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Book of the month

Explore highlights from our collections, from the 15th century to the present day.

John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera

Originally from Barnstaple in Devon, John Gay (1685-1732) became one of London’s most renowned dramatists. His satirical ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, opened at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre on 29 January 1728 and ran for 62 nights. Gay’s assault on the topsy-turvy morals, double-standards and self-interests of 18th century politics and aristocratic society remains one of the few 18th century plays still performed today.

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Joseph de Mendoza y Ríos (1761–1816) and the ‘Longitude Problem’

Successful sea navigation relies on being able to determine latitude (how far north or south you are) and longitude (how far east or west). When the Greenwich Royal Observatory was founded on 22 June 1675, sailors were able to measure latitude at sea by observing the altitude of the sun at midday, but once out of sight of land they had no easy means of determining longitude.

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An intricate and arduous undertaking: George Montagu (1753-1815) and his collection of shells

Beautiful, intricate and varied, shells have adorned our clothes, our homes and our objects of art for centuries. From the end of the 17th century, natural scientists began to collect, organise, observe and draw them in earnest. George Montagu’s Testacea Britannica (1803) is one of the most important works of natural history to come out of the Age of Enlightenment – and it has a special significance for Exeter.

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William Savage’s Practical hints on decorative printing (1822)

From the early 19th century, Koenig & Bauer’s new steam-powered double-cylinder printing press, capable of printing over 1100 sheets an hour, disseminated information fast. The circulation of The Times newspaper increased from 5,000 to 50,000 by the middle of the century. However, not all printing was about speed – in 1822 William Savage published his guide to fine art printmaking – still a popular art form today.

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