History of Sion College Library, part II

Although the library’s building survived the bombings of the First World War, it did not emerge unscathed.  By the end of the war the College found itself in a position where it was necessary to sell off rural properties acquired in the 1630’s when Thomas White made his original bequest.  Unfortunately the property had been rearranged during a recession in 1919 and the sale of the land did not generate the hoped for amount.  Sion was also liable to pay full business rates in the 1920s, which was a nasty and unforeseen surprise.  Symbolic of the College’s problems in the 1930s a decision was made to purchase lower watt light bulbs to save on electricity, but not to discontinue to provide monogrammed soap with the logo of Sion College running through like a stick of rock (Huelin 1992).  This sort of behaviour led to the sale of valuable early medical books between 1937-39.  Although these were not essential to a collection mainly for use by clergy, the books sold came from early bequests from John Lawson and Edward Waple, brutally splitting up collections left to the library’s care.  As before, the sale generated less than the expected value due to economic difficulties at the time – only £3,000.

Destruction of London Wall site (probably) (Guildhall MS 33554)
Destruction of London Wall site (probably) (Guildhall MS 33554)

During the war the college was hit several times and roughly 6,000 books were lost.  Unfortunately, one of these was the final volume of the catalogue, which represented the most up to date catalogue of Sion holdings which had been available.  This makes it difficult to know exactly what the library’s holdings were or to know what was lost.  By 1943, the College provided no lunches, had few members and was considering sale of the buildings to the British Legion.

Help arrived in the form of the City Livery Club in 1944, which had been bombed out for a second time and needed a new meeting place.  Most of the building was sublet to the club for a low rent on condition that the club paid the utility bills, provided and paid for a caretaker, and allowed Sion members to partake of the Livery Club’s catering.  However, the situation, which continued into the 1990s, could be strained at times.  The former reading room and storage area for the majority of the books, some printed as early as 1501, became the club’s smoking room.  This, in part, accounts for the heavy soiling on many of the volumes.

Reading Room/Smoking Room.  Readers were confined to the balcony areas.
Reading Room/Smoking Room. Readers were confined to the balcony areas.

After the war the College showed a shortfall in its annual accounts every year in the 1950s.  In the 1960s the Court of Governors repeated reduced Sion’s capital without too much concern or discussion, being primarily concerned that the port continued to be handed round.  The College’s reluctance to change can be seen in the continued refusal to allow full membership to deaconesses, which was available to their male counterparts.

At this time Sion was made to sell part of the building to the council as part of a road widening scheme.  Rather than taking compensation and settling its bills, the College made arrangements to purchase 9 Carmelite Street at a reduced cost.  It was thought that this building would more than make up for the space lost to the road widening scheme and that the ground floor units could be rented out for a lucrative rent.  Unfortunately, the Greater London Council was a sitting tenant with a lease not due to be renewed until 1990.  They were paying only £475 per annum on property that should have been generating £10,000.  Despite these factors, the governors felt that they could hold out until the lease was renewed and new tenants could be found.

Compiled by Anna James, Edited by Talitha Wachtelborn

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