Poole Subscription Library

On 11th November 1830, the Dorset County Chronicle announced that preparations had begun on a building ‘which is to be appropriated to the use of a Public Library in this town. This structure when completed, will form one of the greatest ornaments of the town. The front of the library is to be supported on a series of arches, forming a piazza. The superstructure will be neat, and the central part will have three recessed windows of good dimensions; and crowned with a low pediment. The sides are to be of white brick and finished with a blocking course. The internal arrangements are – on the ground floor, a shop, sitting and sleeping rooms for the Librarian, and a commodious staircase to the library, which is a good sized room 13 feet in height, and contains five large windows. The whole length of the premises is 43 feet and the width 24.’

The site today

The library was located at the bottom of the High Street on the site of the present museum entrance. It was the gift of the Poole’s two M.P.s, Benjamin Lester Lester, who donated the site, and William F. S. Ponsonby, who paid for the building. Lester was a member of the important Lester Garland family of Newfoundland traders and served as Poole’s M. P. for 26 years. Born Benjamin Lester Garland, he changed his last name to Lester to comply with the terms of the will of his grandfather, Benjamin Lester senior. The Hon. W. F. S. Ponsonby, 1st Baron de Mauley, was Lord of the Manor of Canford by right of his wife’s inheritance, serving as a Whig M. P. for Poole from 1826 to 1831.

The library wasn’t a public one in the modern sense. To join, people had to make donations of £10 or more and pay an annual subscription of a guinea for gentlemen and 10s 6d for ladies. Its affairs were managed by trustees with a committee of 9 subscribers, a treasurer and a secretary. According to John Sydenham in his Poole history published in 1839, ‘the number of subscribers is not so good as might have been anticipated from the extent of the population of the town and its neighbourhood. The number of books now belonging to the institution does not exceed 1700 and, from the circumstance just mentioned, additions are not made to any considerable extent.’ It is possible that those who could afford to join were not particularly attracted by the small collection of books on offer.

Although the library apparently provided living quarters for a librarian, the census does not show anyone living there. The institution is only mentioned occasionally in directories. In 1848, for instance, the librarian was Walter Rollings who was a watchmaker in the High Street and also Filer to the Town House and Deputy Registrar of Births and Deaths. In 1865, Mr. Penney was the secretary  and the librarian was John Pitt Gutch, a shipowner from Fish Street. It seem likely that the position was mainly an honorary one.

In 1867, the authorities decided to fill in the ‘series of arches forming a piazza’ on the ground floor. Perhaps the covered area had attracted undesirable characters. The changes provoked a somewhat over the top letter of protest in the Poole Pilot on the grounds of gracelessness to the memory of the donors. ‘Utility in such cases, is the plea of barbarians. The ‘thieves who bought and sold’ in the temple might have advanced a similar argument for their desecration. . . Is there no-one to say what the law is on the point of blocking up rights of way, one after another in every direction in and about Poole?’

The library with the arches filled in. Note also the old corn store on the left.

Whatever the arguments, the arches were duly filled in. Apart from one or two circulating libraries in the late part of the century, this remained as the only library until the opening of the free public library in Mount Street (now Lagland street) in Queen Victoria’s jubilee year, 1887. In due course the stock of the old subscription library was transferred to the new building and became available to the general public. In 1987, the library’s centenary year, I tried to find any of those volumes still remaining in the library’s stock but couldn’t identify any!

In the 1903 directory, the old subscription library was listed as the Cornelia Men’s Club (later the Cornelia Sports Club), set up by Lady Cornelia Wimborne. From the 1930s, it became the booking office for the Gondolier pleasure boats which took visitors on trips round the harbour. Later it was the Missions to Seamen headquarters, a youth club and offices for the Poole Harbour Commisioners. Eventually, the building was taken down and replaced by a rather uninspired office block which became part of the Maritime Museum.



About Poole High Street Project

Contact: Jenny Oliver - j.oliver48@btinternet.com
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