The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

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Updated:  28 November 2011 

Plymouth's oldest library is the Proprietary Library currently situated at the top of North Hill, Tavistock Road.  It was founded in 1811 in Cornwall Street but was removed to North Hill when its premises were destroyed in the Plymouth Blitz.  The library is owned by its subscribers.

It was the Public Library Act of 1850 that first allowed local authorities the opportunity of establishing a free public library.  Progress was very slow, however, and it was not until over twenty years later, in October 1871, that the local voters chose to adopt the Act in Plymouth and then they had to wait a further six years until a suitable building became available.  Mr W H K Wright was appointed as librarian and in August 1876 the former Guildhall in Whimple Street was officially opened as the Borough's first public library.

Mr Wright was responsible for starting the network of Branch Libraries by opening Reading Rooms in the outlying districts, many of them located in the Board schools by arrangement with the Plymouth School Board.

The Devonport Free Public Library did not open until February 1882.  This was situated in the former Devonport Mechanics' Institute in Duke Street, which the Corporation had purchased the year before.  Mr T Lakin was appointed as Borough Librarian and he lived on the premises.  It opened Branch Libraries in schools run by the Devonport 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 was the collection of over 10,000 works on Devon and Cornwall, housed in its own room.

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 in October 1907 it promised to be a magnificent improvement on its predecessor.  As the building included a new Museum and Art Gallery it took three years to complete and was opened in October 1910.

In November 1914 Plymouth, East Stonehouse and Devonport were amalgamated into one Borough and by December 1916 there were eight branch libraries dotted around Plymouth.

For the next thirty years the Library stood quietly opposite the Technical School and the Harvest Home Public House.  The Borough Librarian, Mr Wright, died in 1915 and was replaced by a Mr Frederick William Kitts, upon whose sudden death in 1924 followed Mr Frederick Charles Percy Cole.

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 in August 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.

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

In July 1962 some 15,000 naval books from the Royal Naval Port Library were presented to the City Library and formed the new Naval Studies Library.

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.  Mr John Elliott replaced him and the City's Deputy Librarian, Mr Rex Charlesworth, became Devon County Librarian.

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


  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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