Local author Maggie Gee writes about Kensal Rise library

By Maggie Gee

Kensal Rise Library is at the junction of College Road and Bathurst Gardens. Come out of Kensal Green station, turn right up College Road and it’s about 5 minutes’ walk up the road on the LH side, just beyond the bridge. It is about the same distance from Kensal Rise overground station, and has several bus routes, including the 18, the 6, the 52, the 452 and the 187, passing nearby. It’s open 10-6 Monday and Tuesday, 10-8pm on Thursday and 10-5pm on Saturday.

It’s a very attractive late Victorian red-brick building on the corner, elegantly modernised with cool mint-green walls and brass chandeliers. It offers a range of books, talking books, CDs and DVDs, with a really welcoming children’s section with books for the tiny ones in shelves shaped like red and yellow trains or a green frog, an alphabet rug on the floor and a ceiling covered with mobiles of flying fish, owls, seagulls and octopuses, a lovely warm sun on the centre of the roof and a huge red admiral butterfly on one wall. It’s a place where mothers can bring children after school from Princess Frederica Primary school, less than 100 metres away. Child-minders bring children here. There are two computers just for the use of children and half a dozen for adults. Ours is a vibrant, racially and culturally diverse area and the library has Urdu, Tamil, Hindi and Gujerati books.

We are a resource for many nearby schools and nurseries – Princess Frederica Nursery and Primary School is about 100 yards away, Kensal Green Under Fives group not much further. On Chamberlayne Road, Kensal Rise, is Manor School, a primary school for children with special needs. One of their class teachers wrote recently, “Please do not close our local library. It is an irreplaceable resource for all children from Manor Special Needs School”. Other nearby schools include Furness Primary School and two comprehensive schools, the Capital Academy and QPCS.

Inside Kensal Rise library

Kensal Rise library is an important place for families, children and teenagers

The library has a demarcated Teen Zone which has Young Adult fiction and graphic novels and teenagers sitting doing homework or talking quietly – when I was there very recently there was a lovely group of teenage girls, most of them now at sixth form college but who had once been at Princess Frederica Primary school, and had come here ever since. One of them was studying for a resit of one of her AS-level exams next day, and said she liked coming to the library in the evening because being with books made her feel calm, and it was hard to concentrate at home, there was too much going on. Another remembered learning to read in the children’s corner. Another said the staff here were specially helpful. There were about 40 local people there when I dropped in at about 4pm, – I counted – about typical for this time of day. A mixture of young mothers and children, teenagers, a local tutor using the library for study, some middle-aged people reading or changing books, older people reading papers or magazines.

Kensal Rise library computer facilities

Kensal Rise library provides computer facilities for the local community

There’s a reading group meeting every second Thursday of each month at 6.45pm. Last week they were discussing The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Every Tuesday in term-time there’s a story and rhyme session for Under 5s from 11.15-12 noon. Every Thursday there’s a knitting and crochet class for beginners between 4 and 6pm  just bring your own needles or crochet hook and some wool.

Run by the library staff themselves, every Monday, 10.30-12 noon, there’s a course helping complete adult beginners to get started on the computers – using a keyboard and mouse, getting to know the internet etc. That is fulfilling a real social need, because a lot of pensioners or unemployed people don’t have computers – and certainly won’t BUY a computer until they have some idea how to use one. The government says it wants all adults to be computer-literate – Kensal Rise library is offering real practical help with this to people of all incomes. Just ring up and let the staff know you want to come. 0208 937 3660.

Mark Twain and the Library

Mark Twain on a steamboat

Mark Twain, who opened Kensal Rise library in 1900

Mark Twain, the pseudonym of American author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was a great American novelist, journalist and travel-writer, who was born in Missouri and grew up by the Mississippi River. In September 1900, Mark Twain opened Kensal Rise Public Reading Room. He was famous for his dry sense of humour: he said ‘ALL GENERALISATIONS ARE FALSE, INCLUDING THIS ONE.’

Ernest Hemingway said that ‘all modern American literature comes from one book, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.’ Twain had a very difficult life but never let depression keep him down for long. His father, an attorney, died when Mark was 11. He was apprenticed to a printer aged 12, and became a typesetter and journalist. He educated himself in public libraries, and went on to train as a steamboat pilot, then a very well-paid job – the modern equivalent would be around £75,000 per annum. Only three of his six siblings survived childhood, and after Twain encouraged his younger brother Henry to follow in his footsteps and work on steamboats, Henry was killed when the boat he was working on exploded. Later on, two of Twain’s three daughters died before him, and his closest friend, Henry Rogers, also died suddenly. By then Twain, though a bestseller, had lost all his money by setting up an unsuccessful publishing firm and investing in a novel typesetting machine. He declared bankruptcy but later managed to pay off all his creditors by lecturing and journalism: he left America and his debts in the 1890s and came to Europe on a lecture tour between 1894 and 1900.

Mark Twain opens Kensal Rise Library

Mark Twain at the opening ceremony of Kensal Rise Library

In 1900, a Dollis Hill dignitary, Sir Hugh Gilzeal Reid, another self-educated man, the son of a Scottish shoe-maker, who had to start work on a farm at the age of 8 but who rose to become the first President of the National Union of Journalists, invited Twain to come and stay at Dollis Hill house, where once Prime Minister Gladstone lived. Perhaps knowing that Twain had educated himself in public libraries, Kensal Rise Library Committee invited him to come over and open their Public Reading Room, which was built on land given to Willesden Council by All Souls College Oxford under a restricted covenant that says it can only be used as a site for a free public reading room and library. There is a brass plaque in the library today commemorating that event, and there is also a splendid black and white photo on the wall dated ‘circa 1900’ that shows Mark Twain and eight members of the Library Committee, all men, of course, dressed dashingly in evening dress with waistcoats, watches and watch-chains. Twain sits in the front row, a very distinctive figure with longish wavy white hair and a very black walrus moustache, strong white eyebrows and an amused, peppery look. He was presented with an inscribed silver watch when he opened the Reading Room and in return gave them a signed photo and five of his own books. Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish philanthropist, another originally poor Scottish boy, the son of a crofter and weaver, who had to emigrate to the USA because of poverty and later became immensely rich in steel – a man who, like Twain, educated himself in an American library – gave £3,000 to extend the Kensal Rise reading room into a library in 1904.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain and considered one of his great novels

Twain, whose best-known works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, was born two weeks after a visit by Halley’s comet to the earth. He feared he would die when the comet next returned close to earth, and did indeed die of a heart attack the day after Halley’s next visit, on April 21, 1910. But his reputation and influence have continued to grow, and there have been countless films of his books. The lesson from Mark Twain’s life, and from the lives of the other two self-educated successful men in this true historical story, is EDUCATE YOURSELF and SURVIVE AGAINST THE ODDS – and that’s what we are sure the library Twain opened will do, survive against the odds. It has already survived more than one attempt to close it down, the last one in 1988. Local people organised by Margaret Bailey, who is also Co-Chair of the current campaign, hearing the library was to be closed down and fearing the stock would be dispersed, changed the locks and occupied the premises, with parents and children sleeping there overnight. Protesters went to visit All Souls College Oxford and received strong support from the college who originally gave the land; we also got offers of free legal representation from more than one very senior QC. Once the Council saw the strength of local feeling, they changed their minds and decided to keep the library open and refurbish it. That local feeling is even stronger today. We love our library and are determined to help it grow and flourish.

The Library was the culmination of a big attempt to improve a very poor area in the last decade of the century, as housing became denser. In 1890, the National Athletic Grounds were built; in 1895, Roundwood Park opened; 1897 was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee: and in September 1900, Kensal Rise Public Reading Rooms made newspapers, and later books, available for everyone to read.

Come along and enjoy the Library – it belongs to all of us. If you’re on Facebook, join our ‘Save Kensal Rise Library’ Facebook group. Mark Twain said ‘ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS BUT NOT NEARLY SO OFTEN’.


Also check out Kensal Rise’s Transfer of Land document from 1900.


Filed under News