©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: March 14, 2016
Webpage updated: September 15, 2018

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The Devonport Mechanics’ Institute is said to have had its origins in a Literary and Philosophical Institution that had been formed at what was then Plymouth-Dock in 1808.   It closed in 1821 and its premises in Fore Street passed to Mr Heydon, following which it was converted into the Devonport Public Hall

Devonport's Institute was formed in 1825 and, like its neighbour in Plymouth, also was very popular at the start but suffered when the novelty wore off.  Mr Richard Burnet seems to have been the leading light in its formation.  Meetings were held in various places around the Town; first in Fore Street, next in a room in the Town Hall in Ker Street and finally at the rear of George Street.  Attendance grew sufficiently to require their own premises and a start was made in 1843-44 with the erection of the first part of the building in Duke Street.

A larger lecture hall was then erected to the design of Mr Alfred Norman, of Devonport.  This was completed in 1849, the total cost being around £4,000.  The number of members rose from 95 in 1841 to some 800 in 1849.

During the cholera visitation of August 1849 the Institute was used as a temporary hospital, at the suggestion of Miss Sellon.  The army promised to supply twelve iron bedsteads and a team of surgeons was appointed to be in attendance day and night.

On the evening of Monday January 14th 1850 the building was opened by the President of the Institute, Mr John Williams, of Stoke.  About 600 members and their friends attended.   After taking tea, the assembly were entertained by the band of the 82nd Regiment with soloists, Mr Perry on the flute and Mr Purton on the cornopean.

On the evening of Wednesday April 13th 1859 Mr P T Barnum, of New York, had the honour of addressing the Devonport Mechanics' Institute on "The Science of Money Making" 'in the course of which he will introduce an original definition of HUMBUG, supporting his theory by pictorial illustrations and original anecdotes, examples and experiences'.   Reserved seats cost 2 shillings, 1/6d or one shilling but 'if after Friday April 8th seats remain unsold, the price will be raised'.  The advance announcement further stated that: 'During the entertainment, Professor Kratky Bashix, a Slovonian Hungarian Artiste, who has appeared before Her Majesty and all the Crowned Heads of Europe, will play a Grand Fantasia upon an instrument smaller than the Tebia of Picco and producing much more peculiar and startling orchestral effects.'

The building had a large and magnificent hall measuring 61 feet by 46 feet broad and 30 feet 3 inches in height.   Its most noteworthy features were a gallery that ran around the lecture hall and its richly decorated ceiling, adorned by a splendid chandelier.  There were also class and committee rooms, a chess room, and a large news room. On the ground floor were four spacious rooms, amounting to some 86 feet in length and divided by broad archways, that were to be used as the museum and library. 

Membership soon increased to upwards of 1,100 but then started to decline rapidly until in 1863 it was announced that were only 461 on the books.

This caused such alarm that at once the committee resolved to do something about it and after a lot of hard work, they managed to increase the figure up to around 700 within two years.  One possible reason for their success may well have been the fact that in 1865 the Civil and Military Library situated in the Egyptian House in Ker Street was closed and passed its collection of nearly 5,000 books over to the Institute, bringing its total collection to over 11,000 volumes.  This greatly contributed to its rise in importance.  Among those who were credited with its revival were Mr Clarke, the librarian, and Messrs Chapple, Miller and Mogg.

In the meantime a School of Art had been established in 1860 next door to the Institute and many of its members were very successful in competitions held by the Society of Arts.

However, on Saturday June 4th 1881 the Devonport Mechanics' Institute closed and its building and the collection of books were purchased by Devonport Corporation to form the basis of the new Free Public Library and Museum.