On 21 March 1893, the artist G.F. Watts laid the foundation stone of the Lecture Hall and Library that was to be built at the rear of the South London Art Gallery. This addition was funded entirely by a donation of £3,000 from the newspaper proprietor John Passmore Edwards. According to a report of the ceremony, he paid for it because: ‘it was desirable that additional opportunities for art education and recreation from art resources should be provided, and particularly in dreary and monotonous south London; because the Institution would be opened on Sundays; because admission to it would be free; because little children, who had the key to and the freedom of the streets, would be invited to come in to listen to music, to hear amusing stories, and to be otherwise interested; and also because he anticipated the time when they would have a Technical Art School connected with the Institution.’
As hoped, in 1898 a technical institute opened next to the gallery (now Camberwell College of Arts). Once again it was financed by Passmore Edwards. The £5,000 he gave for this new institution also enabled the partial rebuilding of the South London Art Gallery so as to connect its buildings with those of the college, enabling them to operate, initially at least, as one organisation. This generosity was entirely in keeping with Passmore Edwards’ personal ethos to ‘do the best for the most.’ Like William Rossiter, founder of the South London Art Gallery, he was a firm believer in the Public Library Act which had given local boroughs the power to set up libraries which were free and open to all. Despite the Act being introduced in 1850 free libraries were slow to appear, and Passmore Edwards’ role in aiding their establishment across London should not be underestimated. Of the roughly 70 major buildings built with his support, 24 were libraries including ones in Nunhead (opened 1896), Dulwich (opened 1897), Whitechapel (opened 1892) and Hammersmith (opened 1896), to name just a few. The library he paid for on Wells Way in Camberwell (opened 1903) also included a public washhouse in recognition of the fact that few homes in the neighbourhood had private baths.
What makes Passmore Edwards’ philanthropy all the more remarkable is that, although a successful man, his wealth was not as great as might be expected given how much he gave away. Nor did he accumulate it with ease. He was born and grew up in the small village of Blackwater, near Truro, in Cornwall. As a young man, he moved first to Manchester, where he worked at the Sentinel newspaper, and then to London, earning a living as a freelance journalist. In 1850, aged only twenty-seven, he bought a monthly magazine called The Public Good. Officially its editor, Edwards took on almost all the roles himself. Despite this, and sleeping on the premises to save money, the venture failed and, in 1855, he was forced to return to freelance journalism. The next ten years were difficult for him financially. Undefeated, however, he purchased two more publications, Building News and Mechanics Magazine, both of which became profitable. In 1876 he acquired, and became editor of, The Echo, the country’s first half-penny evening newspaper. It was a shrewd move. Sold directly on the streets as the profit margin was too low for shops to want to sell it, The Echo was incredibly successful.
Passionate about implementing social change, in 1880 Passmore Edwards was elected Member of Parliament for Salisbury but he became increasingly disillusioned with politics, frustrated that he was not able to bring about genuine change. Instead, from the late 1880s onwards he began to directly fund the building of libraries and other educational institutions, encouraging people from all walks of life to access culture and learning. He was twice offered a knighthood, once from Queen Victoria and then from King Edward VII; twice he refused.
On his death in 1911 Edwards was remembered for his generosity as a benefactor and the positive impact he had made. As noted in his obituary in The Times: ‘He did more good in his life than almost any other of his contemporaries.’