The Post Office

The Post Office was originally built as a Market House. The Corporation of South Molton having decided in June 1806 that one should be provided. Economies were made by discontinuing four public dinners at the General Quarter Sessions and by cutting the Mayor's annual salary to £20, the savings being spent to help pay for the new building. The sum of five guineas was paid for a plan and Mr. John Morris carried out the building work in 1810 for approximately £1,350. Built of red brick it stood on pillars and arches, it was a splendid building for a small market town. Corn, meat and other produce, was sold in the basement storey and on Saturdays the Broad Street or Market Place was lined with stalls selling produce and wares. The upper room was used for lectures and concerts as well as for a meeting room.

The Post Office, Broad Street, South Molton

In 1855 a lively public meeting took place in the upper room which resulted in a vote to discontinue the payment of £50 to the Mayor towards the cost of the annual Mayoral Dinner. The following year the Town Council gave the use of the upper floor rent free, together with a grant of £50, for the establishment of a Mechanics' Institute. A reading room was provided and classes organised in addition to lectures and meetings. The reading room, which contained daily and other papers as well as periodicals, was open from 9am until 10pm. There was also a library that in 1856 contained over 600 books. The first President of the Institute was Lord Ebrington (later Earl Fortescue) and during the first year about 360 "leading men of the town" became members. Subscription fees were £1.10s 0d and 4s 0dsic per annum with "strangers" being admitted to the reading room on payment of a one penny fee.

The lectures and classes are reported as having exceeded the "most sanguine expectations of the promoters". By 1866 the number of books contained in the library had risen to over 2000.

In 1862, the Council decided to build a new Pannier Market plus Assembly Rooms next to the Town Hall. Corporate property was sold and a loan acquired, the site was purchased and the work completed in 1863. The Mechanics' Institute continued to use the upper floor of the old Market House which was converted into a "spacious and very convenient Post Office" in 1888. The Mayor, Mr. John Galliford, performed the opening ceremony.

According to John Cock's book on the history of South Molton published in 1893, the Mechanics' Institute closed in 1887 although it was still being advertised in the Whites Directory of 1890 as having 134 members (with Mr. William Oram as secretary), and with a library of "upwards of 2000 volumes;" In his book written in 1892, John Mills states that a Working Man's Reading Room had been opened at The Star Temperance Hotel by the daughter of the late Alderman Smyth, "on the dissolution of the Mechanics' Institute".

Sources of Information:

John Mills - "Concise History of South Molton" 1892

John Cock - " Records of the Ancient Borough of South Molton" 1893

Whites Directory 1850

M. Billing's Directory 1857

Whites Directory 1890

Mechanics' Institutes - a voluntary organisation common in Britain and the United States between 1820 and 1860 for educating manual workers. Ideally such an Institute was to have a library, a museum, a laboratory, public lectures about applied science, and courses in various skills, but few had all of these.

From 1830 to 1860 hundreds of institutes were founded in the United States and Britain. But many institutes were short-lived, and some of the more successful were taken over by non-mechanics with money, leisure and the desire to hear lectures. Rules requiring mechanic majorities on governing boards were disregarded. After 1860 mechanics' institutes largely disappeared. (The Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Created by Shirley Bray

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