20 December 2022
The Plymouth Proprietary Library is an active subscription library founded in 1810. Known as the Plymouth Public Library until 1881, here we explore the history of its architecture and its connection with leading English architect John Foulston.
Subscription libraries were typically comprised of a body of subscribers who paid an annual fee to access their facilities. These libraries made up most of the UK's literary institutions until the 1850 Public Libraries Act. Town councils were then able to establish free-to-use libraries funded by taxes under this Act. The City of Plymouth, however, did not establish a free library until more than 20 years after this Act in 1876. This resulted in the library later changing its’ name to the ‘Proprietary Library’ in 1881.
The Plymouth Public Library, as it was first known, was founded by a collective of influential Plymouth men. Most of whom had been or would become mayor of Plymouth at some point. They gathered together at the town’s former Guildhall, proposing to establish an institution which would open up education and encourage the study of science and literature. This meeting was chaired by the Mayor of Plymouth from 1810-11, Edmund Lockyer. Other mayors also present at this meeting included Henry Woollcombe (mayor from 1813-14), John Hawker (mayor from 1805-06) and the judge-advocate and solicitor to the Admiralty, George Eastlake Jr. (mayor from 1819-20).
The library was first held at the former Guildhall until proprietors raised enough funds for a purpose-built site. The acclaimed local architect John Foulston (1772-1841) was commissioned to build the library on Cornwall Street in 1812. The ideals of expanding knowledge were visibly reflected in the building’s ‘Greek Revival’ façade, seen in this watercolour by the architect. The design for the façade is believed to be based on the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllas, a memorial to the Greek philosopher Thrasyllas in Athens. The library's interior was lit by a cupola embedded into the ceiling, which we can see in Foulston's watercolour of the library's Reading Room.
Foulston began his career as a pupil of the London-based architect Thomas Hardwick. He established his practice in 1796 and exhibited his architectural designs in the Royal Academy between 1794 and 1813. He relocated to Plymouth after winning a completion to design the Royal Hotel and Theatre in 1810. Following his success, he found fame as the leading architect in the town during the early 19th century. Shaping the three towns (Plymouth, Devonport and East Stonehouse) through his buildings, Foulston influenced future local architects throughout the period. Most of Foulston's architectural design was rooted in the Greek revival style. Arguably, the best example of his work is the group of buildings he designed in Ker Street, Devonport, built between 1821–24.
The Box has 23 small watercolours by Foulston, all measuring around 22 x 16 cm. These were first exhibited at the Plymouth Institution (now the Plymouth Athenaeum) in 1934. During this exhibition, they were praised for “their chaste simplicity and careful detail” in the South Devon Monthly Museum’s published proceedings. Some of the watercolours were redrawn and engraved by one of Foulston's pupils T. J. Ricauti and used as illustrations in his books.
Much of the wealth that funded early 19th century building projects in Plymouth, including the Plymouth Public Library, had come from the city’s involvement in the Napoleonic wars. The wars encouraged local shipbuilding and the trade of shipwrecked goods and war booty. The city's new wealth allowed for several public building projects by Foulston. The Royal Hotel and Theatre (built from 1811-13) is notably the first of these projects.
During the mid-19th century, William Cotton III of Ivybridge (1794-1863) was approached by proprietors of the Plymouth Public Library; after hearing word of his desire to donate his private collection. The library offered to build a room to house the collection and appoint six trustees as the collection’s future custodians: three family representatives and three proprietors of the library. With this significant acquisition, the proprietors commissioned the Plymouth-based architect firm Messrs Wightwick and Damant to construct a new room. This was annexed onto the existing library and replaced the original Foulston façade. Construction took place in 1852, costing around £1,500, and was partially funded by donations. The 'Cottonian Library’ officially opened to library subscribers the following year on the 1st June 1853. In 1915 the ownership of the Cottonian Collection was transferred by an Act of Parliament to the city's museum (now The Box).
During the Second World War, the Plymouth Proprietary Library was hit by an incendiary bomb (between 21st/22nd March 1941). Fortunately, there were no fatalities or casualties from the explosion. However, there was no water pressure when a fire engine arrived at the scene. Not only was the building destroyed in the flames, the library also lost around 35,000 books.
Nevertheless, there was an immediate plan to seek new premises. By 1943, the Plymouth Proprietary Library was situated at 1 Alton Terrace, North Hill, where it stayed for the next 75 years. More recently, the library building was deemed unfit for purpose and, in 2018, relocated to a former doctor's surgery in St. Barnabas Terrace; where it remains today. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, the Plymouth Proprietary Library continues to operate as one of the oldest surviving private subscription libraries in Devon and Cornwall. The library hosts a programme of talks and events throughout the year and welcomes new members.
For further information around the library’s early history you can read Professor Annika Bautz’s research chapter “The Foundation of Plymouth Public Library: Cultural Status, Philanthropy and Expanding Readerships, 1810–1825,” in Before the Public Library (2017).
Thanks to Louis Dyson