The architecture of the Gosport Library and Technical Institute

For virtually all of the 20th century the large red brick building on Walpole Road in the centre of Gosport has played a major role in the lives of the people of the town. It was built in 1901 as the Free Library and Technical Institute for the Gosport and Alverstoke Urban District Council. Many Gosport children were educated there, both formally in the school and informally in the library. Today it still has an educational function as the local studies centre, Gosport Gallery and SEARCH the hands-on museum education centre.

Many people pass by the museum every day but few give it more than a cursory glance, which is a shame. It is a fine structure, somewhat in the 'art nouveau' style, and remains one of the town's more interesting and attractive public buildings. Both inside and outside, it has architectural and stylistic features worthy of closer examination. It is also a happy survivor of town centre redevelopment during the 1960s and was even considered for demolition at one time.

It is a large F-shaped building occupying an extensive triangle of land. The main frontage is on Walpole Road and it is bounded by Clarence Road to the east and Ordnance Road on the west. Most of the other buildings in the photograph below, including the former Town Hall (far right), and much of the High Street have long since disappeared.

Some were destroyed during World War II, but many were demolished in the redevelopment of the 1960s. The museum and the block of fine Georgian buildings (1 to 4 High Street) are all that remain from when the Library and Technical Institute were built. At the end of the 19th century part of the site was still covered by the ramparts of the town defences adjacent to one of the old town gateways. A small remaining section of the earthworks can be seen to the right of the photograph.

Civic dignitaries led by Canon Broderick (below), the Rector of Alverstoke, ceremonially removed the first piece of turf on the 4th of February, but left the job of completing the levelling to Council workmen.

A Free Library and Technical Institute for Gosport

The Public Libraries Acts of 1855 to 1885 allowed for the provision of a library to be paid for from local rates. It was not until 1891 that Gosport got its first public library, built on land behind Thorngate Hall. That same year a committee was appointed to pursue the proposal to build a new Free Library and Technical Institute for the town. After much discussion a site was chosen and subsequent negotiation the land for the new building was purchased for £800 from the War Department.

The Gosport and Alverstoke Urban District Council decided that an open competition would be held for the design of the building. Of the 42 applications to enter, the committee accepted 17 firms of which 15 sets of drawings were finally submitted. The winning entry was from the London firm of Spalding and Cross, by architect Alfred William Stephens Cross FRIBA (1885-1932) who specialised in the design of public baths.

The architect's plan clearly shows the design and layout of the building as constructed in 1901. It was an L-shaped structure, built of brick, with first floor elevations mainly covered in a rough cast render. It rose to three floors at the junction of the two wings which included an attached round tower with an internal cast iron spiral staircase up to the second floor living accommodation. The roof covering and tile hangings were to be of green slate.

The library committee invited tenders for construction and in March 1900 accepted that of Rashleigh and Son of Southampton for the sum of £6,093. The cost of building and associated works was met from a grant of £2,000 from Hampshire County Council, £913 3s 6d which was the accumulated interest from the Library fund and £4,700 which had to be borrowed. The design provided an entrance lobby, news room, reference library and book store, as well as a small office for the librarian.

At first floor level, the rooms were open to full height with the roof trusses and close-boarding beneath the slate roof were a visible feature, providing an airy and spacious environment for the school children. The ground floor classrooms were equally large. The ‘Builder’ publication of 1899 described it as ‘ a simple and inexpensive style of architecture’ creating ‘ a picturesque effect’. It further suggests a frieze to break up the front elevation.

The main entrance on the Walpole Road elevation was to be covered by a large porch. The space above which was to be filled with a low relief frieze designed by Frederick Schenck depicting significant aspects of Gosport's history. The cost of this work was £200. A smaller plaster example of the frieze is in the museum collections and a larger one, now missing, was on display in the school's art-room for many years.

The Opening

The Free Library and Technical Institute was formally opened on Wednesday 25th September 1901 by the Earl of Northbrook, Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire in the presence of numerous local dignitaries. A commemorative booklet was produced to mark the occasion. The Portsmouth Evening News recorded the event which commenced with a prayer from the Rector of Alverstoke

There followed a series of speeches. George Cooke, the Chairman of the Gosport and Alverstoke Urban District Council, in the opening address, remarked on the adverse criticism of the external appearance of the new building. He said that it had been compared to 'a brewery, corporation stables, a lunatic asylum, a prison and a workhouse', which raised some laughter from the assembled crowd. He hoped that the building would be 'a veritable workhouse'.

The report of the proceedings also noted that the building had been 'constructed with the strictest eye to economy'... 'the exterior followed no recognisable style of architecture, although the lines on which it is built are coming into favour in various parts of the country'... and 'internal, as externally, simplicity is the keynote, and no money has been wasted in useless ornamentation'.

It would appear that some of the original design of the building was simplified. A drawing by the architect A W S Cross of 1899 shows a far more ornamental front entrance than was actually built as well as decorative ironwork at the western end of the building. This was possibly a cost saving measure but one might also argue that it was an aesthetic consideration as the scale of entrance porch could be considered slightly out of proportion with the rest of the building.

Noteworthy design features included rectangular leaded lights to virtually all internal and external glazing including doors, and motifs on a range of internal windows in the library and carved into some of the woodwork.

Each of the leaded lights in the library is slightly different, all having a central heart shaped motif in pale green or yellow glass, whilst all other panels are of clear glass. The internal fittings such as door handles and plates were 'art nouveau-ish' in style. Unusual ornamental diagonal brackets supported the cast iron guttering around the entire building.

The frieze above the main entrance consisted of three panels, a large central one with smaller ones on either side, which are, unusually and somewhat incongruously, divided by a pair of drainpipes.

On the right panel, Henry Cort the ironfounder and inventor of the puddling process is shown, on the left the Saxon Lady Alwara from where the name Alverstoke derives and in the larger centre panel Henry de Blois, who legend says named Gosport.

A heavy dado ran throughout much of the building, often linking with the window ledge to form a continuous visual line about 1.5 metres from the floor. On the outside the frieze provided interest to the front elevation which was without any windows at first floor level.

Further development

The first pupils entered the Technical Institute in 1902 under the Headmaster Mr Leslie Keating. The school premises were extended in 1907 with the addition of further classrooms, offices and lavatories along Clarence Road elevation. A large and spacious school hall was also constructed to the rear of the building and an external corridor was built to the back of the Clarence Road elevation. This had the benefit of allowing access along the building at first floor level without going through each classroom.

These changes help to explain the unusual junction of the two wings of the building, the thickness of one of the interior walls, and that the former classrooms all have exterior styled windows and doors. The other evidence of the 1907 work can be seen in the rainwater heads. The old ones are dated 1901 whilst the new ones bear the date 1907, although the style of lettering makes this difficult to differentiate.

The school hall is a lofty and elegant space open to full height. Its flooring of herringbone maple blocks is typical of school halls. A gallery with attractive art nouveau ironwork crosses the hall at first floor level. Ventilation was originally provided by 'Tobin Tubes', curved ducts which ran from external grills into the building. An unusual system of pulleys, still in working order, was installed, probably in the 1920s, to allow the high level lights to be lowered for bulbs to be changed. The restoration of the school hall in 1996 retained all the original features.

The building today

There have been a few structural changes to the building since 1907. A large double doorway in the Clarence Road elevation was blocked with brickwork (now re-instated) at some time prior to World War II. Various outbuildings built over the years were removed. Most of the fixtures and fittings within the old classrooms, such as the wooden benches in the science labs, had been removed by the time the last pupils moved out in 1966. However the major changes did not happen until later.

During the 1970s the original slate roof and tile hangings were replaced with red terracotta tiles and at the same time a pair of dormer windows which had added light to the first floor rooms on the Walpole Road elevation were removed. The doors at the porched entrance adjacent to the tower on Walpole Road were enlarged. False ceilings were installed to all first floor rooms. The attractive leaded lights (windows) were replaced by aluminium frames and plate glass. The leaded windows to the Walpole Road elevation are restored in 2000.

The Library moved to new premises opposite the Town Hall in 1973 and two years later the building became the Borough's museum. The remainder of the building, the former school, was used as divisional offices for the County Council's Education Department. At this time many of the spacious classrooms were partitioned into small office spaces.

And so it remained until 1992 when Hampshire County Council Museums Service took over management of the museum in partnership with the Borough Council. At the same time the Museums Service also secured responsibility for the remainder of the building. An extensive programme of internal restoration commenced in 1993, intended to repair and reinstate original architectural features where possible, and at the same time conforming to modern building regulations.

Over five years almost the entire building was fully restored, inside and out. All that now remains is the restoration of the first floor corridor originally added to the building in 1907. Although the Library and Technical Institute are now part of history, evidence of its former life can still be seen. Some of the original doors still bear the sign-written evidence of the former use. The words 'Girls Cloakroom', 'Staff Room' and 'Domestic Room' can be faintly detected beneath the layers of paint.

During restoration work in 1995, a cavity wall was found to contain several hundred small cardboard milk bottle tops and a number of straws dating from the 1950s that had been 'posted' through a gap in the brickwork by pupils from the school! On the outside of the building, particularly where pupils waited for their buses home, their names can be seen scored into the brickwork. Also pupils used old copper pennies to wear small circular depressions into the soft brickwork at various places round the building. Former pupils frequently return to the building to use the museum and on special open-days to wander through the former classrooms remembering what it was like all those years ago.

Today the building has been returned to its former glory and has been given a new use and a long term future as part of Gosport Discovery Centre. It is now recognised as one of the more unusual and interesting turn of the century buildings in South Hampshire and an architectural landmark for the town of Gosport.

Exterior view 1901

Filling in the ditch

Edwin DAsh
Edwin Dash

Leaded window design