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The Cornwall Polytechnic Society (the Poly) was formed in 1833, the inspiration of Anna Maria and Caroline, the teenage daughters of Robert Were Fox of G.C. Fox & Co, a prominent Falmouth firm of shipping agents, and joint owners of the Perran Foundry. With the encouragement of their father, the Society was formed 'To promote the useful and fine arts, to encourage industry, and to elicit the ingenuity of a community distinguished for its mechanical skill'.
This was not a purely philanthropic venture. The founders – President Sir Charles Lemon, seven prominent Cornishmen as Vice Presidents, and Chairman Charles Fox – were all successful businessmen, for whom whatever 'encouraged industry' must also be good for business. With this in view, the founders determined that a large Hall should be erected by the Society to accommodate an annual Exhibition of new inventions, especially mechanical ones, in an era when science was continually revealing new wonders to the world.
In 1835 the Society's first Patron, Lord de Dunstanville, died, and the Society was granted Royal Patronage by William IV, becoming the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, which it remains.
Also in 1835 the Polytechnic Hall, designed by George Wightwick, was built on 'a little spot of land' on Church Street, which until 1654 had been a meadow. It was built in partnership with the Cornwall Savings Bank and the Falmouth Hospital, which owned and retained the four rooms behind the Church Street frontage. Gradually the Society bought out these properties for its own use, but not until 1927 did it own the whole building.
The Society's first innovation was an invention which became known as the Man Engine, a simple but effective machine for lowering and raising men from the depths of the tin and copper mines, from which the fortunes of others were being made. The working conditions were appalling, the men suffering extreme heat, condensation, the darkness, foul air, flooding, and gunpowder explosions – but the most potent killer, at the end of an eight hour core, was the climb up perhaps nearly half a mile of wooden ladders back to grass.
Seven years after its invention by mine engineer Michael Loam, Tresavean mine was persuaded to install a trial engine, which proved so successful that it was lowered to the full depth of 260 fathoms. Originally the older men called it 'an engine to kill people', but a few years later, 391 miners of Tresavean wrote a letter to the Society, declaring that the Man Engine 'to us is of more importance than we can find language to express'. It certainly improved or saved the lives of thousands of men, before the last of the 14 engines in various Cornish mines was abandoned in 1919.
During the next half century the fortunes of the Society waxed and waned, as did those of the all-important mining industry. With the loss of the Packet Service in 1850 came a decline in population, a rise in unemployment, and a general deterioration in the condition of Falmouth. In fact, considering the difficulties which arose throughout the next hundred years, it is remarkable that the Society exists today. That it has survived attests to the determination and sheer hard work of the committees, members and volunteers of a vital organization to which Falmouth remains loyal.
In spite of all, the Society had become an important player in the Industrial Revolution in Cornwall, with many learned papers by scientists and engineers published in the Annual Reports, which grew to considerable length. In 1843 the exhibition featured an early demonstration of the new art of photography, and in 1865 Alfred Nobel was awarded in absentia a Silver Medal for the invention of nitro-glycerine, which was tested very successfully at Falmouth Docks, destroying a large iron anvil.
The success of exhibitions varied over the years, though the number of Silver and Bronze medals awarded for successful inventions and works of art continued to grow. In 1835 a fifteen year old boy from Altarnum won a First Silver medal for his bas relief of the Roman statue of Laocoon, carved in slate with tools fashioned by himself from six inch nails. Neville Northey Burnard became the renowned Cornish sculptor, and achieved great success through the patronage of Sir Charles Lemon. He created a beautiful sculpture of the Prince of Wales, later Edward IV, which the Society still possesses.
By 1869 nearly one thousand medals had been awarded, and cash in lieu to the amount of £4,000, reducing the finances of the Society to zero, or less. These awards were gradually reduced, but remained the largest expense until they were abandoned in World War I, and the financial position remained precarious.
In 1869 the lack of space from which to administer the Society required an extension of the Hall back towards Porhan (now New) Street, for which donations were sought from the Members. A sum was donated on the proviso that the Hall, which remained empty for the greater part of the year when no exhibition was in progress, should not be used 'for theatrical purposes'. This restriction remained in place until 1889, when it was rescinded by a vote at the Annual General Meeting. This meant that the Hall might be hired for alternative uses, though the Society did not itself initiate many events apart from musical performances.
In 1882, the Society's Jubilee year, the exhibition was designed to eclipse all previous ones. Mechanical inventions were displayed in the rented Drill Hall, connected to the Hall by telephone, while the artistic exhibits were shown in the Hall, which was lit by electricity produced by engines in Porhan Street. The exhibition remained open for 11 days, and actually achieved a rare profit.
With the new millennium came new problems. The academic research conducted throughout the Victorian era by clever and devoted amateurs was now being carried out by Government and the universities. The exhibitions became less popular, the Hall needed constant repair, and the very purpose of the Poly became difficult to define.
With the exhibitions nearly always resulting in financial loss, the only source of income became the hire of the Hall and most of the other rooms. During the first War the Hall was used as a recreation venue for troops, with volunteers selling over 6,000 cups of tea at 'a very reasonable price'. From 1911 to 1938 the Hall was leased as a cinema, and in 1942 as a dance hall for troops – a use which continued throughout the War until 1949, when bands and dances were stopped at the strong request of members of the public. In 1961 for a short while the Poly became a Bingo hall for two nights a week.
In 1931 the Borough Council invited the Society to accommodate the Falmouth Museum, which had outgrown its space in the Council building. A new upstairs Gallery was created by widening the side galleries and building new flooring at each end of Hall, while the central 'well' remained open, This well was filled in 1961, creating a more usable Gallery above, solving lighting and sound problems below, and creating an attractive and well equipped small theatre.
For nearly twenty years the Museum proved popular, but expensive to maintain, with very little in return. Conditions deteriorated until 1950, when the Borough Council agreed to disband it. Many of the exhibits were returned to their owners, while the remainder were dispersed or sold.
At this point the Society, under Chairman Oliver Price, decided to create its own small maritime museum, which grew and was relocated, until it was eventually superseded by the National Maritime Museum Falmouth.
1946 proved a very low point in the Society's history. The War was over, people were depressed and disillusioned, and the premises were in a deplorable condition. Serious consideration was given to selling the Hall and closing the Society, but cautious, determined optimism prevailed, as it had done so often before.
Then in 1947, novelist and playwright Howard Spring became a member, and introduced a new emphasis on cultural programmes of all sorts, deploring the old emphasis on the technical and the mechanical. Spring's nine year Presidency and his inspired leadership can be said to have saved the Poly again, and to have fulfilled the principal aim of the Fox sisters 'To promote the useful and fine arts'. In due course his influence transformed the Poly to what it has become today.