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The Athenaeum, Bury St Edmunds

The Athenaeum with its splendid frontage stands proudly in Angel Hill – physically, very much in the centre of historic Bury St Edmunds and intellectually, right at the heart of much of Bury’s history. The building is adjacent to St Edmundsbury Cathedral, the impressive, 12th century Norman Tower and the magnificent Abbey Gate, which was of course the entrance to the Abbey grounds where once stood one of the most powerful and influential monasteries in England. It is also right next to the Angel Hotel where Dickens stayed in 1859 and 1861 when he was giving readings in the Athenaeum. The Bury St Edmunds branch holds a lovely letter from Dickens, thanking his friend Mr Thompson, who was at the time the proprietor of the subscription rooms (now the Athenaeum) and who had arranged for him to read from David Copperfield.

The archives show that in the 17th century a large private house stood on the Athenaeum site – it must have been quite grand as it was taxed for 17 hearths in 1674. We know the names of those who lived at the address prior to 1800 as being Thomas Fletcher, a sergeant-at-law (d.1656), Sir Adam Felton, the 3rd baronet of Playford, a Lady Monson (d. 1695) and Sir Roger Martin of Long Melford. It was probably Sir Roger who rebuilt the house as seen in various 18th century prints held at the Bury branch, at which point it had three storeys and was known as the ‘New’ or ‘White House’.

In 1713 Sir Roger Martin sold the property to John Eastland, a dancing master, who we know began to hold public assemblies there because we see advertisements for them in the Suffolk Mercury around 1723. The White House was then rebuilt with two storeys in 1789, by George Anderson who had purchased it in 1777 and went on to become landlord of The Angel at the time. By this point, the building was known as the ‘New Assembly Rooms’. Unfortunately for him, by 1801, Anderson was bankrupt and a prominent local banker by the name of James Oakes (whose diaries we hold in our Bury branch) acquired the building, heading a consortium of 12 men.

Extensive improvements were undertaken in 1804 and a formal assembly room, coffee room and billiard room were incorporated. The front of the building will by then have looked very similar to how it does today, except for the portico, which was at that time rounded. The work was completed by the architect Francis Sandys who was living in Angel Hill himself at the time – he was also the architect who had built the Earl-Bishop’s Palace at Ickworth in 1796. The building by this point included an impressive Robert Adam-style ballroom complete with musician’s gallery. The 1804 alterations were financed (at a cost of £5000) by subscribers, which is why the building became known as the ‘New Subscription Rooms’ and in 1806, Oakes conveyed the property to the principal subscribers. The inscription ‘Subscription Rooms’ still remains engraved on the portico.

The Bury and West Suffolk Archaeological Society joined with the Athenaeum in 1853 and, in extending its scope to the whole of Suffolk, became known as the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History. The Athenaeum Literary Institute acquired the building in 1854, from which it takes its present name; ‘Athenaeum’ means ‘an institution for literary or scientific study’. Learned men from near and far met to discuss items of a scientific, literary and historical nature under their President, Revd Lord Arthur Charles Hervey. The two bodies went their separate ways again in 1867, although the Institute retained control of its museum and library and rented the museum room from the Athenaeum, at that time, for £10 per annum. The museum collections went on to be transferred to the Borough Council of Bury St Edmunds in 1878.

A feature of the Athenaeum which is of particular interest is a fair-sized, domed observatory on the roof, containing a telescope. A lecture on Astronomy was held by Sir James Airy, 7th Astronomer Royal in October 1858, at which time, by happy coincidence, the impressive Donati’s comet happened to be looming large in the night sky. These two events combined, so inspired members of the Institute that they felt moved to build the observatory! Airy advised on the design of the dome and choice of telescope to furnish it, which was to be enjoyed by the thriving Astronomical Society that arose to utilise it. The observatory today has fallen into disrepair, but still exists as a fantastic time capsule of Victorian astronomy.

In 1935, the Athenaeum was acquired by the Bury St Edmunds Corporation although the Athenaeum Club still retained use of the rooms on the first floor. All sorts of social functions continued to be held in the building, including conferences, exhibitions and myriad events. Newsclippings in the Bury St Edmunds Record Office, from the 1950s to the present day, mention events such as chess matches, antiques fairs, Young Farmers and other club balls, society dances and receptions. The Athenaeum was also advertised in the press for its peaceful reading room in which locals could relax and socialise whilst enjoying the beautiful views across Angel Hill -which are still, of course, enjoyed by those who utilise the splendid building’s function rooms, to this day.