North Devon Athenaeum
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What Came Before

Barnstaple Literary & Scientific Institute

Before the emergence of the North Devon Athenæum in 1888 Rock helped set up the Literary and Scientific Institution.  Plans for a new institution were already in hand in 1844. A petition to the mayor from over 100 people had led to the formation of a committee. The members planned to issue shares to raise the money for a new building.


Rock disagreed with the plan, thinking that the shareholder system would exclude the poor and make the institute too much like a private club. Offering £100 a year and with premises already leased at 42 High Street, he persuaded the committee to change their minds.


The Institution opened in 1845. There were first and second class reading rooms, a library, classrooms and the beginnings of a museum. Membership was 20 shillings first class, 10 shillings second class and the first classes were in French, Drawing and Arithmetic.


Rock became the Institution's main benefactor. In addition to the lease of the building, fixtures and fittings he provided the first 600 books for the library. This continued over the years until by 1870 the library housed 7,000 volumes. Often Rock would send down crates of the latest books, ensuring that members and pupils kept up with the latest scientific and artistic thinking.


Rock's £100 a year gift allowed him to nominate free members from those he felt deserved the opportunity but were too poor to pay. Sometimes Rock's members proved idle or simply too ill-educated to benefit from instruction, but for some this provided a first stepping stone to self-improvement.


Edward Capern, the postman poet was one who benefited in this way. Although it was sometimes difficult to find 100 candidates, Rock continued this contribution, even when his business premises and stock burned down in 1859, putting him under severe financial pressure.

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