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The architect of Plymouth's Proprietary Library was John Foulston (1772 - 1841). His original building in Cornwall Street was completed in 1809. This building, and most of its stock, was  destroyed in 1941 during the bombing of Plymouth. But the members found another building and began the task of restocking it even as the war continued. Thanks to their efforts, the Library still exists and is now to be found at the top of North Hill.

For more information about Foulston visit



From the South Devon Monthly Museum

Published 1 January 1833:

"We are proud of our distinction as a literary place. In this respect, Plymouth may venture to claim precedence with most of the provincial towns in the kingdom. The present attempt to establish a local repository and register of science, letters and art, may be regarded as one proof among many, of the prevalence of literary feeling in the neighbourhood. While the Public Library owed its origin to the existence of such a feeling, its establishment must have re-acted in confirming and diffusing the existing predilection. The formation of an institution, at once so honourable and useful to his native town, is mainly attributable to the exertions of the late George Eastlake Esq., a gentleman still remembered by many for his literary tastes and acquirements, at a period when intellectual pursuits were less commonly followed than in our own time, the facilities for doing so, prodigiously inferior to those enjoyed by the present generation.


The collection of books which formed the nucleus of the Plymouth Library, was originally deposited in a room at the Guildhall, but was transferred from thence to the building in Cornwall Street in 1812.


The situation is sufficiently commodious, but such a structure in another site might have been rendered more ornamental to the town. We have often wished it had formed a sort of right wing to the Hotel and Theatre, the Athenaeum, being the left. Twenty years ago however, it never entered into the imagination of persons in general that Plymouth would have travelled Westward so far and so fast. Instead of so many new streets being added, it was confidently prophesied at the close of the war that the grass would grow in those already built. But how different the fact from the prediction! The newly-erected Hotel was then in the fields. The germ of the Plymouth Institution and its Atheneum in embryo; and the ground which was then a void spot on the North side of Cornwall Street, was chosen as a suitable and central one for the Library.


Plymouth Proprietary Library in the 1830s
Plymouth Proprietary Library in the 1830s


The Library is one of the earliest if not one of the most favourable specimens of Mr. Foulston's architectural taste and skill. In adapting a classical elevation to the purpose of the institution, the architect judiciously selected one of a monumental character and thus imparted to a building in the midst of a populous and bustling town, as appropriate air of quiet and seclusion. The front has no windows, the several apartments being lighted from the roof.


Foulston's Reading Room
The main room of the library designed by John Foulston


A spacious vestibule, having the news room on one side, and the committee room on the other, leads to the principal apartment or library. This is a spacious, lofty and elegant room, divided into two parts by an open corridor, which affords access to the upper ranges of book shelves.


The lantern light above Foulston's Reading Room

The lantern light above Foulston's main reading room


By judicious management, the cupola which lights the room is rendered highly ornamental. It is supported by four beautifully curved segmental arches, rising above the entablature, and the divisions of the lantern are enriched by a series of fluted columns.


The book collection in Victorian times
The book collection in late Victorian times


The coup d'oeil of this room is very pleasing. The collection of books which is yearly increasing is we believe, somewhat within 6000 volumes, and has of late been improved in character by the exclusion of works of mere ephemeral interest.


Not many years since, the affairs of this institution wore so unpromising an aspect, that shares which originally cost thirty guineas each, could be purchased for ten pounds. It is gratifying to be enabled to state, that the difficulties which caused this depression having been surmounted, matters are now in a very prosperous condition. The shareholders in whom the property is vested were in number originally 205. Their annual subscription is two guineas, but yearly subscribers are also admitted by ballot; the subscription paid by this class is two guineas. Proprietors are allowed to introduce strangers and visitors under certain restrictions.


The general meeting of the proprietors is held annually on the second Friday in January, when a president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, registrar and a committee of sixteen are chosen to conduct the affairs of the institution in the ensuing year."


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