The cultural institution of Lynn lost to history

In the centre of King’s Lynn lies the former Post Office, which has been closed since 2007, but it was once the beating heart of the town’s culture and entertainment, and it may well be revived soon

Many people passing through the town centre of King’s Lynn don’t look twice at the empty building standing tall on Baxter’s Plain. Closed and abandoned for nearly 15 years after the Post Office moved location, we have no reason to pay attention to it. Before it was the Post Office, though, it had another name; a striking name that suited its original purpose.

The grand opening of Lynn’s Athenæum in August 1854 marked the launch of a new venue that promoted the arts and literature. The name references ancient Greece and the goddess Athena, although it wasn’t the Greeks who came up with the name. Instead, it was the Roman Emperor Hadrian who built the first Athenæum and named it after Athena and the city of Athens - which was considered the centre of intellectual thought at the time. 

The Athenæum was built near the Roman Forum as a school for literary and scientific studies. Its site was discovered in 2009 during the construction of a new Metro line for Rome. By the 1800s, the definition of the name had altered to mean a literary or scientific club, rather than a specific place of learning.

The purpose of the King’s Lynn Athenæum was detailed in the Lynn Advertiser, which said it was planned to “unite under one roof the several literary, scientific, and artistic societies in the town,” and it accommodated the library, museum, an institute (or newsroom) and the Conversazione – a society that discussed literature and the arts. 

It wasn’t just societies that made use of the Athenæum, though. Within the building, a central hall was constructed with the intention of hosting lectures, concerts, and exhibitions for the public to attend. The following decades saw numerous music hall acts grace the stage, along with classical concerts that featured artists and opera singers from Italy, Vienna and Russia, and special guest lecturers frequently added the Athenæum to their tour.

One such lecturer, who gave a talk in 1884 entitled ‘Personal Impressions of America’ was Oscar Wilde. Two years previously, he’d been invited to tour North America to talk about the charms and quirks of the aesthetic movement and whilst there, he inevitably gathered his own opinions of the continent and decided to tour the UK with his observations. 

‘The well-known apostle of aestheticism, who was in usual evening dress, has a fluent and graceful delivery, and spoke for about an hour and three-quarters without the aid of a note of any kind,’ wrote the Lynn Advertiser. 

A particular highlight seemed to be Wilde’s trip to Niagara Falls.

“In order to prevent oneself getting drenched, one was compelled to wear a suit of yellow oilskin,” he is reported to have said, “which was as unbecoming a texture as could be imagined. It was as bad as the India Rubber mackintoshes, which he hoped his hearers never thought of wearing.”

One such lecturer, who gave a talk in 1884 entitled 'Personal Impressions of America' was Oscar Wilde…

Wilde’s talk was one of the first to occur after parts of the Athenæum had been taken over as a post office and telegraph station. Despite the dazzling acts and famous faces appearing on stage, it wasn’t as big of a commercial success as everyone had hoped when the building first opened. 

This led to parts of it being sold to the post office, although events and concerts still went ahead, and the societies were still accommodated for. 

It wasn’t until 1936 that the Athenæum was no longer an institution for the arts, and instead was sold fully to become the town’s Telephone Exchange and Post Office. Renovations on the building modified it into the one we know today. Bizarrely enough, elm and beech panelling used in the interior offices had come from the bed of the river Thames - during the demolition of Waterloo Bridge in 1934, materials that were not needed for the new bridge were recycled across the country. 

Indeed, there was even a plaque within the Post Office to commemorate this odd anecdote:

“The joinery in this public office is made of silver beech and elm taken from the original piles of Waterloo Bridge London where it was immersed in the riverbed for about 120 years. It was recovered from the river in 1936.”

In 2007 the Athenæum closed for good when the Post Office relocated to WHSmith. However, there may be a new beginning for this old institution, as planning permission has been applied for to convert it into a pub with flats above it. 

Though no decision has been reached yet, it is encouraging to know that there is renewed interest in the great Athenæum of King’s Lynn. 

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