It takes a certain quality of brass neck to rewrite history in a history library. But that’s precisely what happened at the re-opening launch of the Tower Hamlets Archives and History Library in Bancroft Road last Monday night.
In front of several dozen guests, first Mayor Lutfur Rahman and then one of the council officers responsible for jeopardising the future of the former Mile End Vestry Hall almost three years ago spun a yarn that would have made our story-telling camp-fire forebears purr with delight.
A fairly accurate account of the events that saved Bancroft can be read here, a website that has input from Tower Hamlets’ most formidable historian Tom Ridge. I say ‘fairly accurate’ because it also fails to tell the whole story.
During the spring and early summer of 2008, I was studying on a history course at Birkbeck College. While undertaking some research at Bancroft, I was told that plans were being advanced to sell the building to Queen Mary College.
The plans included breaking up the collections, which included all back copies of the East London Advertiser, between two sites at the Museum of Docklands and the archive at the Royal London Hospital. If the hospital archives were unable to take any records, locations outside the borough were to be considered.
I went back to the office and advised my editor. I said this decision would cause local and national outrage. He agreed and we were right. Our decision to launch a campaign to save the building was, as one senior figure in the Bancroft hierarchy said to me on Monday night, “the absolute key” in its ultimate survival. He said prior to that there were a number of other groups lobbying behind the scenes, but it was the weight we threw behind it that made them all “coalesce” .
Over the next few weeks, we assembled a series of star names to back us, launched an important petition on the Downing Street website (helped, it has to be said, by East End Life editor Laraine Clay’s generous decision to publicise it in the council freesheet), informed a shocked and angry Stan Newens (the former
Bethnal Green Epping MP) and held meetings with various groups.
But it was the conversations behind the scenes that were also important. Labour councillor Marc Francis was then (possibly still is…) Lutfur’s right-hand man. This was June 2008 and Lutfur had become leader only a few weeks before. When I raised Bancroft as an issue, Marc couldn’t understand the fuss.
He said the building was under-used, no one knew about it, that it was inaccessible by public transport and that surely it was better to contain the records and the service in a more modern and appropriate building. He said he and Lutfur were adamant that the decision would go ahead. We had a long row on the telephone about it. I said his argument about accessibility didn’t wash: Bancroft was a five minute walk from Stepney Green Tube. I said that if it was under-used, then wasn’t that perhaps because the council under-used it, that it didn’t realise what a gem it was sitting on. Why not improve the sign-posting towards it in the area, why not create a museum/history information room there, why not stage more events there?
All these points were met with intransigence. I told him everyone knew there were serious concerns about Lutfur and that he had here a major opportunity to show everyone his attitude towards the heritage of the borough. Marc scoffed at the suggestion, calling it ridiculous. I told him that if Bancroft was sold off and the collections disbursed, that would be Lutfur’s tainted legacy and that’s the way our readers would see it.
And so the penny began to drop. As the campaign gathered momentum and attracted national attention, Tom Ridge’s meetings with Marc and Lutfur became more productive. And eventually we all won. The ELA later won the regional newspaper industry’s campaign of the year award for our efforts.
On Monday night, however, a slightly different version was told. The East London Advertiser’s contribution was completely whitewashed from the record. Shamefully, neither Stan Newens nor Lutfur nor Judith St John, the head of the council’s library service and one of those most responsible for putting the library at risk in the first place, mentioned the paper’s campaign.
The omission was also noted by many of the historians and campaigners who stood listening to the speech. Many refused to applaud. In particular, they were disgusted by the back-slapping congratulations of the council officers who were forced by the library’s many fans into action.
That said, the library has survived and that’s a quite brilliant thing. As Tom Ridge said to me, “It’s great that when so many libraries are being threatened with closure, that Tower Hamlets is bucking the trend. As a former teacher, I now hope that the building can be used for schoolchildren as a first class education centre.”
The campaign was a fantastic example of the potential influence that a local paper can have when it works with and mobilises its community. Sadly, too many of them no longer do that.