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16 January 2007

Devon Book 65

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
65: The public library

In 1850 the Public Library Act authorised the setting up of rate supported libraries in England and Wales and in the same year Sir Stafford Northcott in an address to the Exeter Literary Society urged that the Society be connected with the establishment of a museum, an art gallery, a school of art and a really good library (Clapp 3). The city was quick to show an interest, a meeting being called in 1851 (EFP 23 Jan, 20 Mar 1851). The interest however was not sufficient for a successful vote to establish a Free Library, a poll of the ratepayers showing only one in seven being in favour, and the germ of the public library system in Exeter was to grow out of the concern for the improvement of art and technical education engendered by the Great Exhibition of 1851. A School of Art was founded in Exeter in 1855 and it soon became clear to thoughtful minds that the next step should be the establishment of a permanent art gallery and museum, an area in which Exeter was lagging behind Plymouth and Torquay. In December 1861 the idea of a museum was suggested at the annual meeting at the School of Art and a committee of public spirited gentlemen was formed in January 1862 under the direction of Sir Stafford Northcote, a conservative statesman who interested himself in a wide range of local good causes. The death of Prince Albert in that year provided an added stimulus as a museum was seen as a fitting tribute to the Prince Consort. A local businessman Mr R.S.Gard donated the site of the building but there was difficulty in raising subscriptions and it was not until 30 October 1865 that the foundation stone was laid. The resulting building was a fine example of Victorian gothic which won much praise at the time, although its aesthetic merits were not matched by its practicality in later years as the home for a library.

It was only at about the time that the foundation stone was laid that a public library was belatedly seen as forming a part of the Albert Memorial and then the vision was modest. At a Building Committee meeting in June 1868 the suggestion was made that if the Committee proposed to open the Free Library immediately it would be advisable to supply a cheap table, a few chairs, and to take some London newspapers and other local newspapers". A Free Library Sub-Committee was formed and resolved that it was desirable to adopt fully the Public Libraries and Museums Act. After some contention Exeter City Council held a meeting to adopt the Act on 6 May 1869. The adoption was proposed by Mr Buckingham, seconded by Mr Norrington and warmly supported by Sir John Bowring who declared "Books after all are the representatives of civilization." The newspaper proprietor Charles Wescombe felt that it was premature but he would support it. Others did not agree. Mr Courtenay opposed it as did Mr Pyne, who claimed that it was "a robbing of the respectable industrious classes". Nevertheless the proposal to adopt was passed by a majority of four to one "with great applause and a few hisses". (EFP 12 May 1869). A recreation of the public meeting is on the internet at

On 9 December the transfer of the Albert Memorial buildings to the City Council was approved by the subscribers to the Albert Memorial. The building opened in 21 April 1870 with the Free Library in three rooms on the first floor, a librarian's office about 18 feet by 12 feet, a library about 40 feet by 30 feet and a reading room about 30 feet by 15 feet. Over the next sixty years the Public Library was to remain in these cramped premises, only expanding as rooms were vacated when museum exhibits and the School of Arts and Science moved into special extensions. At the start the librarian was a Mr Perkins, who seemed to have shared his duties with that of public analyst. The opening hours were generous, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., but the book stock was meagre, the first printed catalogue of the lending library listing little more than 1,000 volumes. Expenditure was limited to the product of a penny rate until 1919, but the lion's share of this went to the Museum. The situation was eased in April 1871 when the Public Select Library transferred all their books to the library, more than quadrupling the size of the Public Library's stock to some 9,000 volumes. Further benefactions were forthcoming. The Smithsonian Institution donated many publications and the Library received volumes from the collections of William Cotton.

In 1871 a tour of libraries was made to ascertain the latest ideas in the field of library science. The newly developed indicator board system was adopted for access to the stock which meant that the bulk of the stock was on closed access except for the students of Colleges of Art and Science. In 1873 the management of the Library was separated from that of Museum and in 1876 the first librarian Mr Perkins resigned, to be succeeded by Lloyd Jones.

Despite the lack of funds there was a steady growth; in 1878 512 books were added, but only 12 of them were actually purchased. There was a high moral tone among those who directed the service; in 1880 Mr d'Urban disapproved of the use of the public library to promote light reading. There were continuing complaints about the level of expenditure; in 1881 Alderman Cotton said that he would like to see it doubled.

More room was acquired when the Museum and College of Art expanded into a new extension and this made room for a remarkable series of donations and bequests. In 1889 Kent Kingdon bequeathed an endowment fund, the proceeds from which were to be shared between the Library and the Museum for the purchase of books and works of art; the first annual sum enabled 81 books to be purchased. In 1894 a collection of about 400 volumes on shorthand was bequeathed by Mr A.Pocknell of Exeter, in 1897 the Library received some 4,000 volumes on art, architecture and belles lettres from Mrs E.Fisher of Newton Abbot, but the largest bequest of all was received in 1908, the Brooking Rowe Bequest, over 10,000 volumes, including many relating to the west of England. In 1894 a printed catalogue of the reference section was published; it had already overtaken the lending section in size; in 1909 it amounted to some 20,000 volumes, about double the size of the lending library.

In 1902 the City Librarian Mr Coombes resigned. The Library Committee advertised for experienced librarian and Harry Tapley-Soper (1876-1951) was appointed. He was an active professional librarian, prominent both in the activities of the Library Association and in local history and antiquarian studies. One of his first changes was to introduce open access in 1903, although selection time was limited to 15 minutes. As a result issue figures rose by 8,887 to 36,994 in 1903/4. The Dewey decimal classification, still used by public libraries in Devon today replaced fixed location. Exeter City Library joined the Library Association and in 1910 the Library Association conference was held in Exeter. In the same year the city adopted the Museums and Gymnasiums Act of 1891 enabling a full penny rate to be released for library purposes. Tapley-Soper stressed the educational value of the library service and this was reflected in the bookstock. In 1910 of a total of 42,00 volumes only about 11,000 were in the lending section and of these only 2,000 were fiction.

There had been variable progress in the introduction of public libraries elsewhere in Devon. In Plymouth the public libraries act had been adopted in the 1870s and the first chief librarian there, W.H.K.Wright, was a leading figure in the movement. His words at the first public libraries conference in 1876 on the role of public libraries in collectiing works relating to the history of their area encouraged the growth of local studies collections.

In Torquay progress was slower. Although attempts were made to establish a public library as early as 1857, these did not bear fruit and later attempts in 1877 and also in 1897, just after Torquay had become a county borough, were equally unsuccessful. Only in 1902 were the Public Libraries Acts adopted. Andrew Carnegie offered £7,500 when approached, on condition that Torquay Corporation gave the site. His gift was later increased to £8,900. The foundation stone was laid by the Torquay MP Mr F.Layland-Barnett in February 1906 and the building was opened to the public in October 1907 with a stock of 6,900 books. On the ground floor was the lending library with a juvenile section but there was no open access, although this had already been introduced in Exeter, available stock being listed on an indicator board. The reference library with a separate section of local history books, was on the first floor up a marble staircase past a stained-glass window depicting the poet Milton.

The opening of the public library in Exeter had a varying effect on existing libraries. The Cathedral library continued its long existence catering for a small and exclusive clientele, largely clerical. Its collections were doubled in the 1880s by the acquisition of the Harrington Collection in 1881 and the Cook Collection in 1885 with many works on history, philosophy and philology. But the librarian at that time the Rev. Herbert Reynolds at a paper read at the second annual meeting of the Library Association in 1879 despaired at the low use made of the library. He had circulated a questionnaire to all cathedral libraries and reported "at Canterbury about 90 persons made use of the library, at Exeter, oh! lamentable bathos, 17, a fall excused only on account of the fact that from nearly all the others the reply as to the number of readers or circulation is 'none', 'very small', ' scarcely any'." (Reynolds 1879, 12).

Until the beginning of the present century the rich collections of city archives had suffered generations of neglect. In 1861 when they were moved to a new room in the Guildhall Mr Moore said that, except for the charters, most of the records had not been "examined or arranged since the time of Hooker". When H.Lloyd-Parry took up his position as Town Clerk in 1905 he was alarmed to find that the records were inadequately housed in a small room at the back of the medieval Guildhall. He conducted a long campaign to improve the situation. The records were described for the Historical Manuscripts Commission in 1916. Tapley-Soper advocated a larger role for the larger public libraries as regional repositories for records and the library was designated as an official repository for manorial records. By 1939 it had amassed 100,000 deeds and documents. It was therefore to Lloyd-Parry's great relief that the city's archives were moved to a fireproof muniment room in the new library buildings in 1930.

Commercial libraries like Boots and Mudies benefited from the disinclination of the Public Library to purchase works of popular literature. As late as 1927 the Express and echo could report in its issue of 15 October that "the average citizen goes to one or other of the private enterprise libraries to be found in the city and pays his guinea a year or 2d a volume." The writer estimated that such libraries were issuing about 1,000 books a day, as opposed to about 500 by the public library. Indeed the City Librarian at the time felt that "it is no part of a public library's duty to compete with commercial libraries that provide the latest novels for a low subscription rate" Citizens "largely used them for obtaining current fiction, reserving the use of the City Library for more serious works."

The stock of the Library continued to grow, funded to a considerable degree by the Kent Kingdon bequest, and the inadequacy of the Royal Albert Memorial building was ever more keenly felt. After ten years of lobbying the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie offered £15,000 toward the building of a new library in 1909 - one of the last large donations by the Trust for the construction of a town library. A lengthy saga began with conflict over the proposed site in Queen Street. The press was divided. The Devon and Exeter gazette opined on 10 October 1914 "There is a latent feeling that it is hardly in accord with the rich historic past of the city, and its present status, to accept gifts of money from American millionaires" and the writer felt horrified at the prospect of a Carnegie Memorial Library facing the Albert Memorial Museum. The Western times was more favourable. On 6 September 1910 it wrote "very many municipal institutions of this kind would still be cabin'd, cribbed and confin'd but for his princely gifts".

The Carnegie Trustees had accepted the delay brought about by the Great War and in 1918 increased the grant to £17,000 by transferring £2,000 which had been set aside for the urban district of Heavitree, since incorporated into Exeter. In 1917 a new site adjacent to Rougemont Gardens had been decided on. In November 1922 the Trustees threatened that the grant would lapse if plans were not initiated by the end of 1925 and the grant was increased to £19,000. In October 1924 the plan for the new library was approved; the architect was Mr Greenslade who had designed the National Library of Wales. One aim at that time was to provide work during the construction for the unemployed but the Trustees felt that the plans were too ambitious for a city the size of Exeter. Tapley-Soper argued the city's regional role, and the Trustees countered with a requirement that provision for children should be improved. Tapley-Soper objected to some details of the plans, but eventually the final plans were approved by the Trustees in March 1927, the foundation ceremony took place on 17 January 1928 and the completed building was opened on 11 October 1930 by Lord Elgin, chairman of the Trust, more than twenty years after the grant was first given. Similar delays were to dog public library building in Exeter after World War 2. The new building was steel framed but had a more traditional brick and portland stone exterior with a monumental entrance on to Castle Street. The lending library was on the ground floor and the reference library was reached by a grand staircase to the first floor. Each floor had galleries to increase storage and there was a fire-proof room for manuscripts. It contained a bookstock of about 65,000 volumes and the building had a capacity of about 80,000 volumes. The Trustees witheld the final ten per cent for some time as they were dissatisfied with the levels of expenditure on staff and books, which was not helped by cuts resulting from the great economic depression.

In the meantime the rural areas of Devon had been able to benefit from the public library service when the Devon County Library was inaugurated by the County Council in 1924 after a grant of £2,900 by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust. S.T.Williams was appointed County Librarian on 15 July 1924.

Existing library provision across Devon in the early 1920s was patchy with many areas not being served at all. Plymouth had completed its Carnegie Library in Tavistock Road well ahead of Exeter in 1913 and housed 72,000 volumes in 1925, issuing 448,151 books during 1924/5. It also had five branches. Devonport ran a separate service from a library with 36,000 volumes in Duke Street which had been opened in 1882. It operated two branches. The public library in Torquay, opened in 1907, contained about 40,000 volumes in 1925. Bideford's Free Library, containing some 6,000 volumes was also indebted to Carnegie. The building adjoining the town hall had been built in 1905 at a cost of £2,200. Newton Abbot had benefitted from the generosity of another philanthropist J.Passmore Edwards, who had finaced the magnificent Renaissance style building with terra-cotta dressings whose foundation stone he laid in 1902 and which was opened by Viscount Ebrington together with a Science, Art and Technical School in 1904. It had 11,700 volumes in 1925.

Elsewhere libraries were provided by individual bequests or maintained by voluntary subscription. Barnstaple owed its North Devon Athenaeum Library adjacent to the bridge over the Taw to William Frederick Rock. He was a Barnstaple man who had thrived in London as a publisher of engraved views and his foundation, dating from 1888, contained 25,000 volumes and was managed by a board of eleven directors. The small town of Moretonhampstead on the eastern fringes of Dartmoor, owed its free library to the gift of Sir Thomas Benjamin Bowring in 1901 and its fine Tudor Renaissance building contained over 3,000 volumes.

After the Great War a library was seen as a fitting memorial by more than one Devon community. In Tiverton a hotel was purchased by voluntary subscription and opened as the War Memorial Library in 1920. By 1925 it had built up a collection of 6,000 volumes. In Salcombe Andrew McIlwraith had presented a free library to the town in 1921, partly as a memorial to the men of Salcombe who had died in the Great War. It had 1,750 volumes and was supported by the Trustees of Cliff House and by donations.

In some communities there were reading rooms attached to institutes and clubs of various kinds or private libraries, such as the Tavistock Subscription Library, established in 1799 which had 100 members in 1926. Commercial libraries were not widespread. Kelly's directory of 1926 lists them in Exeter, Plymouth, Torquay, Paignton, Brixham, Dartmouth, Totnes, Newton Abbot, Teignmouth, Dawlish, Exmouth, Budleigh Salterton, Tiverton, Ilfracombe and Lynton, lergely in branches of W.H.Smith and Son.

It was this discrepancy in coverage that the County Library Service set out to replace with a provision that extended into all communities of Devon. It did this by setting up a network of village centres, normally staffed by volunteers. By 1925 112 had already been set up, by 1926 this had grown to 235, by 1929 to 364 and by 1938 to 472. The bookstock grew proportionately, from a modest 12,888 in 1925 to 97,367 in 1933 and 170,895 in 1938. Loans rose from 76,070 in 1924/5 to 1,051,835 in 1934/5 and 2,491,920 in 1944/5. Nor did the County Library share the preciousness of Tapley-Soper about fiction. Fiction accounted typically for some two thirds of stock and 90% of issues in the 1930s. The enthusiasm with which this unprecedented access to books was received is revealed in some of the quotations from village centres which appear in early annual reports: "The readers greatly appreciate this library, and two of our members have bought lanterns for themselves so that they may be enabled to find their way in safety along the dark country lanes on our library evening" (1925). "The great majority of the books are read by people that have no other means of obtaining such excellent literature" (1926). "The library still maintains its popularity and is now recognised as an important feature of our village life". (1926). "More books are borrowed during winter, as out of door recreations can be indulged in during the light evenings, but members say that they look forward to the cosy fire-side evenings when they can enjoy a book" (1928). "The Devon Devon County Library is greatly appreciated by the people in this rural neighbourhood, who come several miles to change their books ..." (1929). Other services offered in these early years were access through inter-library loans to the Central Library for Students (later the National Central Library) in London, the supply of collections of books to classes, normally run by the Workers' Educational Association and the provision of playsets, especially those suitable for acting by members of Women's Institutes and village drama clubs. A postal service was instituted for students remote from collections of books and booklists were compiled on various topic, for example agriculture, very relevant in a rural county like Devon. A separate agricultural section was maintained and in 1929-30 2,320 volumes were sent by post direct to borrowers on monthly loan. Gradually the larger centres developed into branch libraries, often taking over existing libraries in the towns. Dawlish was the first town to agree to levy a differential rate to employ a librarian and reconstructed premises were opened in January 1931. A library building had been opened in Brixham in December 1929 and other county library branches which opened in the 1930s included Sidmouth in 1932/3, Teignmouth in 1933/4, Barnstaple and Paignton in 1935/6, Dartmouth, Great Torrington, Kingsbridge and Lynton in 1936/7, Cullompton, Plympton and Seaton in 1938/9. The only major town unserved at the outbreak of World War 2 was Exmouth.

During the 1930s the provision of branch libraries by the City Council was considered within Exeter but not proceeded with and as the 1930s wore on the new building began to fill up. In 1938 the Library Committee recommended a £10,000 extension but this was rejected by the Finance Committee. In 1939 the stock was 98,500 volumes and when the City Library entered the period of war it was already filled beyond its capacity.

Tapley-Soper had been City Librarian for almost forty years and was well respected nationally as a librarian. His undoubted achievement was in building up the reference collections and in particular the local history and archive service. The provision of general lending services and particularly children's library services was neglected and the lack was keenly felt locally and criticised in the press.

War brought restrictions from black-outs and a number of staff were called up to serve in the armed forces. Book boxes were provided for schools with evacuee children. And valuable and irreplaceable material, including most of the local history collections and the archives, were evacuated into the country to Mamhead and elsewhere, as a precaution.

The development of libraries serving higher education in Exeter was one of slow progress sometimes accompanied by bitter exchanges. In the earliest years of the Albert Memorial some textbooks had been purchased for students of the Colleges of Art and Science. In the 1880s Cambridge University extension lectures were held and in 1894 under the influence of Jessie Montgomery the Exeter Technical and University Extension College was established. A new wing was opened in 1899 and in 1901/2 full courses for London University external degrees were introduced. In 1908 the institution assumed the title of the Royal Albert Memorial University College and a new building was erected in Gandy Street in 1910-11. Prior to 1904 there had been no special library arrangements for students apart from the occasional purchase of textbooks. Between 1904 and 1920 small sums were voted from College funds on an irregular basis, the books normally being housed in the reference section to the mid 1920s although seminar libraries grew in size and number. By 1929 there were sixteen such collections with a total bookstock which was twice the size of the reference library collection.

In 1922 the Treasury began to make grants and the College was now officially designated the University College of the South West of England and its administrative control was separated from the City Council. Alderman Reed purchased the Streatham Hall estate to the north of the city centre and presented it to the College in 1922. There were now regular grants for book purchase and Tapley-Soper remained College Librarian. The demands of students increased steadily and in the 1920s the College began to make some contribution towards the public library's expenses. In 1920/1 50% of the reference library use was by students and by 1923/4 this had risen to 74%. In 1931 Tapley-Soper produced a report on "The financial and other relations existing between the University College, Exeter and the Exeter City Library". He lamented that the grant was still at the level of 1925 when it was set at £429. It was felt that £800 would be more realistic. In addition the seminar libraries with 12,176 volumes as against the 6,402 in the City Library, were not available for general reference. The debate became acrimonious. Principal Murray wrote in a memorandum to Tapley-Soper's report "It is not policy but makeshift to share books or building with any other institution unless it were an institution identical in type and bookbuying programme." He then displayed remarkable ignorance as to what constitutes the provision of a library service by stating that Tapley-Soper's report "suggests convincingly that a girl clerk able to type and a messenger boy supervised by a librarian, more or less honorary, could do the work, and both have some time to spare."

In 1933 the College library separated and moved to three rooms in the Gandy Street premises. A full-time librarian, Miss K.Perrin was appointed in 1934. She collected together the books in the departments, producing a stock of some 25,000 volumes and soon began to press for a proper college library. A £10,000 grant was made by the University Grants Committee which permitted building work to start on the Streatham Estate to the north of the city centre in 1938. The Roborough Library, named after Sir Henry Lopes, President of the Univerity College, who had just been created Lord Roborough, was opened by Lord Baldwin on 8 May 1940. It was a brick gothic building with a capacity for 130,000 volumes, about three times the stock at that time (Clapp 85-6). There was seating for 120 readers, a generous allowance for a college of 500 students, especially when most of them were still based in the centre of town, a good fifteen minutes walk from the new campus.

So Exeter entered the war with well established public and academic libraries. Precautions were taken after the declaration of war with the more valuable collections being removed to a safe location outside Exeter. The Exeter Book of Old English poetry for example left the Cathedral Library for Feniton Court. However both libraries and the book trades were to suffer severely in the course of the coming conflict.

This page last updated 12 Dec 2007
© Ian Maxted, 2001.