A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
55: The move to self-improvement
The interest in radical ideas which had gripped many people during the period of the French Revolution and so alarmed the ruling classes had encouraged the spread of organisations which sought to lead ordinary people onto the paths of righteousness and the acceptance of the divinely ordained social order by the distribution of religious tracts. The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge had been formed as long ago as 1699 but the network of agents was still strong in 19th century Devon. In the period around 1850 directories record an active presence for the SPCK not only in Exeter but also Bideford, Crediton, Exmouth, Honiton, Plymouth, Teignmouth, Tiverton, Topsham and Torquay among other places.
The Religious Tract Society, founded in London in 1799, also had its network in Devon around 1850 with agents in Barnstaple, Bideford, Dartmouth, Exmouth, Sidmouth, Totnes and elsewhere. In 1833 the Devon and Exeter Religious Book and Tract Society was established with Sir John Kennaway as president.
The British and Foreign Bible Society, established in 1804, also had representatives in Devon with agents in the 1840s in Plymouth, Tiverton, Totnes and other towns. There was even a local organisation for the distribution of Bibles, the Devon and Exeter Auxiliary Bible Society established on 8 December 1809. In the 1830s it had agents in Axminster, Barnstaple, Bideford, Bridgwater, Cornwall, Cullompton, Exmouth, Honiton, Plymouth, Sidmouth, Somerset, Tavistock, Teignmouth, Tiverton and Totnes.
Some nonconformist groups also maintained their own organisations for distributing religious material. The Brethren Tract Depot is listed in directories as being in Plymouth in 1852. The Bible Christians, a branch of the Methodists particularly common in the west of England, were a denomination which was particularly active in this field. Established in the small community of Shebbear, where he registered his press in 1829, Samuel Thorne produced a wide range of publications in support of the cause, including a periodical the Bible Christian magazine. Thorne had previously worked in Plymouth where he registered a press at 6 Mill Pleasant, Stoke Damerel on 4 October 1822. His links with the three towns were reflected in a newspaper the Western Herald, the first issue of which appeared on 8 November 1836. It was short-lived, the last issue appearing on 20 February 1838.
Directories in the 1830s and 1840s reveal a number of other Bible and tract societies which flourished in Exeter and other Devon towns and the distributors of these tracts could be very persistent. Latimer in a vivid description of the crowds at the execution of the poisoner George Cudmore in 1830 noted among the pickpockets, the rustics and the couples love-making, a man in rusty black clothes distributing religious tracts (Lambert 1939, 44). Cudmore incidentally achieved bibliopegical immortality after his execution by having his skin used to bind an 1850 edition of Milton's poetical works held in the Westcountry Studies Library. In Plymouth the distributors of tracts even ventured out in boats to waylay sailors arriving in the Sound.
These tracts and religious publications which were devoured by the devout did normally provide much information on the wider world but there were those who were not satisfied to receive such literature passively. The urge for self-improvement had led to the establishment of the Mechanics' Institute movement in the 1820s and this too spread like a wave through Devon in the following decades. The Exeter Tradesmen's and Mechanics' Institution was established in 1825 at a meeting presided over by the Unitarian ironmonger Samuel Kingdon. There was a proviso that the library which was to form a vital part of the Institute should not contain books on controversial theology or politics. Its establishment was opposed by the eccentric John Cooke, the "loyal saddler of Exeter" who warned: "take way men from their enjoyment of cakes and ale and you will take away their seven senses". (Newton 1984, 121, 131). Nevertheless by 1828 it boasted a library and reading room in its premises in 74, Bell Hill containing a variety of periodical publications and had built up a membership of 200. Among the lecturers during this period were Dr Bird on astronomy in 1828, Dr Murray on chemistry in 1829, Mr James on anatomy and Mr Salisbury on botany, both in 1830. In 1835 Besley's directory describes it as being established "for the promotion of useful knowledge among its members in various branches in science and art. The large room of the Institute is open from nine in the morning until ten at night, every day except Sunday. It has a good library, and the reading room is supplied with daily and weekly newspapers and a variety of periodical publications. Masters give instruction in writing, arithmetic, mathematics and drawing and the French language, and during the winter season public lectures are delivered on various subjects." (Besley 1835, 22). However the Institute did not survive for long. By 1836 its title had changed to the Exeter City Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and its premises in 211 High Street is not recorded after that date.
It had probably fallen victim to the rival Exeter Athenaeum, established in the elegant Bedford Circus in 1834, which opened its doors on 29 October 1835. It became home to a number of organisations. The Exeter Law Library Society, established in November 1833, had a library room at the Athenaeum in the later 1830s, as did the Exeter Medical Society, established in the same year. The Exeter Literary and Philosophical Society, established in 1835, met there in the 1830s and 1840s and the Exeter Society for Advancement in Arts, Science and Literature, established in 1841 and later known more simply as the Exeter Literary Society held meetings there from 1846 to 1853. The field was crowded and the Athenaeum too only survived as an institution into the late 1850s.
Among other bodies of a similarly improving nature were the Exeter Scientific and Literary Institution, established in 1844, which met at Curtis's Rooms in 1846 and had associated with it the Exeter General Library located with Messrs Spreat and Wallis at 263 High Street. The Working Men's Improvement Society and Free Reading Room, established in 1855 and situated in the working class area of Preston Street, probably attracted more custom from artisans than the Athenaeum, located in the genteel Georgian surroundings of Bedford Circus.
Outside Exeter the Devonport and Stonehouse Mechanics' Institute was established in 1825 and in the EFP of 26 May it was reported that the library was in the process of being formed and was to receive 45 volumes of the Transactions of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, manufactures and Commerce. It survived into the second half of the century. Plymouth's Mechanics' Institute was opened in 1825 and even before its opening donations were reported in the Exeter flying post on 26 May 1825. It also survived well into the second half of the century.
The first meeting of the Torquay Mechanics' Institute was reported on 6 February 1834 when the library was opened. It was still active in 1860 when it received the library and property of a less successful body, the Torquay Working Men's Improvement Society (EFP 1 Feb 1860).
A latecomer was the South Molton Mechanics' Institute which ran a reading room and circulating library. Its formation was reported on 27 December 1855. On 19 February 1856 it was reported that £50 was to be spent on books, and at the fifth annual general meeting, reported on 16 January 1861, it was agreed that the Town Council be asked for a donation to increase the library. The receipt of £25 was reported on 20 November and the books for purchase were agreed. At the annual meeting reported on 22 January 1862 it was announced that there were 1,680 volumes in the library, 68 having been added over the past year, in which period 7,000 loans had been made. Other institutes are recorded in Barnstaple (1832), Crediton (1850), Dartmouth (1847), Holsworthy (1860), Newton Abbot (1850), Tavistock (1829), Teignmouth (1834), Tiverton (1828) and Totnes (1844). Some of these were active into the 1870s.
Other societies had names which suggested that they sought to draw membership from a wider social class. White's directory of 1850 records literary and scientific institutions or bodies with similar titles in Barnstaple, Bideford, Chudleigh, Dartmouth, Honiton, Kingsbridge, Modbury, Moretonhampstead, Newton Abbot, Okehampton, Tiverton, Teignmouth and Torquay. Other places had similar institutions, such as the Cullompton Mental Improvement Society recorded in 1849 and the Ottery Literary Society, active in 1864. Many of these bodies had their own libraries and reading rooms.
In some places, such as Tavistock, the mechanics' institutes were involved in a national movement which sought to combine education and entertainment in the 1860s, the penny readings. In Exeter a series was run by the Exeter Working Man's Society. Weekly or fortnightly during the dark evenings between October and March a series of readings were organised, sometimes enlivened by musical performances - in Exeter by "entertainment on the English concertina". The impetus to hold these meetings frequently came from the gentry and was usually supported by the church although there was often competition; in Crediton for example the vicar was assisted by "a committee of gentlemen desirous of improving the mental and moral condition of the people". When the vicar C.F.Smith realised that the committee formed to start the series of readings also included nonconformists he refused to attend their meetings. The result was that a rival series was established by the ministers J.Taplin and J.Capper. In all meetings are recorded in 35 towns and villages by the Devon weekly times between 1864 and 1867 ranging from larger towns like Exeter, Barnstaple or Tavistock to villages like Silverton, Sandford or Morchard Bishop (Porter 1978).
However not all people participated in this drive to self-improvement. In 1854 a reporter under the pseudonym of "White Slave" published a series of reports on the poorest classes of Exeter in the Western luminary. Some of the inhabitants of the west quarter of Exeter were Irish emigrants. The Sullivans, five children and an aged father and mother lived in one room earning collectively ten shillings a week and paying 1/6 for rent. The reporter notes "The whole family are attached to the 'ancient faith', but neither of them can read, except the father, and a little child who goes to the Roman Catholic school. They have a Catholic Prayer Book but no Bible. The poor woman told us that she much deplored not being able to read, as did her eldest daughter, and in answer to our question she said that Roger her husband, had told her that between the Roman Catholic's and the protestant's Bible, there was only 'one or two words difference'." After a series of further peeps into the wretched homes of the Exeter poor the writer concludes "These revelations also teach us that there is little or no knowledge amoing the people. Few of the parents or children can read, and as few go to church. What is the hope of such a population?" (White Slave, 25-6, 58).
This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.