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The Propylaeum: Tavistock’s Classical Library Building

Tavistock Subscription Library is now housed in Court Gate, adjacent to the museum, but between 1821 and 1831 it had its own splendid classical building in the centre of the town. In 1819, twenty years after its foundation, the library had amassed the resources to have their own building, rather than a hired meeting room above a book shop in the town. A suggestion was made to the Duke of Bedford’s steward in December 1820 that the library might be relocated to a converted room over Court Gate, but the estate office took so long to reply that the library members decided to fund their own building.

The previous year John Foulston, Plymouth’s leading architect, had built Park Wood House in a classical style for the Reverend William Evans, to use as a school. Foulston had also designed a meeting room for a learned society in Plymouth, known as the Athenaeum, in a similar style. However, Foulston did not design the new library premises in Tavistock. Instead James Colling, a local builder, based in Bedford Street, was put in charge of implementing the design and construction of the building, and produced plans for a detached neo-classical structure.


In January 1821 the Bedford office gave permission for the building to be erected in the grounds of the derelict Bedford Arms Inn, beside the Gatehouse, which was about to be demolished. At the time John Russell , the 6th Duke of Bedford, did not express any misgivings about the library being built in what was later to become Bedford Square. Although later he objected to its position, which interfered with his wider plans for the development of the town centre.

The library was completed within one year, making use of some of the materials from the demolished Bedford Inn, and opened on 1st July 1822, although it had cost double the original £500 estimate. There were shelves to accommodate the book collection, a table to display journals and newspapers and a room for the librarian. The building was top-lit and ventilated from a glass dome, and the entrance fronted by four fluted Doric columns, beneath a triangular pediment. The front court was surrounded by brightly painted railings. Due its classical portico, and because it was near the gatehouse of the old Abbey, it was soon nicknamed the Propylaeum, after the original Propylaeum, the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens.

Two antique prints from 1830 Tavistock for the Launceston road and Tavistock from Fitz Ford show the distinctive façade of the Propylaeum in the centre of the town. The building was much admired by architects and artists with classical tastes, although not everybody liked it. Mrs Bray, the vicar’s wife, came to the defence of the building, saying that it was an elegant addition to the town. She added that the juxtaposition of different styles of architecture were admired by people of taste in towns in France and Italy, where she had travelled. However, some people of Tavistock thought the classical design, with the brightly painted railings, did not fit in with the gothic architecture near the Abbey ruins in the town centre. It was also claimed that the library had not been well built and had become cracked and fragile.

Tavistock’s vicar, the Reverend Edward Bray, one of the founders of the Subscription Library, wishing to appear diplomatic on the matter, suggested to the Duke that at least a good drawing of the building should be made before the site was cleared. A contemporary oil painting of the lost building now hangs in the present Subscription Library, as one if its treasures. The artist is unknown but may have been the vicar’s wife Anna Eliza Bray. A drawing from this painting by Victor Gregory, headmaster of Tavistock primary school, was published in 1946 in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association.

The classical building was demolished only ten years after its completion in 1821. From 1822 the 6th Duke had begun making his improvements to the town centre, starting with new markets for cattle and sheep in the Abbey Great Court, now Guildhall Square The Propylaeum stood in the way of the re-development of Bedford Square and building Plymouth Road, that he had planned. In 1829 he therefore offered to provide new accommodation for the library, on very favourable terms to compensate the members for the loss of their building. The room over the arch of Court Gate and additional space would be provided, at a rent of one shilling a year for fifteen years.

Foulston , who had been employed to oversee the rebuilding of the Court Gate complex, had already reroofed the gatehouse and modified it to provide offices for the Stewards, with a new entrance and landing. A two storey extension to the east was added for the library. Foulston made a drawing showing how a room in Court Gate might accommodate a library. The work was completed by 1831 when the library moved in. One of the two upstairs rooms was used to accommodate the books and the other for lectures and reading. The Subscription Library has remained in the Court Gate building since 1831, but now only occupies one room on the ground floor, which it moved into in 1964 and leases from the Tavistock Town Council.

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