Wolverhampton's Listed Buildings

Low Hill Branch Library

Showell Circus

National Listing:   Branch Library.  1930.  H. B. Robinson MIMCE [Borough Engineer]. ... The library is a logical and inspired answer to the requirement for a branch library at the heart of an estate which was widely admired at the time of its building.  The rooms are filled with day light and at night the building becomes a beacon.  The use of a simple classical style together with more homely glazing and textured materials gives a feeling of domesticity and serious intent and provides a formal focus to the estate without being alien to it.

Local Listing:  Wolverhampton's first branch library, opened in 1930.  Landmark quality.

Comment:  One of the most distinctive buildings in Wolverhampton, its remarkable shape fully justified by its use as a library, and its appearance greatly adding to the interest of an award winning council house estate.  Refurbished in 2003.  Originally the building was locally listed only but was spot listed nationally on 11th March 2004, mainly on the basis of a report by Duncan Nimmo.  A version of Dr. Nimmo's report appear below.

Duncan Nimmo writes:

Bushbury’s was significant as Wolverhampton’s first branch library, opened in 1930 after a succession of discussions and abortive proposals over the preceding decade.  Its setting, the Low Hill estate, was itself significant – a major example of post-War municipal housing, which attracted some national attention; and the new library was deliberately sited at its core, Showell Circus.  The official opening was a correspondingly proud event, performed by Sir Charles Grant Robertson, Principal of Birmingham University.

The architects were the Borough Engineer, H. B. Robinson MIMCE, and his staff, working closely with the Chief Librarian.  The same team was soon to design the combined Public Baths and Branch Library at nearby Heath Town, opened in two stages in 1932 and 1933. This building was listed, at Grade II, in September 2000.

The library at the time of its opening.

Both originally and as restored, Bushbury Library has the same "modernist" traits as Heath Town Baths and Library, and indeed others of H. B. Robinson’s buildings, for instance his Park Lane Welfare Clinic of 1931, and Elston Hall primary school of 1938, now on the City’s Local List of notable buildings. 

 Among these traits are a stylish plainness, an emphasis on the horizontal, this being highlighted by the combination of brick and stone, and the occasional use of flat as well as pitched roofing.  

However the most prominent shared trait is geometrical symmetry, here of an extreme and striking kind.  The shape of the library is an octagon, repeated in three stepped tiers: a bold and imaginative conception, producing what may well be judged one of the city’s most remarkable small buildings.  The sources for this application of Robinson’s characteristic symmetrical geometry invite speculation.  It is reminiscent of some contemporary London Underground stations.

Park Lane Welfare Clinic at the time of its opening.

The Library from the east, showing the lantern shape.

There could however be a specific local influence, in that the layout of the Bushbury estate is itself largely geometrical and symmetrical.  

Suggestively, the Chief Librarian’s account of the opening includes the remark "The building is erected on a central site, and roads radiate from this point, the whole scheme having been designed to give a like elevation from whichever angle it is viewed" (italics added).

Perhaps even more intriguing is the following comment, "At night it is a beacon light, and its illumination across this vast estate is a picture worth seeing"; for this may help explain the second key design feature after the octagonal plan, namely the 3 stepped tiers. This element was of course an architectural commonplace, recently rejuvenated with the concrete parabolic arches of the Royal Horticultural Hall, and it is noteworthy that that model was to be adopted at Heath Town baths just two years later. 

A prime purpose of stepped tiers is to admit maximum natural light, and that was doubtless one goal here; contemporary opinion stressed the desirability of natural light in libraries, witness for example K. M. B. Cross’s article "Public Libraries and their Planning" in "Architecture" of September/October 1931.

The interior, showing the natural lighting.

Natural light reaches in everywhere.

But may Robinson’s design not also have aimed at the opposite, less obvious effect – for the Library to shine out in all directions over the surrounding estate? In that case, we might conclude that the fundamental inspiration for the striking design of the building was, as the whole of the Librarian’s account conveys, to act as a beacon of light, cultural but also physical, for the new and experimental community around it.  Deliberately or otherwise, this would be a perfect realisation of the Borough’s motto: "Out of darkness cometh light".
Whatever its sources, there is no doubting the originality of the Library design for its place and period.  

This is brought out by comparison with two neighbouring contemporary buildings, the Methodist Church of 1929, and the adjacent Community Centre of 1937.

The Methodist Church.

The Community Centre.

Despite features characteristic of the period, neither matches the imaginative quality of the Library.
The "modernist" features typical of Robinson’s buildings were essentially external.  The distinction of his interior at Bushbury, as at Heath Town, lies in the use of high quality craft materials, and thus belongs perhaps to an arts and crafts tradition.  

Most striking is the elaborate leaded and coloured glass.

Leaded and coloured glass in partition walls.

Brass door handles at the main entrance.

The brass door furniture is also attractive, as is the flooring - albeit now mostly hidden under carpet.  

The tiling of the porch is reminiscent of good quality suburban housing of the period, and similarly the library interior is said to have an oak block floor, some of which reportedly was restored in the refurbishment. 

Such emphasis on quality may be illuminated, once again, by some words of the Librarian: "the whole has been erected to instil in the eyes of the people some fresh line of beauty, and also one befitting the housing of the wisdom of past and present ages."

The Library’s combination of "modernist" and "arts and crafts" features, equally visible at Heath Town baths and library, excited some interest nationally.

Records in the city archives show that the design was displayed in the Libraries section of the Architectural Association conference at Cambridge in 1930, and Wolverhampton’s Chief Librarian was subsequently contacted by his opposite numbers at Croydon, Ealing and Malvern for further details; the first-named thought the scheme "very pretty".

Leaded and coloured glass in the main entrance.

In 2003 the Library’s external stonework, and two lower tiers of fenestration, have been refurbished. The latter work involved replacing the existing (but not original) outer windows with modern upvc ones. As part of the process the original external window leading, including stained glass panels, which at some point had been removed, was recreated, and incorporated into the upvc double-pane framework.

Thus, despite the use of upvc, the current windows are in craft and style terms a faithful restoration of the original, and an improvement on what immediately preceded. It is understood that many of the internal leaded and coloured panes are also a modern craft restoration of the originals. 

The overall result seems thoroughly convincing, and may indeed constitute an exemplary restoration of a historic building.

The main entrance before -


- and after refurbishment.

All in all Bushbury Library, as excellently restored, is, like the Heath Town complex, a striking example of the progressive architecture of its day, and as such a tribute to the skills and vision of the Borough Council which created it.