The idea of a Library for the denomination was first proposed by Joshua Wilson (1795-1874), the son and biographer of Thomas Wilson, chapel builder and major benefactor of Congregationalism. Joshua Wilson made a foundation donation of 4000 volumes and a further thousand came from other donors.
The Congregational Library first occupied premises in Blomfield Street, near Finsbury Circus in central London, which were opened after adaptation on 9th May 1831. A Librarian was not appointed until December 1833, however, and the premises were at first mainly used as meeting rooms for various Congregational bodies. It was here that proposals to form the Congregational Union of England and Wales were first discussed and in due course the Union offices came to share the premises with the Library. The Congregational Lectures were started in 1833 and were delivered in the Library.
By 1866, when the Blomfield Street premises had to be vacated for the extension of the Metropolitan Railway, the Library had grown to 8000 volumes. These were put into store until the Congregational Memorial Hall and Library proposed by Wilson to the Union as a fitting celebration of the second centenary of the Great Ejection of 1662 – was opened in 1875 in Farringdon Street. At last the Congregational Library had an imposing building on a central metropolitan site as Joshua Wilson had originally proposed. He had died the year before but his widow now gave the Library his own valuable collection of books and manuscripts, built up since the 1820s and hardly diminished by his earlier donation.
In selecting books for the Library the aim of the Trustees was to create a collection of the most useful books in all departments of literature, history, language and science, including especially the following subjects:
‘The Study, both critical and devotional, of Holy Scripture, the Evidence of Christian Theology, Church History and Patristic literature, the History of the Reformation and of the Reformed Churches, the Biography and Writings of the Ejected Nonconformist Ministers and works tending to illustrate the history or to enforce the great principles of Christianity and of civil and religious liberty.’ (Deed of Foundation of The Congregational Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street in the City of London – 5th July 1872)
The Library was fortunate subsequently to fall under the care of three distinguished men at critical times in its history. Dr Samuel Newth received and arranged the Wilson collection and on his retirement as principal of New College, London, worked on the rest of the collection and prepared the first printed (though incomplete) catalogue. He also established a reading room. His successor, who served from 1896 to 1925, was the Rev. Thomas George Crippen. He continued work on the catalogue, built up the music collection and through his editorship of the Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society attracted scholars and readers to the Library. But finance was short after the 1914-18 War and the continuance of the Library was threatened. It was saved by the offer of Dr Albert Peel, editor of the Congregational Quarterly, and of the Transactions, to act as Librarian from 1926. He oversaw the preparation of a card catalogue (which was the basis of the present larger catalogue) and had the noted music collection catalogued. He was again beginning to attract research students to the Library when the 1939-45 War broke out. From 1940 until 1950, Memorial Hall was requisitioned by the government for war purposes and the Library was moved to Manchester for safety. The Library was returned, the books cleaned and eventually reopened in Memorial Hall in 1957. The Congregational Lectures were revived the following year. Ten years later the Library again went into store so that Memorial Hall could be redeveloped. The Library returned to a separate wing at the rear of the new office block, Caroone House, in 1972, but the discontinuities of recent years had caused the Library to be forgotten. For the third time, and this time successfully, consideration was given to moving the Library, now owned by the newly formed Congregational Memorial Hall Trust, to 14 Gordon Square to be housed with and administered by Dr Williams’s Library. Terms were agreed and now, well settled in new premises, and sitting alongside a complementary dissenting Library, the Congregational Library is again in use by readers and scholars. It is especially apposite that the Congregational Library is now only floors from that other great collection of Congregational books and manuscripts, built up from Dr Doddridge’s library and those of the dissenting academies of earlier centuries, the New College Library. This came to Dr Williams’s Library when New College closed in 1979. Scholars have undoubtedly benefitted from having the printed and manuscript collections of the two main traditions of religious dissent together and by being able to use both libraries in one location.