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Calls for help to save Erith's Old Library building

PUBLISHED: 09:01 21 March 2019

The Old Eith Library building. Photo: The Exchange Erith Ltd

The Old Eith Library building. Photo: The Exchange Erith Ltd

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Campaigners trying to preserve the former Erith library building say they are depending on backing from the local community.

Sowing seeds in the kitchen garden. Photo: The Exchange Erith LtdSowing seeds in the kitchen garden. Photo: The Exchange Erith Ltd

The organisers trying to keep developers from knocking it down are calling on local people to get behind the project.

It is being led by Sarah Batten, co-director of The Exchange, a not-for-profit social enterprise that deliver a community-led programme of events and activities that aim to encourage better cohesion and provision of opportunity for Erith, that has made its home in the building.

She said the Old Library in Erith, is an impressive local architectural spectacle sitting at the gateway to the town and reminding visitors and residents of Erith’s proud history as thriving port town and industrial centre.

It was originally built in 1906 using funds granted by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The library now represents what communities can achieve by working together as local architect William Egerton designed the building incorporating bricks made locally, and utilising the skills of local craftspeople including builders, carpenters, plasterers and Sidcup’s Crittall window factory.

It then served the community as a library, and later as the town’s museum, until 2009 when it was closed owing to major building dilapidations and lack of funds to deal with them.

A decade later and it has reopened as The Exchange after three years of work in partnership with owners Bexley Council.

She said they wanted to bring the disused and dilapidated historic space back to life.

The Exchange programme started five weeks ago, bringing the historic bookstore back into use as a new café and bar run by a local chef, and providing access to other beautiful spaces that have not been used for years.

Sarah said members of the community are defining what happens in these spaces, including exhibitions, pilates workshops, performing arts classes for young people, film and photography shoots for emerging local artists and makers, and an upcoming market supporting local producers.

She added: “Local people are choosing how this building should be used in the future, and the variety and the quality of residents’ aspirations is exciting.”

The Exchange was set up by two Erith residents keen to reopen the Old Library, and maintain it for public use and community benefit.

She said they are delivering activities in the town – at Erith Lighthouse, Erith Fun Day and the Christmas Tree Festival – asking people what changes or additions they would like to see in Erith. These conversations and relationships that developed are now informing what happens next at The Old Library.

But, she warns, there is a lot more to do to secure the building’s future.

The recent redevelopment project cost around £1.8m and has ensured the building is now watertight so no further damage is being done, and has brought the lower-ground floor back into full use.

However, Sarah said, the ground and upper floors still need a lot of work - there is no heating or proper lighting, walls and floors require repair, and the building needs a lift to make it fully accessible.

The Exchange and Bexley Council have been successful with an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, and will be submitting a second-round application later in the year. If successful, this will secure a further £1.2m towards the building works. However, The Exchange needs to raise £300,000 as match towards this figure, and is responsible for how this building is fitted out and used.

Fellow co-director Peter Nutley said: “Ultimately, it will be the community that save this building. If we as local residents can make it busy, and vibrant with activity, ideas and opportunities, we will get the support we need from funders to make the building’s future viable.”

Anyone interested in finding out about The Exchange or in getting involved with the programme can visit or contact The Exchange through their website: www.theexchangeerith.com

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