As part of this year’s Heritage Open Days, I got to go on a tour of Shrewsbury Library – a Grade 1 listed building originally home to Shrewsbury School.
The oldest part of the library is Riggs Hall, a timber-framed building (now at the rear of the property) built early to mid-1400s against the old town walls. It is the only surviving property of several which were rented by the school when it was founded a century later in the 1550s.
The stone buildings were built 1594 – 1630 and included a chapel, dormitories, classrooms and a library.
Shrewsbury School operated at the site between 1552 and 1882 (when it moved to its current riverside location on the Kingsland estate). One of Shrewsbury School’s most famous pupils (and there are quite a few) was Charles Darwin. Unfortunately, he didn’t particularly enjoy his time there and didn’t do particularly well. He simply wasn’t interested in what they were teaching. Perhaps surprisingly, Charles Darwin boarded at the school which was just a short distance over the river from his childhood home, The Mount (Some of my ancestors lived down the street from Darwin’s childhood home… Sadly, the other end of the social scale from him!).
In 1885 Shrewsbury Borough Council opened the Free Library and Museum on the site and there it remained until the buildings became unsafe and were closed in 1976. Walls were leaning out and bowing as much as 175mm and floor timbers were only resting on a single thickness of brick in some places. Roof trusses needed to be strengthened and foundations needed to be underpinned. Basically, the building needed renovating top to bottom before it collapsed! The surveying and extensive renovation cost £3 million.
During restoration works, a number of interesting artefacts have been discovered, including a child’s shoe (found on a beam and believed to be placed there for good luck). The shoe was replaced with a newer shoe during restoration work (superstition!).
The new library opened in 1984, with the courtyard covered over to integrate the main building and Riggs Hall.
Our tour began in the newest part of the library (the covered courtyard) and, perhaps fittingly, ended up the oldest part, Riggs Hall.
Something I hadn’t noticed before the tour is the sundial which sits on a corner of the building. It shows “Shrewsbury Time” – about 10 minutes after Greenwich Mean Time. Britain didn’t have a standardised national time system until the introduction of the railways, instead towns and cities in the country had their own local time.
It was a very interesting tour and I look forward to visiting other Heritage Open Days next year.