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Tavistock Subscription Library

Tucked away in the corner of Guildhall Square, next to the entrance to the Tavistock Museum, is one of the hidden treasures of Tavistock and one of its oldest surviving institutions — the Tavistock Subscription Library.

In 1799 it was founded by an enterprising group of young men, which included John Taylor, a gifted 19- year old engineer, who had moved from Norfolk to manage the Wheal Friendship copper mine at Mary Tavy. He also went on to design and manage the building (1803-1817) of the Tavistock canal, linking quays in the town to the port on the Tamar at Morwellham.

The other founders were the Reverend William Evans, the minister of the Unitarian church, John Commins another Unitarian, and Edward Atkins Bray, the son of the Duke’s local agent, who later went on to become the vicar of Tavistock for 40 years.

In the lobby of the present home of the Tavistock Subscription Library is a bust of John, sixth Duke of Bedford and a copy of his portrait hangs above the mantelpiece. He was a patron and early member of the library, and in 1831 was responsible for its relocation to Court Gate.

Previously the library had rented rooms above a bookshop in Tavistock and then in 1822 became sufficiently prosperous to build its own premises — a building of classical design, near the present Court Gate building. This building however, stood in the way of the Duke’s plans for a grand boulevard (now Plymouth Road) connecting Bedford Square with Ford Street and other improvements in the town.

The library was provided with alternative accommodation in rooms at Court Gate, designed by John Foulston. The classical building was demolished soon after 1831. The premises for the library in Court Gate included a large room above the archway (now the Davies room) for books and journals, and another across the landing (now the Fenner room) for reading and lectures. These rooms now house the upstairs part of Tavistock museum. The room over the arch still has the fitted bookshelves, which held the Subscription library’s stock.

Downstairs there was a smaller room, which is the present location of the Subscription library.

During that period the library employed a librarian who lived on site, rent free, in an adjoining cottage, now also part of the Tavistock Museum.

One of the most notable librarians, from 1841-71, was William Merrifield, who collected daily weather records for some of this period. His hand-written ledgers are now on display in cabinets in the museum, but a letter to the Tavistock Gazette from a Mr F.M. Williams, dated January 16, 1889, notes that the location of the weather recording instruments on the roof of the building greatly affected and underestimated the rainfall readings collected. Wind directions were also recorded from a weather vane on the roof, connecting with a compass in the ceiling of the room below. These observations were of interest to local people and navigation.

For the modest sum of 25 pence per week, it is possible to join the long established Tavistock Subscription Library by enquiring at http://

Inside it has the smell and quiet charm of an old library, with leather seated chairs and a large table on which to browse the books on local history and archaeology, the journal of the Devonshire Association, and local newspapers.

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