Number 7 Cathedral Close, Exeter, Devon

PUBLISHED: 00:16 22 November 2010 | UPDATED: 17:59 20 February 2013

Number 7 Cathedral Close, Exeter, Devon

Number 7 Cathedral Close, Exeter, Devon

Have you ever read Austen or Eliot and wondered what a 'gentleman's library' might look like? Well, here it is, a stone's throw from Exeter Cathedral. Words by Belinda Dillon, photos by Sarah Lauren

The Inner and Outer Libraries are bathed in light from the cupolas overhead, making it a pleasure to scour the shelves. In the early days, however, the Outer Library housed the book collection and the Inner Library was a museum room, displaying specimens and artefacts, including an Egyptian mummy and an ichthyosaurus. This eventually caused much disunity, says Roger, as those who favoured the library argued that they needed more room for books, while supporters of the museum vied for more space for their collections. The problem was solved in 1868, when the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) opened on Queen Street, and the artefacts were all moved there. RAMM was initially delighted by this instant collection. They probably werent so pleased a few weeks later when they were forced to close in order to deal with the infestation of fleas caused by our badly stuffed birds.

Hearing Rogers fascinating tales about the Institutions past, and seeing all the original features and quirky relics the post box for sending letters in the days before the Royal Mail; the voting box by which prospective members were accepted or rejected, black and white beans denoting nay or yea; the secret door, hidden, as one would expect, behind a shelf of fake books it is easy to see why members have such a fondness for the place. And it would be all too easy to forget that the DEI is a thriving library and an important asset to students of the Victorian era, students of comparative history, academic researchers and anyone interested in the history of the South West.

The Institution houses one of the great collections of Victorian material, says Paul Auchterlonie, who is the Librarian in charge of Middle East Studies at Exeter University. Paul is currently researching the story of an Exeter man who was kidnapped by Barbary pirates and who, on his return to the city 18 years later, published an account of his time in slavery the Institution has the only two copies.

Owen Walpole, an undergraduate from Durham University, is here to research the Bread Riots for his dissertation, and is using the librarys extensive collection of contemporary newspapers and journals. Its great to read the actual text in the actual newspapers, he says.

Over the years, the DEI has had its ups and downs, enduring periods of dwindling membership. However, since Exeter University became involved in the early 1970s, it has been going from strength to strength. The share system was abandoned, and since 1989 the DEI has been a registered charity. Regular membership now exceeds 630.

As a keen local historian himself, Roger first encountered the DEI in 1987, when an interest in researching old court cases lead him to its doors. While waiting to discuss membership, I overheard a conversation between two elderly members, William and George. Coming across a photograph in the newspaper he was reading, William exclaimed: There really is too much in-breeding in the upper classes. This woman looks like a horse. George cast his eye over the offending image. William, that is a horse. Well, I havent got my reading glasses on

And I knew then that I simply had to become a member of this wonderfully eccentric place, says Roger, and disappears to attend to the very modern business of maintaining a Victorian gentlemens library.

The Devon and Exeter Institution Library and Reading Rooms, 7 Cathedral Close, Exeter EX1 1EZ. 01392 251017,

The Institution holds lunchtime lectures that are open to the public. On 15 November, Eduardo Hoyos will be discussing Exeters 20th-century Architecture.

When I walk through the door, says chairman and member, John Manley-Tucker, I feel that Ive left the 21st century behind. While in no way referring to the state of the facilities The Devon and Exeter Institution Library and Reading Rooms is fully equipped with computers and wireless broadband it is a sentiment that accurately describes the prevailing atmosphere, a sense of being embraced by a bygone era.

It is a wonderful oasis of calm, says Barbara Scott-Maxwell, ten years a member and now part of the volunteer staff team. Coming here brings a smile to my face. And every time I leave, Ive learned something new from having a conversation with one of our incredibly knowledgeable members.

Judging from Barbaras comments, it is clear that The Devon and Exeter Institution (DEI) has remained true to the educational intentions of its founding fathers. Established in 1813 as a proprietors library shares cost 25 each, and were hereditary the DEI was the brainchild of several gentlemen (as quoted in Trewmans Exeter Flying Post and Flindells Western Luminary) wanting to create a centre for the general diffusion of Science, Literature and the Arts. These gentleman sought to re-invigorate the citys intellectual and cultural life, in decline since its heyday in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Their quest was also partly fuelled by inter-regional jealousy over the opening in 1810 of Plymouths Proprietary Library jealousy inflamed by taunts about Exeters lack of such an establishment by the Editor of the Exeter Flying Post.

After the inaugural meeting on 12 August 1813 at The Hotel (now the Royal Clarence) in Cathedral Yard, the DEI occupied various temporary lodgings, including two rooms of a house on High Street owned by a Mrs Bath. The Committee was eager to find a more permanent site, to start selling shares and to begin the business of building a library, especially as books were already being donated, and gentlemen returning from Grand Tours abroad were adding to an ever-swelling collection of artefacts, such as a sledge, a canoe and various natural history specimens.

The arrangement came to an end, explains Chief Library Officer Roger Brien, when, late one evening, Mrs Bath answered the doorbell to see a carriage pulling away in the darkness and a 7ft stuffed bear standing on her threshold. Fortunately, the lease on 7 Cathedral Close, the town residence of the Courtenay family since 1672, had just become available and in 1814 the DEI took possession of the property, which remains its home to this day.

When the Institution took over the tenancy, says Roger, as we walk around the Grade II* Listed building, they remodelled much of it to their specifications, although the building still occupies its original medieval plot. The hallway is a perfect example of classic Georgian symmetry, and contains a fine clock that is original to the Institutions establishment. It was considered the most accurate clock in Exeter, says Roger. A lamp was fixed to the wall above it, which would be lit in the evening, so that gentlemen walking past could look through the window to check the time.

Latest from the Devon Life