THE PLYMOUTH PROPRIETARY LIBRARY
What is the Plymouth Proprietary Library?
The PPL is one of the oldest surviving private subscription libraries in Devon and Cornwall and still operates under similar rules as at its inception in 1810 – although it lost its premises and most of its stock during the Second World War when it was hit by an incendiary bomb during the Plymouth Blitz.
The 19th century: how did it begin?
By the turn of the century, Plymouth’s strategic position, shipbuilding industry and general expertise in maritime and naval affairs had elevated it into a busy and thriving city. The Napoleonic wars only enhanced Plymouth’s prestige and status, and the first decade of the 19th century saw a surge in civic pride and public responsibility amongst the prominent inhabitants of Plymouth. One of the first civic schemes to be proposed was the building of a new public ballroom/hotel/theatre and to make part of this building a small subscription library. Prosperous, influential gentlemen such as George Eastlake, Edmund Lockyer, John Hawker and especially Henry Woollcombe, quickly declared their interest and, at a public meeting held at the Guildhall on 20 November 1810, it was agreed to create a completely separate institution, to be known as The Plymouth Public Library. The ethos of the library was ‘for the general diffusion of science and literature, to be connected with a newsroom’, and the long-term aim was for ‘the gradual formation of a library, comprising the most useful and approved works in ancient and modern literature’. Buoyed up by promises of support and interest in their project, the founders went a step further and, instead of a small library tucked away in another building as initially proposed, they planned ‘the erection of a building, suitable for a library and newsroom’, a much grander scheme. The institution would be owned by ‘proprietors’ who each subscribed 30 guineas (£30 and 30 shillings) for a share, plus an annual subscription. The number of proprietors was fixed at 100, though such was the enthusiasm that an extra two proprietors were admitted.
Why were so many wealthy Plymouth residents so keen to invest their money in this new, possibly risky, venture? The prestige of becoming a proprietor, or founder, of such a high status public institution may have been one important factor but, until the Public Libraries Act of 1871 allowed the creation of rates-supported public libraries, it was probably difficult (and expensive) for the educated middle-classes to obtain some of the more erudite and less popular works in Plymouth at this time. Despite its name as a ‘public’ library, it was exclusively for the wealthier and more educated residents of the city and was not intended for the use and education of the poorer citizens. (It changed its name to The Plymouth Proprietary Library in 1876 after the rates-supported Plymouth Public Library opened.)
Who were the founders?
Henry Woollcombe an influential lawyer, mayor of Plymouth in 1813 and recorder from 1833-37. He played an important role in the cultural life of Plymouth and was also a founder of the Athenaeum.
George Eastlake Judge Advocate of the Fleet and Solicitor to the Admiralty; he was Plymouth coroner in 1814.
Edmund Lockyer was mayor of Plymouth four times and an influential supporter of the architect John Foulston; he is credited with transforming the ‘Three Towns’ of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport.
John Hawker mayor of Plymouth in 1805, was a prosperous merchant specialising in importing timber, hemp and wine from the Baltic ports and Norway.
The new library – style and status
On 12 August 1813 Mr Eastlake, the President, declared the new library in Cornwall Street to be finished and ready for use. The design, by Plymouth architect John Foulston, was based on an Athenian temple; there were no windows at the front but the rooms were lit by glass cupolas in the roof. The library itself ‘a spacious and handsome apartment’ was ‘furnished with a double range of bookshelves, the upper level accessed by a flight of stairs concealed behind decorative pilasters’; the roof was supported by four segmented arches ‘richly ornamented’ and the room was lit by ‘a light and elegant dome, resting on fluted pillars’. City notables were very pleased with the new library – not only for its books but for its fine architecture which added prestige and elegance to the city.
Running the library – rules and regulations
There were two classes of members, Proprietors and Subscribers: Proprietors paid two guineas (£2 2 shillings) annually (provided they had fully paid-up shares; otherwise they paid three guineas until the debt was redeemed); Subscribers paid three guineas annually for the use of the library and four guineas to include the use of the newsroom. Lady proprietors could use the library only (not the newsroom) for an annual subscription of two guineas.
Proprietors could nominate a lady or gentleman ‘who shall be entitled to the use of the Library only, and to receive books from thence’; this must have been of immense value to the daughters and sisters of the proprietors who would, generally, have had little access to large collections of books.
The rules were strictly enforced. Any member who failed to pay their subscription within one month of it becoming due would be suspended; overdue books were charged at 2d (two pence) a day, although members living at Devonport or Stonehouse were allowed one extra day to return their books, and those living more than two miles away were allowed two extra days to return them! Lost books were to be replaced and, if they were part of a collection, then the entire collection must be replaced – on pain of expulsion from the library. Any member who ‘injured or defaced’ a book (for example, by writing in it) would be fined. All fines were to be paid on demand and any defaulter lost all privileges until the fine was paid.
Evidently some gentlemen readers were monopolising the newspapers for far too long; hence a new rule, limiting the time allowed for the perusal of a paper to ‘two sand-glasses of fifteen minutes each’, was brought into force in 1843.
The library was open from 8am to 10pm every day except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. To obtain a book, a member had to apply to the librarian by letter or in person; only two books were allowed out at a time with a maximum of four volumes. The librarian (who lived in an apartment at the library) was available from 10am-1pm and from 2pm-5pm; a porter guarded the door at all other times. The librarian was held responsible for the value of all the books in the library and ‘in case of the loss of any book or books, not accounted for to the satisfaction of the committee, he shall…be liable to replace, or make compensation for the same’.
What books were in the library?
The stock of the library in the earlier years reflected the tastes of the period and those of its members, the majority of whom were men. The most popular subjects were history, biography, natural history, geography, theology and philosophy and travel. Advances in science, technology and medicine were also reflected in the collection.
Classical writers were well represented together with collections of essays and some poetry (Byron, Coleridge and Crabbe in the 1824 catalogue) but there were few novels. (The 1835 catalogue has novels by Maria Edgeworth, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Sir Walter Scott but, astonishingly, no Jane Austen.) The books were chosen by the committee, although members could suggest new titles to be considered and the committee could sell ‘superfluous books or newspapers as they may think proper’. By the early 1840s the library possessed over 5000 volumes of ‘select and valuable’ stock to which ‘new publications are constantly added’ and ‘the newsroom is regularly supplied with the daily and weekly London and provincial journals’. In 1853 the library had over 20,000 volumes (including the Cottonian and Law Library collections) and enlarged the building. By 1897 there were 280 members and three years later a new wing was added.
Women and the library
As was usual for the period, the majority of proprietors and subscribers were men: the 1834 list of proprietors shows only one lady proprietor, Elizabeth Nicholls. Women tended to use the library as nominees of proprietors or subscribers and they could borrow books and use the library (but not the newsroom!). In 1871, however, the committee incurred the wrath of its lady readers by passing a new rule prohibiting any member of a subscriber’s family from using the library free of charge – the cost was now an extra ½ guinea! As this would affect mainly women readers, outrage erupted amongst the ladies: protests were made to the papers, unwelcome publicity ensued and a verse, written by A Peri and entitled ‘Lines dedicated to the Committee of the Plymouth Public Library’ was published, ending with the lament:
And so the room that once was bright
Ah me! those vacant places
Will never never see the light
Of those fair women’s faces
and describing the committee as ‘the Herods of our age!’. Faced with such vituperation the committee quickly rescinded the new rule. The rates-supported Plymouth Public Library opened in 1876 and this probably influenced the repeal of the PPL law which excluded ladies from using the newsroom; from 1876 men and women enjoyed the same subscriber rights.
In the latter half of the 19th century more women became proprietors and frequent requests were made to obtain ‘a much better supply of the best current literature’ (ie novels) although one librarian, Mr J Whitmarsh, thought little of these, bemoaning the fact that he was ‘taken up with the issuing of magazines and novels. The work is too monotonous to be cheerful and the literature too flimsy for retention’. Clearly the great age of Victorian fiction was passing Mr Whitmarsh by!
The 20th century – rising from the ashes
As the new century dawned the PPL was in good heart: in 1900 the library had around 280 members and was enlarged again. It celebrated its centenary in 1910 with the rules essentially the same as those laid down in 1814. By now the PPL was much less exclusive and welcomed a greater variety of proprietors and subscribers. On 21/22 March 1941 the library was hit by an incendiary bomb; by the time the fire engine arrived there was no water pressure and the building was in flames. ‘Thus was destroyed in a few hours the result of 132 years of work’ wrote the Secretary, Paymaster-Captain F H Gerty. Thirty-five thousand books were lost in the inferno.
However, in keeping with the character of its determined founders, supporters found suitable premises and began the rebuilding of the library before the war ended.
The 21st century – new challenges
The Plymouth Proprietary Library stands proudly today as the city’s longest surviving historic library; its pleasant surroundings, welcoming staff, quiet corners, comfortable chairs (and excellent coffee!) still provide a welcome respite from the noisy streets. The book stock remains wide and varied – from classical writers to contemporary novels, from science to psychology, art to biography, history to horticulture – the books are there on the shelves for reading and browsing. Recent research into two of the library’s unique collections of historic papers has produced Father Gregory Carpenter’s examination of Godly Prayers 1716, a unique Jacobite Prayer Book, and Dr John Day’s report on the Windham Papers.
The library has utilised the relatively recent and extraordinary development of digital technology through the provision of computers, Wi-Fi, Twitter and the creation of a website which gives up to date news of events and activities. Everyone is welcome to the talks, discussion groups, social events, proofreading courses and, of course, the renowned monthly coffee mornings.
The PPL is moving into the future, bringing the best of the past with it.
Without libraries what have we?
We have no past and no future
Text: Elaine Henderson
Photos: Kevin Warley
Tours of Plymouth Proprietary Library and the story of its place in cultural local history can be arranged with advanced notice.