Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: February 06, 2019
Webpage updated: February 06, 2019




Plymouth's first museum was a part of the Plymouth Institution's Athenaeum building in George Street, next to the Theatre Royal. 

In 1898 the Corporation started their own museum at Beaumont House and finally, in 1910, the present building, pictured here, was opened in Tavistock Road.

The Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.
From a postcard.

The Athenaeum was opened on February 4th 1819.  In 1828 work commenced on an extension to the building, which would hold a museum.  This was completed the following year.  A further extension later in the century enabled a large collection of local birds, fishes, insects, fossils, rocks and minerals to be displayed.

In 1887 the Corporation resolved to create a museum and art gallery to mark the Jubilee of Queen Victoria's accession to the Throne.  A site was donated by the Town at the Old Town Hills in Tavistock Road and when in 1890 they were able to purchase Beaumont House and grounds off the trustees of the late Reverend Thomas Archer Bewes, they used the House as a temporary place of storage for artifacts and paintings.

The first public exhibition was opened on Monday August 1st 1898, when just over one hundred pictures of mainly local scenes, were put on display.  The curator was Mr Thomas V Hodgson.  The paintings on display were changed in the Winter and Spring but the remainder of the displays remained the same throughout.

Five large oil paintings adorned the entrance hall and more were displayed in Room 1, to the right of the hallway.  Statuary, china, glass and enamels were shown in Room 2 while in Room 3, to the left, were the archaeological items, with those from Dartmoor taking pride of place.

Up on the first floor, Room 4 was the "Plymouth Room" and contained the old ducking chair that is still on display in the present-day Museum.  Arts and crafts exhibits were in Room 5 and ethnography items, mainly from the South Seas, were in Room 6.

The rooms on the second floor contained zoology, West Country animals and birds, and finally geology.  This last Room, number 10, contained what must have been a fascinating relief model of the Plymouth area, at one foot to a mile and one inch to a hundred feet vertically.  The model had been made in 1864 by the military to show the Palmerston Forts.

Mr Hodgson resigned as curator in 1900 when he was appointed as a biologist with Captain Scott's exhibition to the Antarctic and he was replaced for a short while by Mr Robert Buddleton.  He lasted barely a year and was followed by Mr Ernest Lowe.

In the meantime, the Corporation lost interest in spending money on a new building in Tavistock Road and they decided to make Beaumont House the permanent home of the collection.  They planned to add a west wing to the House, which would cost them 10,780.  However, nothing was done about it until 1906, when Doctor Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish philanthropist, offered the  Council 15,000 towards building a new public library.  A new site was found, on the opposite side of Tavistock Road from the original one, and the decision was taken to put a museum alongside the library, at an estimated cost of just 13,000.

Although a part of the same block of buildings, the Library and the Museum and Art Gallery were treated separately when the foundation stones were laid on October 16th 1907.  That for the Museum and Art Gallery was laid by Alderman T Brock, JP, chairman of the Museum and Art Gallery Committee.

The building was designed by Messrs Thornley & Rooke of Plymouth and the contractors, Messrs Pethick Brothers Ltd, also of Plymouth, started work on the site on December 9th 1907.  The final cost of the work is said to have been 15,627 14s 6d for the Library and 13,313 9s 9d for the Museum. 

Laying the stone at the Museum

Laying the foundation stone of the Museum.

There was a dual opening ceremony, too, on October 25th 1910, when the Mayor, Alderman J Yeo together with architect Mr Lionel Thornley, opened the Library and Alderman T Brook, chairman of the Museum and Art Gallery Committee, along with the Deputy Mayor, Alderman R W Winnicott, and Mr Rooke, opened the Museum part of the building.

Mr Thomas Hodgson was re-appointed as the curator when the new building opened.

The Library part was destroyed during the night of April 22nd/23rd 1941 but it was temporarily re-housed in the Museum until it was re-opened on May 20th 1954.