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Library of the Month: Tavistock Subscription Library

Posted By Emma L. Laws, 29 August 2019

Library of the Month: Tavistock Subscription Library

Sir Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon. The town is also home to the Tavistock Subscription Library – thanks to Simon Dell for the contribution.


Tavistock Subscription Library was founded in 1799 by: John Taylor, a 19-year-old engineer from Norwich who had come to Tavistock to manage a local copper and tin mine; John Commins, of about the same age as Taylor, a bookseller; Edward Bray, the young Tavistock curate; and Reverend William Evans, an older man, a non-conformist minister who ran a local school. John Taylor became an eminent mining engineer and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Initially the Library was located in the upper floors of a bookshop, which it soon outgrew. A purpose-built library in the classical style was opened in 1822, nicknamed the Propylaeum. The Duke of Bedford, who owned most of Tavistock and the surrounding area, his family having been given the lands by Henry VIII at the Dissolution, decided to demolish and rebuild the center of Tavistock, and the Propylaeum, being in the way, was demolished. However, the Duke, in compensation, refurbished Court Gate, one of the old Abbey gates, as a purpose-built library and librarian’s cottage. The Library remains in one room of this building; however the old library and cottage now house Tavistock Museum.

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.

Tavistock Subscription Library became a registered Charity in May 2007.


Simon Dell


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