the space was also magical. A real escape.’

Entrance to Newbury Library/Foundation stone 2023/Newbury Library 1912

‘My grandmother lived very near the library at 20 Market Street where she had a flower shop with a flat upstairs. As she got older she was often quite poorly and my mother, brother and I would move into the flat to look after her until she was well again. This was sometimes for weeks at a time. She had no TV and at that time (in the 50s and 60s) I was an avid reader and when I came home from school I would go over to the old library and choose another library book.’

Newbury Library, Carnegie Road in the 1970s

‘I would catch the bus in from Upper Basildon, go to the library for the morning and then visit Grandma where she'd make me lunch (a tinned Fray Bentos pie!) followed by an afternoon playing cards. I think I did this every other Saturday and those mornings in the history section fueled my interest in history: I am now a doctor of history and an Hon. Visiting Fellow in the Department of History at the University of York with various publications and books to my name. I thank the local studies section of Carnegie Library for lighting a spark all those years ago that has led me to becoming an historian.’

Packing up the Old Library

‘When I was young my Granny used to take me to the library during school holidays. It seemed like such an amazing place when I was small and I loved choosing which book to read before we went back to return it. I remember the librarians with their date stamps and I can still hear the sound as they printed on the slip in each book…What I do remember is row upon row upon row of books, cementing a lifetime’s love of reading. Incidentally I am now, among other things, a writer.’

Prezzo, closed 2018

‘Miss Purvis was Borough Librarian through WW11 and was still such when I started as Deputy Borough Librarian. She remembered being fined for showing a light from the library during the wartime blackout and distributed ration books from the Library.’

Prezzo restaurant interior

‘The Old Carnegie building had a strange heating system with the oil fired furnace in the attic and the tanks in the basement. I did stop the system burning down the Library once. Coming in early to open up I noticed the heating was playing up. Climbed up to the attic and the fire door was warm. Foolishly opened it and the furnace was going full bore but a pipe had come loose and the floor up to the fire door sill was full of heating oil. I hit the emergency stop and hastily closed the door. Shinned down the ladder and got to a ground floor phone. Phoned fire brigade as a precaution and the maintenance engineers.’

The Old Library renovation in progress

Image Credit: Adam Hillier