Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 19, 2018
Webpage updated: April 20, 2020




A Borough of Plymouth Free Library Book Plate.
From author's collections.

Although the Public Library Act was granted the Royal Assent on August 14th 1850, it was not until October 6th 1871 that the Plymouth Borough Council adopted the Act and set about establishing a Free Library.  But first a suitable site had to be found and this was not achieved until the old Guildhall in Whimple Street became vacant following the opening of the new Guildhall beside Saint Andrew's Church. Many members of the Town Council wanted the old Guildhall demolished as it had been a totally unpractical building and the butt of many jokes during its short lifetime.  However, it was thought that unless an existing building was used for the Library the whole project would collapse.

Under the chairmanship of Mr R C Serpell, who donated the first 100, the Free Library Committee raised the sum of 1,100 by subscriptions and the Corporation voted a further 300 towards the cost of fitting out the building.  The subscription fund paid the remaining 100.  600 was spent on purchasing the books so that by the time various gifts were added, there were 5,000 volumes.  The conversion of the building into a library was undertaken by Plymouth builder, Mr Robert Stanlake.

Opening times for the newsroom were from 9am until 10pm, with the lending library and reference room opening one hour later.  The library was closed on Sundays, Christmas Days and Good Fridays. It was also closed for one week in June and December for cleaning and rearranging the books.

A librarian was appointed, Mr William Henry Kearley Wright (1844-1915), and the Library was formally opened on August 30th 1876.  There was no such job as a professional librarian at that time.  Mr Wright got the job because he had experience of running libraries for the Plymouth Working Men's' Association and the South Devon Railway Servants.  He was elected one of the founding members of the Library Association when it was formed in 1877.  Mr Wright not only established himself as a local historian and poet but also as a librarian.  He contributed many articles to the Transactions of the Library Association and also started the branch library network by establishing Reading Rooms in outlying districts.  These had small libraries attached.  He also started supplying books to many of the elementary schools in the Borough, especially those under the control of the Plymouth School Board.

The "Western Morning News" of Thursday August 31st 1876 gave the following description of the layout of Plymouth's first Free Library:

'The western and semi-circular end of the old Guildhall, where the magistrate's benches formerly stood, is a public lobby fitted with seats, with the librarian's desk and counters immediately opposite.  The public pass between the counters to the body of the room, which is provided with tables and chairs for readers.  The bookcases occupy the available spaces on all sides, and between them and the public centre there are rails fitted to iron standards, within which is a passage around the hall for the use of the librarian only.   Whilst, therefore, the readers are well provided for in the body of the hall, the librarian has his own space for carrying out his duties without interference.   Immediately under the barrier are the hot water pipes for heating the room.

The two small galleries and pigeon holes which ladies formerly occupied have been removed, the openings fitted with bookshelves, and the spaces behind converted into store closets. The bookcases are of pitch pine, and the tables of oak, and all the fittings have been specially designed for the building.

The adjoining newsroom is conveniently fitted with tables and newspaper stands, and has a good pitch-pine dado around the walls.

The wall plastering throughout is tinted green, which contrasts well with the colour of the woodwork.  In the heads of the windows are some interesting fragments of stained glass from the Guildhall, built in James the First's reign.

The alterations have been well carried out by Mr Stanlake, builder, from the drawings and instructions of Mr Hine, the honorary architect.

Mr Stephenson fitted the hot water apparatus, and Mr Whipple has done the gas fittings.  It is certainly not saying too much, and, indeed, it is not saying enough to remark that Mr Eveleigh's Guildhall was never seen to so much advantage as it is now.  The exterior, however, is still unattractive.'

There were 900 volumes.  However, books were not loaned until September 28th and between then and July 26th 1878, 186,000 volumes were loaned, at a rate of approximately 400 per day.  There was a Reading Room, well-stocked with newspapers and periodicals.

By 1899 the Plymouth Borough Free Library contained about 20,000 books in the reference library on the upper floor and nearly 25,000 volumes in the lending library.   Of special note were a large collection of patent specifications housed in the basement, and over 10,000 works on Devon and Cornwall, housed in its own room.  Another feature was a growing collection of prints, portraits and sketches of Plymouth and district.   In the basement was the general news room, or Reading Room, while on the first floor, in the old Guild Hall itself, was a magazine room and ladies' reading room. 

The Library was managed by a committee consisting of Councillors and members of the public, with the Mayor as ex-officio chairman.

William Wright has to be credited with persuading Dr Andrew Carnegie to contribute 15,000 to what must count as his most enduring success -- the erection of the fine Central Library in Tavistock Road.  The foundation stone was laid by the Mayor, Mr J F Winnicott, on Wednesday October 16th 1907. 

The building was designed by Messrs Thornely and Rooke of Plymouth and the contractors, Messrs Pethick Brothers Limited, also of Plymouth, started work on the site on December 9th 1907.  The final cost of the work is said to have been 15,627 14s 6d.

There was a dual opening ceremony on Tuesday October 25th 1910, when the Mayor, Alderman J Yeo, together with architect Mr Lionel Thornely, opened the Library and Alderman T Brook, chairman of the Museum and Art Gallery Committee, along with the Deputy Mayor, Alderman R W Winnicott, and Mr Rooke, opened the Museum part of the building.  For plans of the ground floor and first floor CLICK HERE.

The Plymouth Central Library in Tavistock Road.

The new Borough of Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery (left)
combined with the Borough Free Library (right)
in Tavistock Road.
From a postcard.


In November 1914 the three towns of Plymouth, Devonport and East Stonehouse amalgamated and the new Plymouth Borough Council took over responsibility for the library services of all three.  By December 1916 there were branch libraries at Duke Street, Devonport (the former Devonport Borough Free Library); Saint Mary Street, East Stonehouse; Old Laira Road, Laira; 77 Station Road, Keyham Barton; Morice Town; between 33/34 Wilton Street; 40 Keyham Street, Weston Mill; 10 Yeoman's Terrace, Wolseley Road, Saint Budeaux and Peverell Park Road, Peverell.

For the next thirty years the Central Library stood quietly opposite the Technical School and the Harvest Home Public House.  Mr Wright died in 1915 and was replaced by a Mr Frederick William Kitts.  He was born and educated in Plymouth, being the second son of Mr and Mrs John Joseph Kitts, but after travelling in Europe he set up shop as an outfitter in Exeter.  He had taken a keen interest in the library in Exeter and it was presumably that which secured him the post in Plymouth.  Unfortunately Mr Kitts died in service, on Tuesday August 12th 1924 and was followed in 1925 by Mr Frederick Charles Percy Cole (1879-1954), who came to the Town from Huddersfield.

The County Borough Council of Plymouth was granted City status by Royal Warrant dated October 18th 1928 and the story continues as the City of Plymouth Library.