History of Southwold Sailors’ Reading Room is explored in new book

Douglas Pope from Reydon has written a book 'The Sailors' Reading Room. Douglas Pope from Reydon has written a book 'The Sailors' Reading Room.

Saturday, December 21, 2013
8:06 AM

Standing in a prominent position on Southwold’s East Cliff, the Sailors’ Reading Room is one of the oldest institutions in the town.

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Fishermen in Southwold.Fishermen in Southwold.

But, despite its long and rich history, the humble red-brick building is often overshadowed by Southwold’s more iconic and better-known landmarks such as its pier and lighthouse.

On June 2 next year, the reading room will have been open for 150 years – making it 36 years older than the pier and 28 years older than the lighthouse.

To mark this special anniversary, reading room member and its former secretary Doug Pope has written a book celebrating the history of the Grade II listed building, which was founded as a place for sailors and fishermen to meet, read and chat rather than go to the pub for a drink.

The reading room was built on the instructions of the widow of Royal Navy Captain Charles Rayley and constructed by Benjamin Howard Carter, who had a workshop in Victoria Street.

Sharp-eyed visitors will be able to spot the letters and numbers “BHC 1861 1 Feb” carved into the brickwork.

It is believed the idea for the institution came from the Bible classes held by Charlotte Ellis in a redundant lifeboat house on the beach under the cliff. She was concerned about the spiritual welfare of the sailors and fishermen of Southwold because they did not go to church.

She slowly built up a following, with more than 200 people eventually meeting every Sunday to sing hymns and listen to readings.

The lifeboat house partially collapsed after being undermined by the sea in March 1863 and the new brick-built reading room was opened just over a year later.

A newspaper cutting from June 1864, provided by Southwold Museum and reproduced in Mr Pope’s book, says the building was opened with great “éclat”.

The report reads: “The day was kept as quite a gala day in the place, the bells ringing merrily and flags fluttering to the breeze in all directions.

“The opening was celebrated by a tea, of which nearly 200 partook.

“The room was tastefully decorated with flags, and on the tables was a profusion of elegant flowers, in addition to a super abundance of eatables.”

The article quotes the vicar of Southwold at the time, the Rev WH Chapman, who was present at the opening.

Mr Chapman thanked Mrs Rayley and said: “But one motive has prompted her in her generous purpose, viz., the good, both temporal and spiritual, of the men of the town of Southwold, and I assure you, I will do my utmost to promote a cause so worthily initiated.”

Mr Pope’s book goes on to explore the history of the reading room, from the life and times of Mr Rayley, who was a wealthy man and had an exciting career at sea, to its different owners over the years.

There is an excerpt from a 1902 guidebook to Southwold and explanations of the building’s design and the artefacts it houses.

The book also includes snippets of information passed on through word of mouth and gleaned from written records.

For example, Mr Pope writes that in former times, the floors were plain wooden boards, which were draughty on windy days. After numerous complaints about the wind blowing up the trouser legs of the card players, heavy duty brown linoleum was laid.

The reading room’s minute books only date back to 1901 but little treasures from the distant past do occasionally turn up, including a Bible bought 30 years ago by John Mortimer, of High Street, Southwold, in a job-lot of books.

Written on the inside cover are the words: “Presented by the Ladies’ Bible Association to the Sailors’ Reading Room, Southwold, June 20th 1864.”

The Bible was returned to the reading room in September 2000 and is now on display there.

■ Mr Pope’s book – The Sailors’ Reading Room: The First 150 Years from 2nd June 1864 – costs £5.95 and is available by emailing info@southwoldsailorsreadingroom.co.uk or by calling 07768 395465. It is also available in Southwold from Wells in Queen Street, Spots and Purdy’s in High Street and Little Joes in Station Road. In Reydon, it can be bought from the Randolph Hotel and Barbrook’s Stores.

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