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Building Mile End Library: First Librarians

The Building Mile End Library exhibition takes you through the origins of the “Student’s Library” 1890-1920, the move to the new “Old Library” in the Octagon in 1921 and the construction of the Mile End Library 1988-9. But as much as buildings shape the library’s history at the Mile End Campus so do the people. In this blog we will focus particularly on the lives and careers of the earliest librarians that took the student library from a small room in the Queen’s building to the “Old Library” in the Octagon.

Professor Hatton sitting writing at his desk in a room with book shelves

Professor John L. S. Hatton c.1921-1933 [Ref. QM/SB/8/28]

Professor John Leigh Smeathman Hatton: Unofficial Librarian 1890-1906

From 1890 until 1906 J. L. S. Hatton the Director of Studies (a position equivalent to Principal) at People’s Palace Technical Schools (renamed East London Technical College 1896-1905, East London College 1905-1934) managed the Student Library directly. He was ultimately responsible for delivering what was one half of the People’s Palace charity the education. The other half of the People’s Palace, site and staff, delivered recreation including a public library in the Octagon which did have a librarian from the beginning. But on the educational side Hatton, alongside teaching History, taking admissions enquiries and choosing furniture, also became de facto librarian.

In this era we have evidence of Hatton managing the library budget, taking book requests from different departments and complaining that:

The pictures in the Student’s Library, which were arranged when Mr. Sawyer was Treasurer, have be[en] detached and certain very objectionable and ugly ones have been put up without my being consulted in any way.

J.L.S. Hatton's Diary of the East London Technical College 1900 [Ref. QM/1/12/2]

Annie Elizabeth Frances Macgregor: First Librarian 1906-1908

Anne MacGregor reading a book

Miss Annie E. F. MacGregor BA be appointed as Lady Superintendent, Librarian of the Students Library and teacher of the Preparatory College History Class to attend four days each week

Annie Macgregor [Ref. WFD/2/5/2/2]

Resolution of East London College Committee 12 Dec 1906 [Ref. ELC Council Minute Book No.2]

Annie Macgregor was already a lecturer at East London College in Logic and Philosophy when she additionally became the first librarian, lady superintendent and a history teacher. She stayed in the role for just two years although she continued her connection with East London College.

Born 1875 in Blackheath, South East London Macgregor was the eldest daughter of John “Rob Roy” MacGregor and Annie Macgregor (née Caffin). Her father nicknamed “Rob Roy” was a lawyer and explorer famous for his use of a canoe while travelling the world, his travel writing and lectures on his adventures. She was one of the earliest pupils of Blackheath High School a day school for girls founded in 1880. Her father (1825-1892) died during her childhood and she and her mother Annie continued to live together until she died in 1935. She also lived with her sister in the 1940s. 

She entered Westfield College in April 1894, again one of the earliest students at this university which was the first to prepare women for University of London degrees. She studied Literature, Greek, French and Philosophy at Westfield and attended classes at London School of Economics during her studies. However she didn’t formally matriculate as a university candidate until 1896 and didn’t graduate until 1904. In this era this could suggest factors beyond part time or interrupted studies. Many women in this era had difficulty transitioning to degree level study in subjects poorly or not taught at all to women prior to entering university; many early Westfield College students never sat any university exams. Financial considerations could also play a factor as matriculating and taking an exam cost extra and financial support available was limited. She graduated with a second-class Philosophy Bachelor of Arts with Honours and continued to live in the Hampstead area where Westfield College was based after graduating.

She was employed by East London College as a lecturer in Logic and Philosophy at East London College 1907-1909 and the first Librarian, the Lady Superintendent and a History teacher 1907-1908. As librarian she spoke up for East London College Library’s needs arguing for the move to the People’s Palace “Old Library” in 1908 and suggesting practical refurbishments when this was rejected to better utilise the space. She oversaw the appointment of the first Library Assistant in 1908.

Plan of East London College showing first floor with it's gender segregated common roomsMacGregor role as Lady Superintendent is given more importance in records of her employment at East London College. What exactly was meant by Lady Superintendent in this context is unclear although we know she spent time chaperoning women students in the presence of male staff and spoke for improvement of facilities like common rooms and societies for female students. The grouping of the Librarian/Lady Superintendent role continued for the next fifteen years.

Plan of East London College First floor 1905 [Ref. QM/1/12/17]

By December 1908 MacGregor had left her role as librarian/lady superintendent at East London College but she continued as a lecturer until 1909. She studied for a second degree, this time a Bachelor of Divinity which she received in 1914 from New College London. In 1915 she was appointed the first Head Mistress at Headington School for Girls, Oxford, which aimed to provide "a sound education for girls to fit them for the demands and opportunities likely to arise after the war". She oversaw the establishment of the school in its earliest years and a growth of 18 pupils to almost 40.

Letter from Annie MacGregor sent to Professor Morris asking for book requests

However, in 1916 she announced her engagement and consequently her resignation. At that time female teachers could not be employed if married (called a “marriage bar” enshrined in UK law until 1919, reinstated 1925 and repealed in 1944). She left Headington at Christmas 1916 and in 1917 she married John Morris a Professor of Electrical Engineering at East London College. We know they met while working together at East London College as we have correspondence between them from this era in Professor Morris’s papers (Ref. JMM/1/1 see left). Some women tried to work around the marriage bar by having long engagements, so potentially MacGregor and Morris may have been engaged for a longer time than they made this public.

We know Professor Morris was extremely active in the community of East London College helping found the Student’s Union Society and engaged with university clubs, societies, sports and concerts so Annie MacGregor Morris was likely still involved in East London College life through Morris. She was also a committee member of the Headington School’s Old Girls League. She died 29 January 1941.

Violet Agnes Aitken: Assistant Librarian 1911-1952

Violet Aitken was appointed the second ever Library Assistant by MacGregor's successor Librarian May Howard Finch. She worked at East London College's (and then Queen Mary Colleges) Library for the next 41 years outlasting 8 librarians. 

Violet Agnes Aitken was born 15 May 1890 to James Henry and Agnes Aitken. Her parents were both born in East London; her father was a ships model rigger and later tailor born in Bishopsgate and her mother was a dressmaker born in Shoreditch. She had an older sister Olive and two younger brothers James Henry and Leo James Aitken. She lived with her family in South Woodford, East London when she first started at East London College in 1911. By 1921 she lived independently in a boarding house in Stamford Hill, Hackney. During the intervening ten years both her brothers had joined the military and her father had died.

Aitken attended school first at Gascoigne School, Barking and later at Church Street Temporary School, Stoke Newington 1897-1901. She received a scholarship from St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch to attend the latter school. Her birth date was given incorrectly when she entered Church Street Temporary School. This may have been so she could leave school in 1901 aged 11 and not the legally required school leaving age of 13. Her older sister Olive managed to stay in school by becoming a “pupil-teacher” but Violet doesn’t appear to have gone onto any further education.

Letter of Appointment Acceptance signed by Violet Aitken 23 Dec 1911

Letter from Violet Aitken accepting her appointment 23 Dec 1911 [Ref. M84/6]

Violet Aitken was appointed by East London College in 1911 as an Assistant Librarian “to assist the Librarian in the management and administration of the College Library” (Appointment Letter, 22 Dec 1911). After the introduction of a second Assistant Librarian post in the early 1950s she was promoted to Senior Assistant Librarian. She was 21 when she was appointed, and she remained in her role until her death in 1952.

She saw massive changes in the library and wider university life during her employment including the impact of World War 1; the library’s move from the “little room” in the Queen’s Building to the Octagon; the appointment of the first dedicated librarian 1921; the 1931 fire that devastated the People’s Palace; East London College getting its royal charter and renaming itself Queen Mary College 1934; library being damaged by bombing 1941.

Cartoon of Violet AitkenShe also evacuated London with Queen Mary College to Cambridge during World War 2. We know access was arranged to the King's College and Girton College libraries for Queen Mary College students, but books could still be requested for purchase by Queen Mary College students. This was presumably arranged through Aitkin as the Librarian Cawthorne, who died in 1941, stayed in Essex and was not replaced until World War 2 ended leaving Aitkin in charge.

Aitken worked with eight different Librarians; she worked with John Cawthorne (1921-1941) for the longest.


Caricature appearing in East London College Magazine 1914 [Ref. ELC Mag 1910-16]

She was commended for her long service in East London College Minutes as early as 1921 and for her work acquiring and cataloguing the Sidney Lee library 1924, now part of our rare books collections.

The following was included in the Queen Mary College Annual Report 1952-1953 [QMC/TEMP/]:

Activities this year have been overshadowed by the sudden and very unexpected death early in the session of Violet Aitken, who had for over forty years given most loyal and unstinted service to the College. For much of her time here she and the Librarian comprised the entire library staff and she had therefore an intimate and unrivalled knowledge of the development of the library. Miss Aitken was one of the last representatives still to be found of the assistants who were in so many universities the backbone of the library at a time when hours were long and salaries low. Miss Aitken was perhaps more fortunate than many in that she lived to see the day when the contribution that the library can make to the work of a university was fully realised; it is unfortunate that she did not live long enough to enjoy the full fruits of her labours. She is sadly missed.

John Edwin Cawthorne: First Full-time Librarian 1921-1941

John Edwin Cawthorne was the first person to be employed as Librarian without being also the Lady Superintendent or a teacher. He was the manager of the Library at a time when it had just moved into the much larger and grander space of the Octagon. It was under his leadership that the recreation hall in the Octagon was transformed once again into a library this time for the college. But he had a long and varied career outside the world of libraries as well.

John Edwin Cawthorne was born 2 Aug 1873 in Liverpool. His parents were Thomas Robert Cawthorne, a general labourer, and Margaret Louisa Cawthorne (née Quirk). He had one older brother Albert, one younger sister Margaret Louisa who died in infancy and two younger brothers James Radcliffe and Richard Ernest. He was at school in Liverpool from at least age 7.

By seventeen Cawthorne had left school and was working as a “Packer” in Liverpool, likely at the docks. In 1894 he was a “victualler” traditionally a person who supplies food, beverages and other provisions for the crew of a vessel at sea. Aged twenty eight he was working with his uncle as a joiner in Greencroft, Durham.

His older brother Albert Cawthorne had being working as an Assistant Librarian in Liverpool from at least age nineteen and between 1897-1936 he worked at the Whitechapel Library, a public library for the area that included East London College and the People’s Palace. Albert was Chief Librarian of Stepney Borough 1902-1936. This might explain how John Cawthorne ended up both in East London and eventually as a librarian.

By 1904 he got married, in Woolwich London, to Mary Saunders. At the time of his marriage he was in a different career as a Commanding Corporal Air Officer and living in Woolwich. He and his wife Mary were out of the country by the 1911 census. She travelled back from Bermuda, a British Overseas territory, via the USA in 1915 after World War 1 broke out and returned to Woolwich. During World War 1 he served the Royal Army Ordinance Corps as a Warrant Officer in the Ceylon Light Infantry. This unit was formed in what is now Sri Lanka, at the time a British colony, and was mobilised during World War 1 to defend the Suez Canal and in the Gallipoli peninsula. Cawthorne’s role would have been about managing supplies like weapons, maintaining equipment and managing the stores of his unit. In 1920 he travelled home to Ilford, Essex from Bermuda via Canada. The Canadian immigration officer described Cawthorne as above average height with brown eyes and hair.

The Octagon laid out as a college library with books on the shelves and tables with ash trays

11 October 1921 John Cawthorne made his final career change to librarian aged 48. Hired by East London College as their first dedicated Librarian he worked with Violet Aitken, the long-standing Assistant Librarian, and like Aitkin was commended for his handling of the Sidney Lee Library 1924. He remained employed by Queen Mary College during the evacuation to Cambridge 1939- although as he died in 8 June 1941 in Ilford, Essex aged 68 so it is unlikely he went to Cambridge. He left his estate to his brother Albert Cawthorne, the then retired Librarian of Stepney Borough.

Cawthorne's domain - the College Library in the Octagon c 1930s

The Librarians

1906-1908 Annie Elizabeth Frances MacGregor (Librarian, Lady Superintendent and History teacher)

1909-1913 May Howard Finch (Librarian, Lady Superintendent and History teacher)

1913-1919 Miss E. G. A. Warren (Librarian, Lady Superintendent and History teacher)

Nov-Dec 1919 Miss E. C. Halket (Librarian and Lady Superintendent)

1920-1921 Miss. C. S. Murphy (Librarian and Lady Superintendent)

1921-1941 John Edwin Cawthorne (Superintendent of Library)

1945-1949 Anne P. Deeley (Librarian)

1949-1971 Adrian Whitworth (Librarian)

1971-1984 Tony Bowyer (Librarian)

1984-1992 Anthony Quinsee (Librarian)

1993-2007 Brian Murphy (Acting Librarian, Librarian, Director of Information Services, Director of Academic Information Services)

2007-2017 Emma Bull (Director of Library Services, Director of Library and Employability, Director of Student Services)

2016-2017 Jo Webb (Interim Director of Library Services)

2017- Kate Price (University Librarian)



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