From Beach to Boulevard

PUBLISHED: 10:09 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 11:38 25 May 2010

Reading & Assembly Rooms - incorporated into the later Beach Hotel

Reading & Assembly Rooms - incorporated into the later Beach Hotel

Copyright Archant Ltd

John Crockford-Hawley traces the 200 year development of Weston's libraries and museums

John Crockford-Hawley traces the 200 year development of

Weston's libraries and museums

Weston-super-Mare has enjoyed the benefit of libraries and museums for nigh on 200 years. It began back in 1826 when Joseph Whereat opened his Reading & Assembly Rooms at the beach end of ancient Watersill Road (now Regent St) and though subsumed into a later Beach Hotel the original facade remains largely intact. By the mid-19th century most of High Street's farms and cottages had been replaced by shops; some sold books and a few provided lending facilities.

Albert Memorial Hall

Meanwhile shoemaker William Mable was sensitive to the rapid changes taking place and started to collect ephemera from times past. He amassed a collection too large for his humble workman's cottage and in 1862 established the town's first museum in the Albert Memorial Hall next to Emmanuel Church. One of his 'social betters' wrote a vindictive letter to the Mercury asking why a mere cobbler should be allowed to run a museum, but others wrote of him as "an unusually intelligent working man". Four years later the hall was extended to include a workers' institute, superintendent's house and purpose built museum: Real Victorian self-help stuff.

In November 1860 Jonathan Elwell, founder of The College (now Grand Atlantic Hotel) and his son Gordon were out shooting in the Smyth-Pigott woods when called to Sand Bay where two huge fish were reported to be flapping furiously in shallow water. The 'fish' turned out to be a pair of whales. One swam off but Mr Elwell pumped 20 rounds of shot into the remaining 26-footer, then waited three hours for the poor creature to die. It was towed back to Knightstone Harbour, then carried in stinking, gory state to the railway station for an undignified journey to Bristol's blubber factory. The skeleton returned to Weston's museum where it hung until 1948 before swimming off to London University's Zoology Department.

Parliament passed the first Libraries Act in 1850 giving towns the right to establish public libraries. Weston was slow off the mark with councillors largely unenthusiastic about expensive fripperies such as books and history. However, when Grove House passed into public ownership in 1889 a temporary library was organised in the squire's old home together with two small branches in Magdala Buildings and Baker Street.

New Boulevard Site

The council had also acquired a plot of land in the Boulevard and with a generous book bequest from Frederick Wood, solicitor of Chew Magna, and mindful of Queen Victoria's impending Diamond Jubilee, politicians strove to build a combined library and museum fit for the new millennium.

There followed some acrimonious debate in which opponents argued unsuccessfully for museum facilities to be part of the School of Science & Art in Lower Church Road. Henry Butt, who would rise to become Weston's first mayor was singled out for his opposition to the Boulevard project and stood accused by the Council's clerk of using language lacking "gentle words, dulcet tones and gracious manner"!

Two local architects were engaged. Hans Fowler Price and the lesser known Sydney Wilde (who designed St Saviour's Church in Locking Road) produced a spacious, vaguely Renaissance-style building using red Cattybrook brick with freestone dressing - unusual in limestone Weston. Harry Hems from Exeter, one the nation's foremost sculptors, was commissioned to create six muses representing literature, science and art - still there above the front entrance, though in need of a good wash. (Hems also sculpted the handsome pulpit in Emmanuel Church). This new and imposing addition to Weston's public buildings opened on 28th June 1901 - followed by the obligatory celebratory big-wigs dinner back at the Town Hall.

Books were kept in storage and made available by requesting named copies from librarians. It was not until an extension was added in 1930 that members of the public were allowed to browse titles for themselves. Councillors were constantly moaning about the excessive cost of books but at least doors remained open between 9am and 10pm, offering a service somewhat better than found in today's establishment. The upstairs museum was a bit stuffy in comparison with modern styles of display, but at least entry was free.

Burlington Street

Meanwhile, the old Albert Hall made way for a Town Hall extension following local government re-organisation in 1974. This was a time of considerable upheaval - libraries had been handed over to the new Avon County Council whilst the museum became a Woodspring District Council responsibility. In a move of unusual enlightenment Woodspring acquired the redundant Gaslight Company's workshops in Burlington Street (1912 Classical style by Fowler Price) and with later additions of an adjoining cottage and former chapel established a first-rate local museum.

As for the future - it ought to be rosy now that libraries and museums are under a common North Somerset umbrella, but in a world where books and history just don't seem to have the same pulling power as office blocks who knows what might happen?

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