The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

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Updated:  28 November 2011 

The Public Library Act of 1850 allowed local authorities the opportunity of establishing a free public library.   There had to be a vote locally as to whether to adopt the Act.  This was done early in 1881 and the Corporation set about purchasing the Devonport Mechanics' Institute in Duke Street, along with its fittings, books and small museum.  The cost was 2,500 and the property was held on a long lease that was not due to expire until 1943.  The annual rent to be paid to the lord of the manor was 15 15s.

The Devonport Free Public Library pictured in 1960.

The former Devonport Free Public Library building,
pictured in 1960.
  Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery.
Buy a copy.


Part of the building had been opened in 1844 and this was followed by the erection of the large hall, designed by Mr Alfred Norman, in 1849.  At the time of its official opening in January 1850 the large and magnificent hall  was described as measuring 61 feet by 46 feet broad and 30 feet 3 inches in height.   Its most noteworthy features were a gallery that ran around the lecture hall and its richly decorated ceiling, adorned by a splendid chandelier.  There were also class and committee rooms, a chess room, and a large news room. On the ground floor were four spacious rooms, amounting to some 86 feet in length and divided by broad archways, that were to be used as the museum and library.

In 1865 the Civil and Military Library in Foulston's Egyptian building in Ker Street was closed and the library of books was transferred to the Mechanics' Institute.

However, the Institute was slowly failing and on Saturday June 4th 1881 Devonport Corporation took it over with the intention of converting it into the Borough's Free Public Library.  [1]

The Devonport Free Public Library was officially opened by the Mayor of Devonport, Mr G T Rolston, on Monday February 6th 1882.  The Mayor of Plymouth, Mr C F Burnard, and the lord of the manor, Sir John Saint Aubyn MP, were also present.  [2]

Mr J F Burns, the Borough Surveyor, had overseen the work of conversion, which had been carried out under contract by Mr Mr Patey.  The former lecture hall became the lending and reference library, while the smaller lecture hall was in use as a Science and Art School.  The rooms on the ground floor, linked by archways, became the reading rooms.  The gallery was used to display models and artefacts together with a collection of minerals originally presented by the late Sir John Saint Aubyn.  [2]

The work of setting up the Library had bee undertaken by the newly-appointed Borough Librarian, Mr T Lakin, with the advice and assistance of Mr W H K Wright, the Plymouth Borough Librarian.  [2]

The first Branch Lending Library was opened at Ford in 1893.  [3]

A Branch Library was opened at Saint Budeaux on Friday February 10th 1899.  It was located near the railway station.  The provision of such a facility was included in the Provisional Order permitting the amalgamation of Saint Budeaux into the Borough of Devonport.  As a result, the opening was conducted by the Mayor of Devonport, Councillor W Hornbrook.  The Library was open all day, which was claimed to be unusual for any branch library in Devon or Cornwall.  During the opening ceremony Councillor H Whitfeld commented that this facility 'would lessen the desire of the inhabitants of St Budeaux to go into Devonport'.  [4]

Two more Branch Libraries were opened in quick succession.  The first, on the evening of Monday March 5th 1900, was within the Stuart Road Board School, which had been stocked with about 250 books and the stock would be changed every six months.  [3]

The next, on the evening of Thursday March 8th 1900, was opened at Morice Town Board School.  Both Branch Libraries were opened by the Mayor of Devonport, Councillor W Hornbrook, in the company of the Borough Librarian, Mr F W Hunt.  [5]

As from November 9th 1914 the three towns of Plymouth, Devonport and East Stonehouse were amalgamated into one and Plymouth took over responsibility for the Library Service in Devonport.


[1]  "Devonport Free Public Library", Western Daily Mercury, Plymouth, June 6th 1881.

[2]  "Devonport Free Public Library: Opening Ceremony", Western Daily Mercury, Plymouth, February 7th 1882.

[3]  "Devonport Free Public Library: Opening of Stuart-road Branch", Western Morning News, Plymouth, March 6th 1900.

[4]  "Extension of Devonport: Opening of a Branch Library at St Budeaux", Western Daily Mercury, Plymouth, February 11th 1899.

[5]  "Devonport Free Public Library: Branch at Morice-town Opened", Western Morning News, Plymouth, March 9th 1900.

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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