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The Buildings of Philanthropist John Passmore Edwards

Over 70 buildings were constructed in 14 years, including libraries, literary institutes and art galleries.

The journalist and philanthropist John Passmore Edwards was born on 24 March 1823, in the village of Blackwater near Redruth, Cornwall. He was the son of a Cornish carpenter and a widow from Devon.

A painted portrait of John Passmore Edwards by George Frederic Watts.
A portrait of John Passmore Edwards by artist George Frederic Watts. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Who was John Passmore Edwards?

A journalist by trade, Edwards purchased the floundering journal ‘Building News’ in 1862, turning it around to become an influential voice in the construction industry.

In 1865, he bought the publication ‘Illustrated Builder’s News’. And then, in 1869, he became owner of the ‘English Mechanic’.

The cover of a trade magazine reading 'ENGLISH MECHANIC AND MIRROR OF SCIENCE'.
The ‘English Mechanic and Mirror of Science’ from October 1869.

These publications, as well as his purchase and growth of ‘The Weekly Times & Echo’ in 1875, formed the basis of Passmore Edwards’ wealth.

Promoting the labours of others had brought about his fortune, and he considered it reasonable that they should benefit from it. In 1885, he said:

“Having gathered, I determined to put into act what I had long nurtured in thought and use certain means at my disposal for the general good.”

John Passmore Edwards

Over 70 buildings were constructed in 14 years due to his dedicated philanthropy, including libraries, literary institutes and art galleries.

All were funded and built as the need arose, usually drawn to his attention through his Cornish connections, his contacts at Freemasonry meetings, and his publishing work.

A photograph of a 19th century, two-storey red brick public library.
The Grade II listed Passmore Edwards Dulwich Library in East Dulwich, London, was opened in 1897. © Historic England Archive. DP177952.

19 libraries for 19 letters

Passmore Edwards’ first campaign was to take education beyond the newly established 1870 Education Act. Taking advantage of the 1850 Free Libraries Act, he pursued opportunities for public self advancement.

His ambition was to build a library for every letter of his name. The 1850 Act gave local councils the power to establish libraries open to everyone without a subscription, and many councils had technical schools for science and art.

Passmore Edwards Free Library, Redruth, Cornwall

Designed by the Redruth architect James Hicks and built by Symons & Sons, the Passmore Edwards Free Library was opened on 30 May 1895 by Passmore Edwards, with a grand celebration and a public holiday for the town.

Photograph of Redruth library building on a cloudy day. The building features multiple windows and a tall entrance façade with a spire.
The Grade II listed former Passmore Edwards Free Library in Redruth, Cornwall. © Historic England.

The Redruth library was 1 of 8 in Cornwall funded by Passmore Edwards, along with other buildings in Camborne, Bodmin, Liskeard, Falmouth, Truro, St Ives, and Launceston.

The Redruth library building closed in 2020 due to relocation. It has recently reopened as ‘The Ladder,’ a community building that includes ‘The Writers’ Block’ creative hub.

Free Library and Technical Schools, Newton Abbot, Devon

Around 1901, Passmore Edwards contributed towards a new free library and technical school in Newton Abbot. This was in dedication to his mother (who was from the town) and in celebration of the coronation of King Edward VII.

Free Library and Technical Schools, Newton Abbot photographed on a sunny day.
The Grade II listed Passmore Edwards Centre in Newton Abbot, Devon. © AlanWrigley / Alamy Stock Photo.

Cornish architect Silvanus Trevail drew up the plans, and the county council agreed to pay a proportion of the costs for the school.

The foundation stone was laid on coronation day on 26 June 1902, before the building was completed in 1904.

It is a prominent building due to its corner location and the use of limestone and terracotta. It was extensively restored between 2010 and 2012 and is used today as a community hub and library.

Dedication of a different kind

Although Passmore Edwards’ name appears on many of his buildings, he also dedicated each funded building to individuals as a means of commemoration and respect.

Chalfont Epileptic Colony, Buckinghamshire

In 1893, the National Society for the Employment of Epileptics (now the Epilepsy Society) purchased a farm at Chalfont Common and created a settlement.

A photograph of a two-storey house.
The Grade II listed Passmore Edwards House at the Chalfont Centre in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Passmore Edwards became Vice President of the Society and laid the foundation stone for the house (designed by Keith Downes Young) in September 1894.

The house opened the following year and was named ‘Passmore Edwards House’ after the philanthropist. In 1904, on Passmore Edwards’ request, the 1895 building was renamed after his mother, Susan. Damaged by fire in the 1980s, it was demolished in the following decade.

In 1896, work began on a dwelling for women designed by Ernest Shearman. It was named after Passmore’s wife, Eleanor, and opened in 1897. In the same year, Passmore Edwards also contributed to three other houses all designed by Maurice Adams: Victoria, to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, since renamed Greene House; Milton, after the poet John Milton, who was associated with the area; and Pearman, after John, one of the original trustees.

The Chalfont Centre remains the headquarters of the Epilepsy Society, focusing on research and specialist care.

Pleasures and advantages of knowledge

Passmore Edwards funded 6 academic institutes. The first was Blackwater, which opened on 7 August 1890.

In 1893, Passmore Edwards supported 4 more institutes in Cornwall, dedicating the building at Hayle to the memory of his father; at St Agnes, to his brother William; at Chacewater, to his brother James; and in his home parish of Mithian, stepping in to complete their institute when funds ran out.

The same year, he also contributed towards an institute and library at St Brides in the City of London.

Passmore Edwards Institute, Blackwater, Cornwall

Blackwater was the first of Passmore Edwards’ funded buildings, and the first to be built by his old school friend, John Symons.

A photograph of Blackwater Institute. Pictured with blue skies in the background, the building has a green door with a sign reading 'village hall' and arched windows.
The Grade II listed Passmore Edwards Institute in Blackwater, Cornwall. © Historic England / Samantha Barnes.

Passmore Edwards could not attend the opening but he drafted a speech, saying: ‘nothing gives me greater pleasure than to give this to my native village, and within a hundred yards of my old home where memories of boyhood cling around the place.’

He remained a fully paid-up member of Blackwater Institute for the rest of his life. The building is now the village hall.

Passmore Edwards Institute, Hayle, Cornwall

The Harvey’s Foundry employees established a mechanics’ institute at Hayle. In 1846, Passmore Edwards gave 6 lectures entitled ‘Pleasures and advantages of knowledge’ at the Mount Pleasant Chapel where the institute met.

A photograph of Hayle Institute, pictured with a blue sky behind, the light stone building has white decorative windows and an arched entrance way.
The Grade II listed Passmore Edwards Institute in Hayle, Cornwall. © Historic England / Samantha Barnes.

The permanent institute on Hayle Terrace was designed by Silvanus Trevail and built by Symons & Sons.

Monuments to creativity

In the late 1890s, Passmore Edwards contributed to 2 art galleries in London: the South London Art Gallery and the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

A photograph of a 19th century, three-storey art gallery on a high street.
The Grade II* listed Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. © Chris Redgrave.

At the opening of Redruth library a few years earlier, in 1895, he was approached by a group of Newlyn School artists asking for his assistance in establishing a gallery in Newlyn.

Passmore Edwards Art Gallery, Newlyn, Cornwall

The chosen architect for the building in Newlyn was James Hicks. This was to be the last of his designs he saw completed, as he died unexpectedly in January 1896.

A photograph of Newlyn Art Gallery on a cloudy day. Wide steps lead to an entrance. Stonework features a sign reading 'Passmore Edwards Art Gallery.'
The Grade II listed Passmore Edwards Art Gallery in Newlyn, Cornwall. © Historic England / Samantha Barnes.

Despite some legal setbacks, the building was opened on 22 October 1895 by the Right Honourable Leonard Courtney MP, with the structure dedicated to the Cornish artist John Opie.

The Newlyn School of artists were closely involved in what they considered ‘their’ gallery. The trowel used to lay the foundation stone was made of tin and copper repoussé, a significant local craft. The front elevation was adorned with decorative copper plaques representing the 4 elements. The plaques were designed by JD Mackenzie and Thomas Cooper Gotch and made by Philip Hodder.

The gallery was redeveloped and extended in 2007 and, inspired by Passmore Edwards’ principles, remains a focal point for Newlyn’s artistic and local community.

Passmore Edwards South London Art Gallery, Peckham Road, London

The South London Fine Art Gallery opened in 1891, with 4,000 people visiting every weekday and up to 2,000 on Sundays.

A photograph of an ornate 19th century, 3-storey art gallery.
The Grade II listed South London Art Gallery in London. © Historic England Archive. DP061188.

Passmore Edwards showed his support by contributing to a new lecture hall, designed by Sir Ernest George and dedicated to the artist Frederick Leighton. It opened in March 1893.

In 1898, Passmore Edwards funded an extension to the gallery. Designed by Maurice Adams, it added an entrance onto Peckham Road, office space, and a link to an art school (to which Passmore Edwards also contributed).

The lecture hall was seriously damaged during a Second World War air raid and was subsequently demolished. In 2010, the gallery was extended, and a new education centre was built on the site of the lecture hall. It continues in its use as the South London Gallery.

Camberwell School of Art, Peckham Road, London

The art school at 45 to 65 Peckham Road is better known as the Camberwell School of Art.

A photograph of the entrance gates to Camberwell Art College, London. A red brick building with white framed windows and black railings. Cars are parked outside and a road is visible.
The Grade II listed Camberwell Art College, Peckham Road, London. © Historic England Archive / David March. IOE01/05723/07.

The school initially offered classes in specific trades, with a fine art department created in 1920. William Johnstone, the school’s principal from 1938, established the school’s reputation as a fundamental influence on the development of modern art in Britain.

Victor Pasmore (sic, and no relation) was head of the painting school during the Second World War. Frank Auerbach and Edward Ardizzone also taught during this period.

Other notable teachers include Terry Frost and Maggi Hambling, while previous students include Quentin Blake, Howard Hodgkin, Tim Roth, Mike Leigh, and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. Today, Camberwell College of Arts is part of the University of the Arts, London.

This article provides a snapshot of the extensive philanthropic efforts of John Passmore Edwards. He contributed to many other public buildings and 13 drinking fountains to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association in London (of which only 3 survive).

Acknowledgment is given to Dean Evans, whose website and publication 2011 ‘Funding the Ladder’ provided much of the information in this blog.

Further reading

2 comments on “The Buildings of Philanthropist John Passmore Edwards

  1. I can attribute a good proportion of my career success to hours spent in a Passmore Edwards public library in the 1960s

  2. The World needs more people like John Edwards today. B. Bowman CEO Camden Loche Inc

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