İ  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: August 04, 2017
Webpage updated: May 12, 2020




The Plymouth Institution for the promotion of Science, Literature and the Liberal Arts was formed in 1812 by Mr Henry Woollcombe.

Originally the members met in each others houses.  When they outgrew this facility they met in a room in Woolster Street and later in a committee-room of the Public Library.  Finally they met in the Fine Art Gallery in Frankfort Street.

The foundation stone of their permanent home, the Athenĉum, was laid by Mr Woollcombe on May 1st 1818.

It is interesting to note that the site was chosen because of its comparative remoteness from the bustle of the Town and because it was easily accessible for members from Plymouth Dock.  [1883]

The Plymouth Athenaeum in ruins, 1942.
İ  National Monuments Record.

It was designed by Mr John Foulston and was credited as being the first example of the true Grecian temple that was attempted in Britain.   The front was a Doric portico of four columns, extending the a width of 36 feet, similar to that in Athens.  There was a frieze in the lecture room of which it was stated: 'The Metopes and Procession are cast from the famous Elgin collection and were presented to the Institution in the most gracious and munificent manner by His Majesty King George IV.'  It was also said that the Apollo was the likeness of Admiral Sir T B Martin; the Venus was that of General Sir W Congreve; and the Antinous was that of the Earl of Morley.

The Reverend Robert Lampen opened the building on February 4th 1819.

It originally consisted only of the lecture hall and the rooms in front.

During 1828-29 the building was extended to the rear and included a room that was to serve as the only museum in the Town for some 50 years.

The Transactions of the Plymouth Institution first appeared in 1830 and contain many valuable papers on local history.

In 1851 the Devon and Cornwall Natural History Society amalgamated with the Plymouth Institution.

The British Association visited the town in 1877 and some members of the Association endeavoured to put some of the Athenaeum's collection in order.  During the presidency of Mr Joshua Brooking Rowe in 1879 plans for a museum and art gallery were finally drawn up and work duly commenced on erecting the extension that was to form the Museum.  On the afternoon of Tuesday March 27th 1883 the extension was officially opened by the Mayor, Mr John Shelly.  Also present were the president of the Institution, Mr R N Worth; the Mayor of Devonport; and the chairman of the Stonehouse Local Board, Mr Bayly.  The extension had cost £1,750.  The Museum extended some 70 feet in length and was surrounded by a gallery.

At the entrance to the Museum was placed the most ancient structural relic of Plymouth, a Norman archway thought to have been a part of the Church of St Andrew.  On the northern wall were display cases containing the Julian and Bulteel ornithological collections.  At the western end of the room was the most exhaustive collection of sihes in the West oif England and on the southern side were collections of skulls and bones of local reptiles and mammals, the best collection west of Oxford, it was claimed.  The eastern wall was devoted to anthropology.

In the centre of the room were larges display cases of geological samples, birds' eggs, and the finest lobster on local record.  Stuffed birds, a fine collection of butterflies and insects and items dug up at Mount Batten lined the gallery.

The old Athenĉum was destroyed on April 21st 1941 during the during the Blitz of Plymouth.   The ruins remained until after the end of the Second World War, alongside the bus terminus in Athenaeum Place.  It was finally demolished in 1959, the work being completed in early November.  The new Athenaeum stands on the same site.