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A Lost Common Wealth

John MacKenzie on the role and future of Commonwealth House

For generations of scholars and visitors from the English-speaking world and all the territories that were once part of the British Empire and are now part of the Commonwealth, 18 Northumberland Avenue has been a welcoming sight – Commonwealth House, which opened in the 1930s, has acted as a focus for activities, social and scholarly.

But the 12,000 members of Commonwealth House and numerous well-wishers have not proved an adequate counterbalance to changing fashions and recession, and at the time of writing, Commonwealth House has closed, in the hope that a redevelopment plan to be approved by Westminster City Council will yet give it a second life. Below, JOHN MACKENZIE – who wrote in January on the Third World for our End of History series – offers a personal reflection on the fate of the Royal Commonwealth Society Library, and laments its projected sale and dispersal.

A library is always worth more than the sum of its parts. It is seldom, if ever, an instant creation, but represents an accumulation over many years. Like all such accretions it has unique shape and character, representing the interests of its owner, its founder, or the institution to which it is attached. The building or rooms in which it is housed, the shelves it occupies, the chairs at which it can be used, and the staff who care for it and add to it all contribute to its distinctiveness.

I know of no more characterful or thoroughly valuable a library than that of the Royal Commonwealth Society. This library was founded by the Royal Colonial Institute, dating from 1868, and was developed and transformed over the next 120 years as its parent body became in turn the Royal Empire Society and the Royal Commonwealth Society. It was bombed in the Second World War, but mercifully the bulk of its riches survived.

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