By Joan Bond
In 1912 William Reed-Lewis started the library by placing twenty-five books in the porch of St Mary Magdalene's Catholic Church in Bexhill-on-Sea. His purpose was to make Catholic books available to anyone, particularly those interested in learning about and understanding the Catholic Faith, but who were not ready to speak to a priest. His idea was that the books should be taken and returned to the porch without any formal procedures. He received many donations of books to add to this collection and by 1916 it had outgrown the porch and was moved to his house five minutes walk away from the church.
With this growing collection, he started a postal service, by providing a printed catalogue, which was sent out to would-be borrowers, who came not only from this country but also as far away as India and South Africa. The only cost to these people was the postage, and his motto was "no fees, no fines, no formalities".
Bexhill had not developed any public libraries at this time, but among the books offered to Mr Reed-Lewis were a number of volumes only suitable for general reference and not for lending. 1917 a well known resident offered to provide a building to house the library, which would include a public reference room on the ground floor and Mr Reed-Lewis' library upstairs. It always provided for office space to dispatch the books. The new building was designed by the Mayor of Bexhill and formally opened on Wednesday 9th January 1918 in the presence of the Mayor and representatives of the Church and town. This included a number of Rosminian priests, as the parish was in the care of that order.
The downstairs reading room was not staffed and was open to the public from 9am -9pm daily, including Sundays. Mr and Mrs Reed-Lewis and their daughter Eleanora worked in the Catholic part of the library with some help from the people of the parish.
The Catholic public were generous in giving books to the library and legacies of large collections were received and this enabled Mr Reed-Lewis to help set up English Reading Rooms in Madrid, Athens and Bombay, and to supply volumes for parish reading groups in this country.
Mr Reed-Lewis was an ambitious man and always dreamt of moving the library to the vicinity of Westminster Cathedral, which he saw as the centre of English Catholicism. His chance came when he was introduced to James Britten, the force behind the revival of the Catholic Truth Society. In 1920, Reed-Lewis was invited to join the CTS Committee, from which vantage point he pushed forward plans to obtain large premises on Victoria Street (until now the CTS had always been in Southwark).
In 1922 a lease was taken on premises at 72-74 Victoria Street (now rebuilt and the site of Pizza Hut and Books etc.). The library occupied the ground floor of No. 74. A small subscription was now required, which enabled rent to be paid to the CTS and a library assistant to be employed. Cardinal Bourne opened the new premises in April 1922 accompanied by other members of the hierarchy.
Although Mr Reed-Lewis now had no formal connection with the library, it was still known as the Bexhill Library until 1926, when it was decided to change the name to the CTS Lending Library.
The premises on Victoria Street were proving to be too small and in September 1930 the CTS and the library moved to 38-40 Eccleston Square. The now 15,000 volumes of the library were shelved in the ground floor of No. 38, where for the first time members were given open access to the books.
The move to Eccleston Square away from public transport lost the library many members and caused financial problems, in 1936 the CTS was intending to disperse the collection until the Hon. Henrietta Bower was able to arrange a new home for the library in a church hall in Wilfred Street were it was run by "Old Girls of the Sacred Heart Convents". It was formally opened in December 1936 by Mr Douglas Woodruff. In 1938 the name was changed to the Catholic Central Library.
In 1959 the library was faced with closure, again due to financial difficulties. This time Cardinal Godfrey stepped in and invited the Franciscan Friars of The Atonement to come from New York and take over the running of the basement and ground floor, with the Friars living on the floors above. The Friars financed the library, which enabled it to expand, which many more journals and books being acquired.
In 1997 the Friars announced that they could no longer continue this work and needed to sell the premises. Again it appeared that the library would be faced with closure, until a group of laymen including members of the Catholic Writers Guild came forward. Temporary premises were found in a church hall in Lancing Street, opposite Euston Station, from where the library was run until 2003 when the lease expired.
The library was homeless until the Abbot of Farnborough and the Empress Eugenie Memorial Trust offered space at Farnborough Abbey, where it is now established, with all the collection now available again.