Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 18, 2018
Webpage updated: April 20, 2021




The first library in the Three Towns was the Plymouth Public Library, although like "public schools" it was not "public" in the sense we understand the word today: it was privately owned by a company of shareholders.  It was not open to peasants off the streets.

It was founded at a meeting held in the Guildhall on Tuesday November 20th 1810 and the foundation stone was laid in 1812.  The new building, which was in Cornwall Street, close to the Plymouth Pannier Market, was designed in the style of an Athenian temple by Plymouth architect, Mr John Foulston.  It was declared open on August 12th 1813, the President, Mr Charles Eastlake, performing official opening.

The building was subsequently extended at a cost of 1,500 when the collections formerly belonging to Mr William Cotton FSA (1794-1863) and Mr James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips FRS, FSA, (1820-1889), the author of the nursery rhyme "Three Little Pigs", were presented to it for safe keeping.  The Cottonian Library was opened to the public on June 1st 1853. 

Even the passing of the Public Libraries Act on August 14th 1850 brought it no competition as that Act was not adopted by Plymouth Borough Council until 1871.  It was after the opening of the Plymouth Borough Free Public Library in 1876 that the name was changed to the "Proprietary Library".

Proprietors, that is the shareholders, paid two guineas (2 2s) annually so long as their shares were fully paid up.  Lady proprietors could only use the Library for that amount: they were prohibited form the newsroom until 1876, when the newsroom was opened to them as well.  Subscribers paid three guineas (3 3s) plus another guinea if they wanted to use the newsroom.

Initial opening hours were from 8am until 10pm every day except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday.  The Librarian, who lived on the premises, was on duty from 10am until 1pm and again from 2pm until 5pm, but if any proprietor or subscriber thought they could creep in when he wasn't on duty, a porter guarded the entrance at other times.

The Cottonian Collection was acquired by Plymouth Corporation and opened to the public as the Cottonian Museum on February 15th 1918.

The Library building in Cornwall Street was destroyed during the Plymouth Blitz of March 21st/22nd 1941.  It was said that 35,000 books were lost in the fire.

The bomb-damaged Plymouth Proprietary or Cottonian Library in Cornwall Street, 1942.
National Monuments Record.

A close-up of the frieze on the top of the Proprietary Library, 1942.
National Monuments Record.

New premises were subsequently found at Number 111 North Hill, Tavistock Road, although the entrance was in fact in Alton Road.  The Library remained there until Monday May 14th 2018, when it moved to a new home at Saint Barnabas Terrace, Millbridge, in part of the former Anglican Church of Saint Barnabas.