The public library did not arrive in Chesham until the 1940s, when the Non-Conformist Chapel in Chesham Cemetery was used for a time. The library then moved to the Council premises in Chesham Broadway and a children’s library was also opened there in 1950. Prior to this, various establishments ran small private libraries. Ladies could borrow a romantic novel from Blundells Bookshop or Mary Masters’ clothes shop for a few pence a week. One of the main sources of both reference and leisure reading, however, was provided by the Chesham Literary Institute, so it has been chosen to represent libraries.

Chesham Literary Institute, 57 High Street (upstairs)

Map showing location of former literary house
Chesham Literary Institute, 57 High Street

This establishment started life back in the 1820s in a shop in the Market Square when it was called the Mechanics Institute. It was, of course, solely for men. It met for a time in the old Market Hall where they started to establish a small library which included both daily and weekly newspapers.

Black and white photo of a 3 story building with the signs 'MA & J Gatling'
Chesham Literary Institute

In due course, the Institute outgrew the room it occupied in the Market Hall and moved to the upstairs of No 57 High Street which had been the premises of the Chess Vale Temperance Hotel.

Whilst the International Stores (selling groceries) settled in downstairs, the upper floors were completely refurbished and consisted of a reading room, a committee room, a bar and smoking room and a full size billiard hall with two tables.

Lady members were now permitted to join and had three rooms set aside for their exclusive use, which included a smaller size billiard table and access to the Institute’s library.

In the early years of the 20th century, the name was changed to the Literary Institute. By 1934, falling membership and high rents meant that the Institute could no longer remain viable and it was closed down, all the furniture (including snooker tables and dart boards) sold off and the library sold off as well.

Today the upper floors have been converted to flats after spending some time as a nightclub under a variety of different names and the downstairs is a Lebanese restaurant.

View more shops on Chesham’s High Street

Thank you to the following authors for their contribution:

A History of Chesham Shops: Gwyneth Bradley, Anne Crabbe, Tony Eustace, Keith Fletcher, Pat Kent, Frank Pearce, Eleanor Phillips and Vanessa Worship
A History of Chesham Shops Volume 2: Anne Crabbe, Tony Eustace, Keith Fletcher, Pat Kent, Eleanor Phillips and Vanessa Worship
Pubs of Chesham & Villages: Ray East, Keith Fletcher and Peter Hawkes
Chesham – the Origin of the Town’s Services: Eleanor Phillips and Keith Fletcher
More Tales of Old Chesham: George Piggin
The Story of John Brazil: Jean Archer
Photographs: courtesy of Chesham Heritage.