The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

Click here to return to the Home page      Click here for more information about this website       Click here to go to the A - Z Contents page       Click here to go to the Links page       Click here to go to the Disclaimer page       Click here to link to the Can you help? page



Updated:  28 November 2011 

Plymouth Central Library is situated in Tavistock Road, opposite the University of Plymouth.  It was opened in 1910 in a dual ceremony with the City of Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery.

Plymouth Central Library with the City Museum and Art Gallery to the north.

Plymouth Central Library with the City Museum
and Art Gallery to the north.
From a postcard.

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 and this was not done in Plymouth until October 6th 1871.  However, before it could be opened a suitable site had to be found and this was not achieved until the new Guildhall was opened in 1876, thus freeing-up the old, 1800 Guildhall building in Whimple Street.  Many of the Town Council wanted the building demolished but this proposal was defeated as it was considered that unless an existing building could be used for the library, the whole idea would collapse.

Under the chairmanship of Mr R C Serpell, who donated the first 100, the Free Library Committee raised the sum of 1,100 by subscriptions and the Corporation voted a further 300 towards the cost of fitting out the building.  The subscription fund paid the remaining 100.  600 was spent on purchasing the books so that by the time various gifts were added, there were 5,000 volumes.  The conversion of the building into a library was undertaken by Plymouth builder, Mr Robert Stanlake  [1].

Opening times for the newsroom were from 9am until 10pm, with the lending library and reference room opening one hour later.  The library was closed on Sundays, Christmas Days and Good Fridays. It was also closed for one week in June and December for cleaning and rearranging the books.

Read about the rules for using the Plymouth Library in 1876..........

A librarian was appointed, Mr William Henry Kearley Wright, and the Library was formally opened on August 30th 1876.  There were 900 volumes.  However, books were not loaned until September 28th and between then and July 26th 1878, 186,000 volumes were loaned, at a rate of approximately 400 per day.  There was a Reading Room, well-stocked with newspapers and periodicals.

Read a description of the layout...............

There was no such job as a professional librarian at that time.  Mr Wright got the job because he had experience of running libraries for the Plymouth Working Men's' Association and the South Devon Railway Servants.  He was elected one of the founding members of the Library Association when it was formed in 1877.

Mr Wright not only established himself as a local historian and poet but also as a librarian.  He contributed many articles to the Transactions of the Library Association and also started the branch library network by establishing Reading Rooms in outlying districts.  These had small libraries attached.  He also started supplying books to many of the elementary schools in the Borough, especially those under the control of the Plymouth School Board.

By 1899 the Plymouth Central Library contained about 20,000 books in the reference library on the upper floor and nearly 25,000 volumes in the lending library.   Of special note were a large collection of patent specifications housed in the basement over 10,000 works on Devon and Cornwall, housed in its own room.  Another feature was a growing collection of prints, portraits and sketches of Plymouth  and district.   In the basement was the general news room, or Reading Room, while on the first floor, in the old Guild Hall itself, was a magazine room and ladies' reading room. 

The Library was managed by a committee consisting of Councillors and members of the public, with the Mayor as ex-officio chairman.

William Wright has to be credited with persuading Dr Andrew Carnegie to contribute 15,000 to what must count as his most enduring success -- the erection of the fine Central Library in Tavistock Road.  It may be too small by today's standards but when the foundation stone was laid by the Mayor, Mr J F Winnicott, on Wednesday October 16th 1907 it promised to be a magnificent improvement on its predecessor.

The building was designed by Messrs Thornley & Rooke of Plymouth and the contractors, Messrs Pethick Brothers Ltd, also of Plymouth, started work on the site on December 9th 1907.  The final cost of the work is said to have been 15,627 14s 6d.

There was a dual opening ceremony on Tuesday October 25th 1910, when the Mayor, Alderman J Yeo, together with architect Mr Lionel Thornley, opened the Library and Alderman T Brook, chairman of the Museum and Art Gallery Committee, along with the Deputy Mayor, Alderman R W Winnicott, and Mr Rooke, opened the Museum part of the building.

As form November 9th 1914 Devonport and East Stonehouse were amalgamated into Plymouth and by December 1916 there were branch libraries at Duke Street, Devonport; Saint Mary Street, East Stonehouse; Old Laira Road, Laira; 77 Station Road, Keyham Barton; Morice Town; between 33/34 Wilton Street; 40 Keyham Street, Weston Mill; 10 Yeoman's Terrace, Wolseley Road, Saint Budeaux and Peverell Park Road, Peverell.

For the next thirty years the Library stood quietly opposite the Technical School and the Harvest Home Public HouseMr Wright died in 1915 and was replaced by a Mr Frederick William Kitts.  He was born and educated in Plymouth, being the second son of Mr & Mrs John Joseph Kitts, but after travelling in Europe he set up shop as an outfitter in Exeter.  He had taken a keen interest in the library in Exeter and it was presumably that which secured him the post in Plymouth.   Unfortunately he died in service, on Tuesday August 12th 1924. 

Mr Kitts was followed in 1925 by Mr Frederick Charles Percy Cole, who came to the Town from Huddersfield.  On June 18th 1935 a new Senior Assistant Librarian was appointed, Mr William Best Harris

Then on the night of April 22nd/23rd 1941 the building and some 72,000 volumes were lost, including 41,000 in the lending library, 16,000 in the reference department and the Devon and Cornwall Collection of 15,000 books.  Luckily there were 5,000 books out on loan, which were largely saved.  Some of the stock was salvaged but it was only thanks to the general public donating 4,500 books that a library service was able to recommence as quickly as it did.  Thus it was that on Friday August 8th 1941 the Lord Mayor, Lord Astor, reopened the lending library on a temporary basis in the Museum part of the building, which was not damaged.

Mr F C P Cole had given sterling service during the Second World War, not only by taking on responsibility for the City Museum while its Curator, Mr A A Cumming, was on active service, but in having to re-establish the library service after the destruction of 1941, when some 75,000 books were destroyed.  He retired at the end of 1946 and Mr 'Bill' Best Harris was appointed in his place.  Mr Rex Charlesworth, who became Deputy City Librarian, was appointed as Admin Grade IV on November 1st 1950.  Mr V G 'George' Turner was already on the staff at that time.

It was he who re-established the Devon and Cornwall library in June 1949, according to a Council minute of the 7th of that month.

Branch libraries were opened at Ham House on Saturday October 2nd 1948 and at Stonehouse in 1949, while the part-time service at Old Laira Road was extended to full-time.

HRH the Princess Margaret unveiled a stone on Thursday May 20th 1954, commemorating the start of the reconstruction of the City and which is now in the foyer of the Library building.  Designed by the City Architect, Mr H J W Stirling, it is measures 10 feet by 5 feet and is of polished green Westmorland slate.  It is set in skirting of polished Ashburton marble.

In the children's library on the ground floor is a 29-feet long mural depicting legends of Devon and Cornwall.  This was designed and executed by a local artist, Mr Wyn George, of Boxhill, Pennycross.  There was still much work to do before the official opening when he left home on the morning of Saturday February 18th 1956 so he continued to work right through the week-end, day and night, breaking only for some food from a nearby cafe and and an hour and a half's sleep on a couch.  He left for home on the Monday morning just as other Plymothians were going to work.  Mr George, who originally came from Scotland, taught art at Devonport High School.  [2]

The Library was reopened on February 22nd 1956 by Sir Peter Scott, the son of Mr Robert Falcon Scott of Antarctic fame, whose family had lived in Outlands House at Milehouse.

On the evening of Monday July 16th 1962 the Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth, Admiral Sir Charles Madden, officially presented 15,000 naval books from the Port Library and Plymouth Command Officers' Library to the City to form the Naval Studies section of the Plymouth Library Service.  It was to be known as "The Mount Wise Collection".  The Port Librarian at the time of the transfer was Captain R G Cross.  [3]

The Royal Naval Port Library had been a part of the Plymouth Naval War College in a building adjacent to the Royal Albert Hospital at Devonport.  The War College closed at the end of the Great War and although most of the buildings were transferred to the Hospital, a part was retained for the Library.  In 1908 the Plymouth Command started its own library alongside the official one.  It became apparent in 1961 that the libraries were poorly located and greatly under used so the decision was taken to pass it over to the Council.  []

At a presentation to Mrs Marian Beckford, the local history librarian, who retired in June 1971, Mr Best Harris said: 'The public owed Mrs Beckford something for the way in which she had raised the status of the local history library.  It is known not only locally and nationally, but internationally, too.'  [4]

Mr Best Harris retired on March 31st 1974, when local government reorganisation put the Plymouth Library Service under the wing of the County Library at Exeter.    He was replaced by Mr John Elliott.  The City's Deputy Librarian, Mr Rex Charlesworth, became Devon County Librarian.  Under the reorganisation, Mr V J Wallen, chief administrative assistant, became the Assistant Area Librarian for West Devon; Miss Alison Shute, the head of the children's library and school library services became principal assistant (personnel, training and research); Mr Owen Baker, local history librarian, became principal assistant (information and special services); while Mr Frank Clements, senior bibliographical assistant, took a similar post at County Library headquarters.  Lieutenant-Commander Kenneth V Burns, formerly the naval history librarian, took on responsibility for local history as well, in succession to Owen Baker.  [5]

But that was not the end of the story, which will be continued at a later date.


[1]  "Contractor's Death: City Builder Who Converted Old Guildhall into Library", Western Morning News, Plymouth, February 17th 1936.

[2]  "Little sleep for painter of library mural: At Work for 48 Hours", Western Morning News, Plymouth, February 22nd 1956.

[3]  "Navy presents 15,000 books to Plymouth", Western Morning News, Plymouth, July 17th 1962.

[4]  "Retirement gift for librarian", Western Morning News, Plymouth. July 16th 1971.

[5]  "Mr Best Harris Will Retire in March", Western Morning News, Plymouth, January 12th 1974.

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

Any problems viewing this webpage should be notified to the webmaster at plymouthdata dot info