In the l8th Century the industrial revolution fathered a new social class. The enterprising craftsman expanded his workshop to factory status and moved himself and family from the nearby cottage to an elegant town house or if he was very successful to a noble country mansion. The successful retailer followed the same route no longer living above the shop.

Their leisure and that of their families was characterised as much as anything by the proliferation of assembly rooms and the introduction of subscription libraries. In 1837 John 6th Duke of Bedford provided this emerging social group with an assembly room above his newly built corn market in West Street. But at the turn of the century, 1799 to be precise, a self-reliant group of citizens had already established a subscription library. The founding fathers were the Reverend  F William Evans, the owner-master of a school at Kilworthy House and later at Parkwood House and Minister of the Unitarian Church, and three young men. They were John Cummins whose family had interests in local mining, Edward Atkyns Bray, son of the Duke’s local agent and a law student (he abandoned law and became Vicar of the town), and John Taylor mine captain of Wheal Friendship and designer-surveyor-engineer of Tavistock Canal.

The nascent library had the use of a room over the West Street shop of bookseller and stationer William Tapson. Two decades later it had prospered sufficiently for the members to have their own building designed and built. They chose a classical edifice

Front of library

Apparently Duke John thought the style out of place in Tavistock. Also its location conflicted with his ambition to lay a broad thoroughfare the present Plymouth Road. from the town centre to Ford Street. Another factor was his desire to save Court Gate. the derelict eastern portal of the former Tavistock Abbey; without much attention it would have deteriorated to the state of Betsy Grimbal‘s Tower today.

He gathered together the three elements by offering to house the library in a refurbished and extended Court Gate and to demolish their building to make way for the eastern end of his road. The work was completed in I831 and the members of the library moved to the room above the arch and two rooms in the extension. That on the upper floor was designed as a lecture hall with an elaborate podium and barrel ceiling: the small ground floor room became their games room. The games, whist. bridge and chess were played in virtuous silence: any rustling of paper or snoring was frowned upon. For many years a sister organisation, the Tavistock Institution used the lecture hall. Later the Duke rented it to the Free Masons‘ Society. A cottage formed part of the extension and this was occupied by the librarian. The Town Museum now occupies the upper floor library and lecture hall. Which are named the Sue Davies and Robin Fenner. Rooms after the long standing and dedicated curator and the Town Mayor who inspired the formation of the museum.

Visitors to the library rarely notice the compass bearings and arrow on the ceiling. It was the largest and most prominent instrument used by William Merrifield, the librarian from 1841 to I871. in compiling daily weather reports. He was notable also for his photography: in the pioneering days of the art he recorded a large number of people, events and townscapes using a stereoscopic camera. The museum has a large portfolio Of his work and a double lens through which to view it.

The library’s prosperity declined with the development nationally of free public libraries provided by town and City councils. An Act of 1850 made the provision mandatory and incidentally resulted in civic pride being displayed in imposing library buildings of the style Duke John disapproved of in Tavistock.

By 1964 the reduced membership could no longer afford the various costs, including the modest rent charged after the initial fifteen years. Disbandment was averted by a radical reorganisation. All but the ground floor games room was relinquished to a new landlord, the Town Council. Most of the stock of books was sold and thenceforward the holding was restricted to works by local authors or those pertaining to the town and Dartmoor. Under this regime an impressive collection has accumulated, ranging from the poetry of the 17th century William Browne to the contemporary fifteen volumes of Gerry Woodcock’s Tavistock’s Yesterdays and including annual reports of the Devonshire Association from 1863.

Every subscriber has a door-code to the library so can ‘drop in’ at any time to thumb through a local newspaper or magazine or rifle the shelves for works of local interest or a recent book on Dartmoor. An active writers’ group meets every Tuesday  and authors donate copies of their published work. Friday coffee mornings provide refreshment and discussion after shopping.

One of the treasures is a painting of the 1831 Subscription Library, oil on canvas, by an unknown artist. It suffered minor damage and unskilled repair and varnishing many years ago but recently it has been given prominent place with a number of historic portraits and prints.

There are very few subscription libraries and Tavistock’s is perhaps the smallest and one of the oldest having been in existence for over two hundred years.


From an article in the Dartmoor Margins Magazine entitled
“A Bookworm s Garden Of Delights” By Library member Graham Kirkpatrick