The History and Treasures of Guildhall Library


I’m a librarian by profession, and of the many things I like to do in London, one of the chief ones is to explore all the different libraries in the city. The Guildhall Library is a public reference library – though books cannot be borrowed, the collection is open to all – specialising in the history of London. It has a printed books collection of over 200,000 titles dating as far back as the fifteenth century, and also has items such as pamphlets, periodicals, trade directories, maps and poll books. The History and Treasures of Guildhall Library is a talk and tour that takes place every month or so. It is free and can be booked by individuals: you do not have to be part of a group. The Library is located at Aldermanbury in the City of London; the nearest tube station is St Paul’s. It is next to the Guildhall complex, but the Library itself was built in the 1970s.

We were given an introduction to the Library by one of the librarians. The first Guildhall Library was founded in 1425: this is recorded in John Stow’s Survey of London (1598). Known as the “Common Library” at Guildhall, its collections were mainly theological. Sadly, the Duke of Somerset stole borrowed the Library’s collections for his own house by the Thames during the sixteenth century. In the 1820s, the City of London Corporation decided to found another library: in 1828 there were around 1700 volumes, all concerning London, and the library was deemed very successful. By 1873, the “Old Library”, in the Guildhall complex, had 60,000 volumes. Sadly, 25,000 volumes were destroyed in only one night during the 1940 Blitz.

After the war, it was decided that another library should be built. The new building was opened on 21 October 1974. Today, the Guildhall Library focuses on the history of London, with a special collection relating to food and drink as well as three archive collections: the archives of London livery companies, the Stock Exchange archives, and the Lloyds Marine Collection. Below this library is the City Business Library, a valuable resource for anyone running a business.

We were shown some of the items from the collection, a fascinating and motley bunch. One volume, a Bible originally belonging to the Worshipful Company of Tilers and Bricklayers, was part of the original Library and ended up in the Duke of Somerset’s collection before finding its way back to the Guildhall. A third folio of Shakespeare’s works contains many plays no longer attributed to him. Nineteenth-century pictures of medieval floats from the Lord Mayor’s Pageant are fascinating, and a book with its original chain attached reminds us that books were so valuable hundreds of years ago that they had to be chained up to prevent theft.

Other items included a first example of a stocks and shares book, published in a coffee house; a collection of botanical illustrations; and, on a macabre note, a catalogue of the sale of items from Newgate. When the prison was closed in the early 1900s, the doors, fixtures and fittings were auctioned off: who knows where they have ended up?

We were then taken on a tour of the Library, observing the quiet reading room with easily-reachable reference works, freely browsable by readers. The books concern such wide-ranging subjects as gin, Jack the Ripper, and theatre. Other items can be requested from the basement, and are usually delivered within 15 minutes. We were able to tour the basement, complete with rolling stacks, and examine the riches stored within, including a collection of 21st century bound manuscripts, lavishly decorated, and editions of the Illustrated London News. The Food & Drink Collection, which is of national importance, contains some gems including Dinners for Beginners, Vegetables for the Epicurean, and Eat, Drink and be Wary.

The Guildhall Library is a fantastic resource and is well worth a visit. If I ever want to do some research about London, I know where to go.


Address: Aldermanbury, London, EC2V 7HH


Opening Hours: 9.30am-5pm Mon-Sat

Prices: Free (except for some special events – this one is free though)

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