History: Rebellious visionary who helped set up Dagenham’s first libraries
- Credit: Archant
Charismatic with a sparkling personality, intellectual, eccentric, bullish, rebellious and critical. All these words have been used to describe John O’Leary, the man responsible for introducing the very first libraries to Dagenham in the early 1930s.
Whether they liked him or not, most people at the time would no doubt have agreed that his achievements, which included founding Valence House Museum, were momentous and helped change the social and cultural landscape of the area.
Public libraries began to appear in Britain in the mid-19th century when councils were allowed to spend a penny in a pound of people’s rates to fund them.
But these facilities mostly opened in areas with a high population, because rural districts like Dagenham struggled to raise the cash needed.
The situation, however, changed after the First World War, when local authorities could decide themselves how much of taxes were spent on libraries.
This, coupled with the new Becontree Estate bringing in thousands of people to Dagenham, prompted the council to employ a man who could help make dreams of thriving library service a reality.
O’Leary, who was born in Chelsea in 1900, threw himself into this enormous task with great energy and enthusiasm. Within two years he had established a number of temporary facilities, including the Becontree branch which sat near the site of the present Valence Library in Becontree Avenue.
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Over time the temporary buildings, which were generally made of wood, were replaced with permanent structures.
Tahlia Coombes, archivist at Valence House, said O’Leary and the council had a vision of opening a bigger, central library, which never materialised.
“They had wonderful plans for such a place and had even bought some land in Western Road,” she explained. “But it was the 1930s and there had been a world-wide depression so there wasn’t much money around, much like the borough today. So sadly it never happened.”
Thousands of books had to be ordered of course, and O’Leary made sure that much of the literature on offer was educational.
“He had been a reference librarian before and was very keen to have a lot of these types of books in the libraries.
“For him books should provide education and self improvement.
“He knew that the people of Dagenham would probably not be reading ancient Greek or the classics, but he felt they should be reading about things like engineering and mechanics.”
O’Leary, Tahlia explained, pushed extremely hard for as much cash as possible to be invested into Dagenham’s libraries.
“This was where his bullish nature came into good use,” she said. “I am sure he would have annoyed many councillors because he was very persistent and being an intelligent man he was good at arguing his case – probably better than them.
“It worked though because the percentage of people’s rates used for the library was higher than most areas. In 1958 for example it was nine and a half pence in a pound.”
After the Second World War O’Leary put greater focus on the cultural side of the library service. He introduced a system where you could borrow music records and even pictures in frames,” Tahlia said.
“There weren’t any art shops or galleries in the area, so people could borrow a Constable print for example, hang it on their wall for three months, then bring it back and borrow another one.
“He was the first person in the country to introduce a music and picture service, so was ahead of his time really.”
O’Leary also helped form a film society, an arts council and possibly his biggest legacy, aside from the libraries, Valence House Museum and its archive collection.
“O’Leary was based in Valence House as that’s where the library service head-quarters were,” explained Tahlia.
“In the 30s the discovery of some Roman ruins in Marks Gate was brought to his attention. He put them on display and that’s how the museum came about.
“He also started our archive collection by taking lots of pictures of Dagenham and creating a photographic survey of the area which had never been done before. We still have these photos.”
When Barking and Dagenham amalgamated into one borough in the 1960s the authority had two chief librarians, when only one was needed.
“They had to get rid of one, and they chose the Barking one as he was younger,” said Tahlia. “It’s a shame as O’Leary was more experienced.”
O’Leary retired to Saffron Walden in Essex and died in 1985 at 85.
Asked what he would think of the ever declining number of libraries across the UK today, Tahlia said: “If he were alive he would have done his best to keep them open by moving with the times.
He was a pioneering man who was not shackled by history, so I think he would be keen to introduce e-books for example.
“He certainly wouldn’t sit back and do nothing.”