How one woman’s generosity with books led to the creation of a very special facility
FORMER Library president Ken Fisher has spent more hours then he cares to remember down the years researching the history of The English Library in Puerto de la Cruz in particular and more generally the British community in Tenerife.
He kicks off what will be a series of regular articles by introducing you to the founders of the library back in the 19th century.
WALTER AND MARY Boreham arrived in Tenerife in 1890. Walter was an English lawyer terminally ill with tuberculosis. Wife Mary nee Dabney was the niece of a former US Consul to the island.
They had arrived in the Orotava Valley at an exciting time as the Grand Hotel Taoro was under construction, designed especially for health tourism and boasting that the sanitary arrangements were carried out by certificated English plumbers.
The Borehams wasted no time in taking possession of a large finca house with its own small chapel situated immediately outside the boundary of the Taoro Park. It was known – and still is – as the Finca San Antonio. They modernised the house and created landscaped gardens and lawns, some of which were dedicated to outdoor games such as tennis and croquet.
They had brought with them their prized possession – a magnificent collection of thousands of books.
Sadly, Walter Boreham lost his battle with the disease and, after his death in 1891 at the age of 41 his widow Mary not only remained in San Antonio but became a generous benefactor to the British community.
She donated specific items to the church, such as the beautiful stained-glass windows which add such glory to the services. Mrs Boreham also personally defrayed the cost of the vicarage erected behind the church. In return for her great generosity all she asked, being a Unitarian, was that all Christian denominations could use the church. When the first stone was laid it was written that the church was dedicated to the memory of Walter Boreham.
After Walter’s death, Mary had an open house for friends and visitors alike. Her library was the talk of the island and she lent books to all and sundry, including visitors to the hotel. Over the years she must have lost hundreds of books and her friends decided to take steps to put a stop to her generosity being abused.
In 1900, at a meeting in the vicarage, someone suggested that it was high time a Subscription Library was formed.
The suggestion was enthusiastically received. A special meeting was held at San Antonio and the Rev Arthur Humphreys offered one of the rooms in the vicarage as temporary accommodation.
The gallant Mrs Boreham, oblivious to the main purpose of the formation of the Subscription Library, promised a good number of her own books to set the ball rolling. She was held in such high esteem that Mr Humphreys suggested the library be called the Boreham-Dabney Library.
Luckily, Mary Boreham refused this honour and suggested that the Orotava Library would be quite sufficient. This was approved unanimously, maybe with a sigh of relief, as The Boreham Library would have been a very unfortunate name indeed.
Mr Humphreys was voted in as the first chairman.
In January 1901, maybe to appease the vicar, the Library Committee voted to raise enough money to purchase a site, create a building fund and to reach their goal as quickly as possible.
The committee had already inspected a tract of land adjacent to the San Antonio estate which had been offered to the fledgling Library by the owner, Don Manuel Corvo, for £125. The committee had unanimously agreed to purchase it once they had raised the money.
Then, in July, 1901 the library committee received a surprising letter from Colonel Owen Peel Wethered, the ex-Chairman of the Wethered Brewery, in Marlow, Bucks.
The Colonel had built a colonial mansion alongside Taoro Park and named the house after the land he had purchased – El Robado.
During the period taken to build his house, Colonel Wethered had become a regular visitor to the Hotel Taoro and had bought shares in the company. When he learned that the library committee were in negotiations for Corvo’s tract of land both he and the hotel company agreed that it would be to their joint advantage if the library was within the boundaries of the park, close to the church and hotel – and El Robado.
The Colonel swiftly bought the whole of the Corvo finca in San Antonio, including the tract put aside for the library. Señor Corvo was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. The Colonel then made a generous offer to the committee – for every £5 received as a donation towards the new library building he would donate the same amount. His proviso was that the library must be erected in the Taoro Park grounds.
There must have been quite an argument over this proposal, which resulted in the resignation of the chairman of the committee, Mr Humphreys. There were quite a few rumblings of dissatisfaction among the committee.
Colonel Wethered then played his trump card. In library terms, taking a leaf out of Mrs Boreham’s book, he said he would also personally defray the cost of the Library building – another offer that couldn’t be refused. The committee chose the land where the Library stands today.
In the book, The Power and the Brewery written by Anthony Wethered, the author and descendant, makes the point that OPW, as he was referred to by the family, “was a man who liked his own way”.
Closer to home, Mrs Annette Reid comments in her 1976 booklet on the Library that: “When Colonel Wethered died of tuberculosis in 1908, the Church of All Saints, the British Games Club and the Library lost a warm friend and supporter. His reputation for perhaps exerting his own will too strongly on occasions was more than offset by his open-handed generosity and constant and liberal kindness. The Library owes him a great debt.”
The meetings of the building sub-committee were attended by Mr Bovill, a retired architect who had built his own house in La Vera. He was the only professional available and his plans for the library were excellent and required little modification.
Of course, the Colonel had a few suggestions which were taken on board. It is interesting to see that the committee decided to purchase the roof tiles from France, the joinery by employing local tradesmen and the ironmongery from England.
There are no anecdotes in circulation about the building work but we do know that the Orotava Library was finished in 1903 and by 1904 all the books had been removed from the vicarage and placed in their new home. Mrs Boreham added 2,000 more books from her own collection. When she died in 1919, her daughter donated the 4,000 books that Mrs Boreham still owned, to the Library.
Since its inception, the Orotava Library has had its high and low moments but throughout its history whenever a job needed doing or a disaster seemed imminent we have had a procession of officers and volunteers who have risen to the occasion. “Cometh the hour: Cometh the man – or woman”.
The work continues.
By Ken Fisher