Thomas Plume built his library on the site of the medieval CHURCH OF ST PETER, retaining only the west tower. Very little is known about the old church. It was granted to the Premonstratensian canons when they moved from Great Parndon to Maldon in 1180, and it seems safe to assume that that the nave occupied the footprint of the present library, with the chancel extending further east. There were probably no aisles. It does not seem to have been active as a parish church – this function was fulfilled by All Saints’, with which St Peter’s was united in 1244 – but was used by the Guild of the Assumption of Our Lady. When the Guild was dissolved in 1549 the church became redundant and fell into a state of disrepair. Repairs were made to the bells in 1664 but shortly after that the upper stages of the tower collapsed on to the nave.
When Plume planned his library in the 1690s he decided to restore the TOWER, which had been built (or rebuilt) in the fifteenth century. It is constructed mainly of flint rubble, with limestone dressings, and has angle buttresses and battlements. The original entrance was through a west door, now blocked at the base and used as a window. The south doorway is a later insertion, probably made as part of Plume’s alterations, although the results of archaeological investigation of the base of the tower in 1999 suggest that it may date from the 1860s. However, there was formerly a portico on the south side of the tower, between the buttresses, whose purpose must have been to protect an entrance. It was made of wood, with four columns and carved brackets supporting an entablature and pediment, and probably dated from the early eighteenth century.
Above the former west doorway is a window with two cinquefoiled lights and Perpendicular tracery. Above that, lighting what was originally the second stage of the tower, are square-headed windows in the north, south, and west walls. The former bell-chamber has a single cinquefoiled light in a square head on all four sides. In the north-east corner is a stair turret that was originally higher than the battlements.
Plume used the tower as a vestibule for his new building, and to that end inserted a floor in the lower stage corresponding to the floor in the new building, but retained the original tower arch that had previously opened into the nave. Repairs were carried out using brick, most visibly in the battlements and stair turret. Plume commissioned a single BELL (no longer in the tower), cast by Jacob Bartlet of Whitechapel in 1699, so the work must presumably have been completed by then.
The tower has been a cause for concern on a number of occasions. Reports were prepared on it in 1875 and 1876 by Ewan Christian, architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners; he was of the opinion that the turret was in imminent danger of falling away from the tower. When the Royal Archaeological Institute visited Maldon in 1876, the tower was condemned and under scaffolding; the mayor refused permission to the party to enter the library, but the temptation of what lay within was so great that his warnings were ignored. Repairs were, however, carried out, at a cost of £133.18.6.
Further work was done in 1908 by P.M. Beaumont, a Maldon architect, but in 1920, when the inspectors of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments examined it, they described its condition as ‘bad’, having been ‘badly shaken by air raids, so that the face of the wall is in places falling away’. It was surveyed by F.W. Chancellor in 1929, following which repairs were carried out, with the further advice of A.R. Powys, Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Characteristic of this work are the roofing tiles laid horizontally to form bonding stitches across cracks, a method advocated by the SPAB. These repairs were still not enough, with further major work being carried out in 1980-1 under Purcell Miller Tritton & Partners. It was at this time that the stair turret was reduced to its present height.
The first floor of the tower, forming the entrance to the library, was refurbished in 1997-8 by David Whymark (partly following earlier proposals by James Boutwood); this included inserting a false ceiling, and new cupboards.
Plume’s NEW BUILDING, in contrast to the tower, is essentially domestic in character, being built of red brick with stone dressings, coved cornice beneath the eaves, and slate roof. The windows are of wood, with mullions and transoms forming a cross, and leaded lights. It was originally five bays long; the two eastern bays were added in 1817, to accommodate the new National School that was housed in the building until 1840. At the east end of the south side is a SUNDIAL, probably contemporary with the original building. The face is of lead sheet folded over a wooden frame, painted and gilded. The gnomon and brackets are of wrought iron. It carries a motto, ‘Non sine lumine’ (not without light). It was restored in 2005 by Maldon Town Council with the aid of a grant from the Essex Heritage Trust.
Chancellor, in 1929, had reported on the new building as well as the tower, and concluded that it had been built directly on the foundations of the nave of the medieval church. He advised rebuilding the east wall completely, but in the event it was repaired, using the same technique of horizontally-laid tiles. This was carried out in 1931-2 by David E. Nye (who went on to design Maldon’s Embassy Cinema). The work involved underpinning the whole of the library building, including the insertion of a damp-course. The metal fire escape stair on the north side was added in 1976.
Inside, the ground floor (now the Maeldune Centre) has no architectural features apart from fragments of medieval stonework built into the wall. Two pieces of sixteenth-century stained glass – roundels with the arms of Henry VIII, one impaling the arms of Jane Seymour, therefore 1536-7 – were formerly in one of the windows, and are now at the west end of All Saints’ Church. The first floor, however, is of considerable interest for its surviving original LIBRARY FITTINGS, with peninsular bookcases between the windows. These have moulded cornices. The panelling is early seventeenth century, re-used. In the north wall is a fireplace with an early-seventeenth-century overmantel in the form of three enriched arches on baluster pilasters, a design that has been imitated in the twentieth-century woodwork below it. The eastern extension has more re-used panelling and a blocked fireplace.
As well as books, Plume’s bequest included a small collection of paintings paintings which can still be seen in the Library and which reflect Plume’s personal interests and the times through which he lived. He held strong Royalist sympathies and was deeply committed to the Church of England, as established by law; the thirteen paintings he bequeathed are portraits of English monarchs and churchmen, while the Salvator Mundi illustrates his devotion to Jesus Christ. Three more paintings have been added to the collection since 1704: a portrait of Mrs Margaret Oakeley, mother-in-law of the botanist John Ray; Five Wise Virgins; and a portrait of Rev. Robert P. Crane, Librarian from 1844 to 1852.
Plume’s own portrait hangs in the Moot Hall at Maldon. By the terms of his will, he forbade ‘my picture now in Mr Pond’s house ever to be brought into my library’. However, the Library Rules, painted by Robert Nightingale in 1844, includes a miniature of the portrait in the top left-hand corner. Nightingale was paid £5 for the Rules, as well as £3 for cleaning and repairing the portrait of Archbishop Laud. It is likely that he also painted the portrait of Robert Crane.
The Library also houses a fine globe, one of a pair acquired in 1829 no doubt for use in the schoolroom. It was made by the renowned William Carey in about 1824.
Purpose-built libraries of this period are extremely rare, a fact acknowledged by the Royal Commission’s inspectors in 1920, even if their overall judgement seems a little grudging: ‘the building is more interesting as a library, and architecturally is comparatively of little value’. The library’s Grade I listing now seems a fairer recognition of its importance.
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Clark, W.J.R., ‘Maldon, St Peter. Excavation within the tower, 1999’, Essex Archaeology and History, vol. 31 (2000), 263-4
Clark, W.J.R., ‘Excavations in St Peter’s Tower, Maldon’, Essex Journal, vol. 36 no. 1 (Spring 2001), 7-11
Deedes, C. & Walter, H.B., The Church Bells of Essex (1909)
Hughes, L., Guide to the Church of All Saints, Maldon (1909)
Maldon Archaeological Group, St Peter’s. Maldon’s Redundant ‘Middle Church’ (M.A.G. Report, 1984)
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Petchey, W.J., Maldon Grammar School 1608-1958 (1958)
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