Library History

Rock Road Library in 1955 (with thanks to Chris Jakes and the Cambridgeshire Collection)

Rock Road Library, 1955 (Source Cambridgeshire Collection)

‘An Intellectual Home’

‘You only have to look at the front of Rock Road Library to know that it was opened in the mid-1930s. If you go to the Central Library, and consult the Cambridgeshire Collection, you will quickly discover that the official inauguration was on 20th May 1936 … In the course of the opening ceremony, Councillor Swift observed that: ‘The [Library] Committee believed that in these days of difficulty, it was important that there should be in every district a building which would help to circulate among the surrounding people, the best ideas and information for their guidance and thought’. He then went on to express the hope that ‘in days to come, this building will become more and more the intellectual home of the people who live round it’. To judge by the impassioned voices raised by those at public meetings held in 2011, the local community is profoundly attached to its ‘intellectual home’.

The creation of a branch library in Cherry Hinton as the area was then known, was first mooted in 1934, when the Borough Council’s Library Sub-Committee decided, as an interim measure to meet local demand from readers, to set up a School Branch Library in nearby Morley Memorial School. These initiatives could not have succeeded with the ‘generous cooperation’ of the teachers. The educational aspect of library provision, reflected in the intertwining of the history of Rock Road Library with that of one of the local primary schools, was much stressed by the City Librarian, William Arthur Fenton, whose reports contain many references both to children’s sections within library buildings and to the importance of adult education. In the course of his long tenure, Fenton was responsible for introducing the open access system, for launching The Cambridge Public Library Record, and impressive journal published between November 1926 and July 1940, for promoting exhibitions, lectures, film and slide-shows and for doing much to break down divisions between ‘Town and Gown’. His vision of the complex, ramifying impact of a library service upon civic life is reflected in the charming sketch reproduced in tree form in one of the official library reports from the 1920s.

Another speaker at the opening ceremony in May 1936 was a Councillor Rackham. This was Clara Dorothea Rackham, a local councillor who had played a notable part in the Suffragette Movement, contributed a chapter on Cambridge to Helen Bosanquet’s Social Conditions in Provincial Towns [1912], and in The Cambridge Public Library Record, published ‘One Hundred Years Ago’ [1933] and ‘William Morris (1834-1986)’ [1934]. In 1944, this remarkable woman donated a valuable collection of children’s books, illustrated by her brother-in-law, Arthur Rackham, to the Cambridge Library Service, a collection that still exists.’

Martin Thom, FRRL Committee Member 2012

Report on Opening of the Library, Cambridge Daily News, 21 May 1936

Interior, 1955 (Source Cambridgeshire Collection)

Interior, 1955 (Source Cambridgeshire Collection)

Construction of the Library Building

Rock Road Library was the first branch library to be opened in Cambridge after Mill Road Library (1897).

Located in the Rock estate, an area of suburban villas developed from the late 1890s.  The Deeds have been found to comprise the following:

  • Memorandum of Agreement dated 31st March 1891 between  The Rock Freehold Land Society Ltd and Henry Raven
  • Indenture dated  1st May 1901  between the Artizan’s Land and Mortgage Corporation Ltd and Emily Jane Raven
  • Receipt dated  11th May 1927 of payment made by City Council
  • Law Society Particulars of Sale dated June 1927
  • July 19th 2012  County Council’s registered Title  to the site.

Cambridge’s Borough Engineer and Surveyor, George William Teasdale (Appendix 1) was responsible for the design of the building (Appendix 2) which, remarkably, the building has changed little since it was built.  In the 1990s, an informal group of friends of Rock Road Library organised fund-raising activities to provide toilets for users of the Library (Appendix 3).  In 2014, Crittall-style doors were inserted to provide access to the garden, the reception desk and shelving were reorganised and a community room created in the space vacated by the children’s library which was moved to the rear of the building.

Building of Local Interest – BLI Description Rock_Road_Library 

In a 2015 report, Historic England describes libraries in words that apply perfectly to the building in Rock Road:

 ‘Small branch libraries of the 20th century could act as markers of civic pride just as much as the central libraries of the 19th century, albeit with a greater sense of architectural modesty.’  p. 7 Historic England 2015 Report on Library Buildings 1850-1939

In June 2017, the Library was added to the list of Cambridge’s list of Building of Local Interest.  This is a list of over 1,000 buildings that, ‘although they do not meet the national criteria for statutory listing, are important either by themselves or as part of a group.  These buildings of local interest have been designated because of their architectural merit and, in some cases, their historical associations.  They may contribute to and help to define the character of the townscape of an area, or be significant in the historical and architectural development of the city. Many are 19th and 20th century buildings and some street furniture is also included.’

The City Council’s  Senior Conservation and Design Officer wrote: ‘Rock Road Library has been designated as a Building of Local Interest due to its architectural quality, street-scene value and landmark value. The BLI designation includes the wall, railings and gate to the front of the property as they too are seen as important to the setting of the building and the street-scene.’

FRRL occasionally produce walking trails highlighting interesting local buildings and the history of the area around the Library.

Cherry Hinton Road Neighbourhood History Scrapbook compiled by Mike Petty, formerly of the Cambridgeshire Archive.

Library Service History

In its first year, Rock Road Library issued 109,000 books – a similar number to Mill Road Library about a mile away; today annual borrowings are around 90,000 (Rock_Road_Library_Profile_2011).  The needs of library users may have changed since 1935, however, having weathered several periods of severe service cuts and threats of closure,  the library remains an essential part of the community providing a range of facilities.

Issuing loans in 1955 (Source Cambridgeshire Collection)

Issuing loans in 1955 (Source Cambridgeshire Collection)

Friends of Rock Road Library History

In 2009, local enthusiasts formed a small group to rescue the neglected Library garden under the leadership of local resident, Jane Elliott. The distinctive logo was designed by another local resident, Fiona Allen.  When public service cuts threatened to close the Library, the focus of the group changed. Today FRRL work closely with the County Council to maintain a viable, vibrant library. The funds collected from members and through grants help improve facilities, sponsor events and maintain opening times.

In 2014, FRRL secured a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for a major project exploring the role of local residents in World War I – this included the production of a memory quilt which is permanently displayed in the Community Room.

FRRL Building Projects

In 2016, the group was established as a charitable trust – see News  and Governance.

Pre-Trust RRL_Constitution: the original constitution was a slightly modified version of the standard constitution drafted by Library Services for use by friends of library groups.


Cambridge Evening News Article, 17 February 1978


Original Plans, 1935 –  George William Teasdale

1935 Plans

1935 Plans

Cambridge Evening News Article, 30 December 1996

Cambridge Evening News Article

Cambridge Evening News Article

Cherry Hinton Road Neighbourhood History Scrapbook compiled by Mike Petty, formerly of the Cambridgeshire Archive.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: