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Former public hall and library, Canning Town

A Grade II Listed Building in Canning Town North, London

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Latitude: 51.5175 / 51°31'3"N

Longitude: 0.0112 / 0°0'40"E

OS Eastings: 539641

OS Northings: 181759

OS Grid: TQ396817

Mapcode National: GBR LT.1HW

Mapcode Global: VHHNJ.44R0

Entry Name: Former public hall and library, Canning Town

Listing Date: 12 September 2011

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1402042

Location: Newham, London, E16

County: London

District: Newham

Electoral Ward/Division: Canning Town North

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Newham

Traditional County: Essex

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Greater London

Church of England Parish: Plaistow and North Canning TownThe Divine Compassion

Church of England Diocese: Chelmsford

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Former public hall and library, built in 1892-4 by the Corporation of the Borough of West Ham, to designs by the Borough Engineer and Architect Lewis Angell FRIBA. Since 1993 a community centre and library.


The former public hall and library stand side-by-side facing Barking Road and were designed as a single composition, although the only physical connection is an iron fire escape bridge to the rear at first-floor level. Both are constructed of stock brick, with Italianate façades of red brick with Portland stone dressings. The three-storey public hall is the grander. It has a recessed stone arcaded portico of three round-arched openings, with carved spandrels, frieze and keystones. Secondary entrances, giving access directly to the public assembly hall, are in two-storey bays to either side, these with shallow segmental pediments and carved tympana. Above ground floor, a mezzanine is articulated with a row of œils-de-bœuf windows. Next is the piano nobile, comprising three round-headed windows set under a stone pediment with a dentil cornice and the borough arms in the tympanum. A stone balustrade runs along the parapet. The façade is further ornamented with decorative stone friezes and panels carved with cartouches, festoons and swags. Its vertical divisions are marked by brick pilasters with stone bands.

Inside, the ground floor has an entrance lobby with a foundation plaque, recording the names of councillors who oversaw the hall’s construction. The lobby is now carpeted, but in a publication Buildings of Newham, dated 1973, it is described as having a mosaic terrazzo floor. Several timber doorcases, with moulded architraves, pulvinated frieze and cornice, lead off the lobby and show the original arrangement of rooms (some former rooms have been opened up; one room contains an original fireplace complete with mirrored over-mantel). Above two of the doorcases are œils-de-bœuf fanlights with decorative plasterwork. Through that to the left, is a large hall, which originally served as a police court. It has carved consoles supporting the coffered ceiling beams and five further decorative doorcases. The door to the right leads to a corridor, off which are offices containing original fireplaces and leaded windows with coloured glass. At the rear of the building is a second large room, this with original cornice and coloured glass windows. There are also two secondary entrance lobbies (one at the east and the other at the west end of the building); these have terrazzo floors with wave-scroll patterned edging and secondary staircases with cast-iron splat balusters lead from the lobbies to the upper floor.

The two principal staircases, decorative cast-iron, open-well stone staircases with polished hardwood handrails, lead from the main lobby to the mezzanine landing, the latter lit by stained glass windows in Art-Deco designs. The landing gives access to the assembly hall, and to the two side staircases which lead to its gallery. The gallery has been extended forward towards the proscenium and partitioned beneath, creating extra office space, and has a modern balustrade. The assembly hall’s principal decoration is its ebullient coffered ceiling, which has not been affected by the partial subdivision of the hall. The coffered ribs are supported by Ionic capitals and Ionic pilasters divide the upper floor window bays. There is also a clerestory of œils-de-bœuf windows, all with coloured class; the walls are blind at stalls level. Two of the original chandeliers, vast metal and frosted glass discs, are in-situ. The proscenium arch is decorated with a bayleaf garland moulding and laurel wreaths in plaster. The sprung floor of the stage survives, although the proscenium arch has been partitioned. There is a backstage room to either side of the state, each with parquet floors and cast-iron fireplaces in russet tiles and moulded timber surrounds.

The seven-bay library has two storeys under a brick parapet with stone coping, the upper storey with round-headed windows. The storeys are divided by stone bands and the bays of the upper floor marked by brick pilasters. Stone panels beneath the first-floor windows have decorative carving. The stone doorcase, located off-centre in the penultimate left-hand bay, has a broken pediment with a cartouche bearing the borough arms, topped by small obelisks. Its frieze is inscribed ‘Public Library’ and square stone piers to either side of the entrance steps have large ball finials. The public areas of the library interior were inspected. There are two large reading rooms which have now been opened into a single space. The rear room has a coffered ceiling supported on Doric columns, the central panels of which are glazed. A glazed screen in the front reading room creates a partitioned office space, and is possibly a post-Second World War adaptation. The lobby contains a decorative cast iron spiral staircase and a stone plaque which records that the library was opened by Passmore Edwards in 1893; an additional plaque notes the restoration of the library after War damage in 1952-3. The non-public parts of the interior were not inspected.


The hall’s purpose was to provide a public meeting space and to administer council business in the southern part of the borough, where the population had expanded rapidly in the late C19 (the main Town Hall, built in 1867-8 and also by Angell, was at Stratford). The site cost £2,400 and construction £20,000. The philanthropist John Passmore Edwards donated the first thousand books to the library’s collection.

It was at first intended to include public baths on the ground floor of the hall, with a galleried assembly hall on the first floor, but this aspiration was abandoned in 1891 on the grounds of cost. Instead a second public hall-cum-police court and offices were provided. The new hall and library were some of the first public buildings in the borough to be lit by electricity, generated by gas engines on site; these were used until 1898 when the power generating station at Abbey Mills came into operation. When East Ham and West Ham merged to become Newham Borough Council in 1965, the public hall became an adult education institute. By 1989 the hall had been abandoned, but was restored and revived by a local charity, which from 1993 ran it as a community centre; they remain the long leaseholders of the building.

The public hall is associated with various prominent socialists, including Keir Hardie, Bertrand Russell and Sylvia Pankhurst, who all spoke here. It also has a connection with the trade unionist Will Thorne who, following a speech in March 1889 at what was to become the site of the public hall, established the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers. By late 1889 the Union had 20,000 members and its success prepared the ground for the great dock strike of 1889, and the rapid growth of unionism in East London. Thorne was elected as general secretary of the Union in 1889, to a seat on West Ham town council in 1891, the borough’s mayor in 1917–18, and MP for West Ham in 1906, a seat he held for nearly forty years. A second local public figure connected with the hall is Daisy Parsons, a suffragette and West Ham's first female mayor. Full biographies of Thorne and Parsons may be read in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Reasons for Listing

The former Public Hall and Library at Canning Town is listed Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* special architectural interest: a handsome pair of municipal buildings, Italianate in style with plentiful carved stonework and decorative detail, built in 1892-4 to designs by Borough Engineer and Architect Lewis Angell
* special historic interest: the buildings reflect the expansion of local government activity in what was one of the poorest parts of East London at the end of the C19, and have historic associations with trade unionist Will Thorne, suffragette and politician Daisy Parsons, and the philanthropist J Passmore Edwards.
* interiors: the public hall has the original stairs, doorcases and coloured glass windows and a vast first floor auditorium with surviving plasterwork ceiling, proscenium, and light fittings.

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