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The Cornwall Polytechnic Society (the Poly) was founded 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. The firm was also joint owner of the Perran Foundry, whose workmen constantly brought models and inventions for inspection, and new ideas for improving the working of the foundry. With their father’s encouragement, a 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’.
The Society was certainly founded on philanthropic principles, but President Sir Charles Lemon, seven prominent Cornish Vice Presidents, and Chairman Charles Fox, were all successful businessmen, for whom whatever ‘encouraged industry’ should 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.
For the first two years, exhibitions were held in the Falmouth Classical School, which proved so popular, and were so overcrowded, that the Committee decided that the new Hall and permanent home for the Society should be built as soon as possible.
Picture - Anna Maria Fox, Founder of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society.
Lord Wodehouse was requested to lease the Society “a little spot of land” on Church Street, the freehold of which was bought a few years later. The architect George Wightwick was engaged to design a Polytechnic Hall, for the sole purpose of housing the annual exhibition. The Hall itself was simply a great open space, with large double doors leading onto a flat floor, the walls rising to the lofty ceiling, and lit by six great windows, while along each side ran a narrow spectators’ gallery.
In 1836 the Exhibition moved to its new home, the Polytechnic Hall. However, at that time the Society owned the Hall itself, but not the the front section of the building. The two rooms which are now the Spring Gallery and the Office above it belonged to the Falmouth Savings Bank, and the other two to the Falmouth Public Dispensary, which was set up in the present Box Office, and leased out what is now the Bar as a subscription library.
In 1869 the Committee realized that the space problem had to be solved, and the two decrepit tenements behind the Hall were destroyed, allowing the Hall to be extended backwards to Porhan (now New) Street. The extension provided a Secretary’s office, a library and a Committee Room (now the Chellew Room), but space was still very tight, particularly for the Members.
Finally, in 1888 the Society managed to buy both the Bank’s rooms for £400, and in 1920 the Dispensary’s two rooms as well for £700. The RCPS finally owned its own building.
Picture - Polytechnic Hall 1859 - Sir Charles Lemon in the Chair, with the Fox sisters to the left
In 1835 Sir Charles Lemon and Chairman Charles Fox offered a ten guinea premium for the best invention for taking men down into the mines and bringing them safely back up again. Working conditions in the mines were appalling, the men suffering from extreme heat, condensation, the darkness, foul air, flooding, gunpowder explosions – but the most lethal of all at the end of an eight hour shift was the killing climb back to grass, up perhaps nearly half a mile of dangerous wooden ladders.
The Man Engine’s inventor was a mine engineer, Michael Loam, who proposed using the reciprocal vertical motion of two beam engines, one rising as the other falls. These were in constant action pumping water out from the depths of the mine.
To each of the beams is attached a chain of oak rods connected to each other by steel plates. At the top of the shaft, a man steps onto a small platform attached to one of the rods, which descends twelve feet, then pauses. In the pause he steps across onto the opposite rod, which has also paused, and then goes down another twelve feet until it pauses again. By stepping across from one rod to the other – usually in the dark – he can descend or ascend safely, and much faster than climbing those treacherous ladders.
Other mines simplified the system by using only one chain of rods, as in the illustration, and a series of platforms attached to the sides of the shaft, but the principle was the same.
A fine idea, but nobody wanted to invest in this expensive new invention, and only after eight frustrating years, and a subsidy of £600 raised by RCPS members, was Tresavean Mine in Lanner persuaded to install a trial engine. This proved so successful that it was soon lowered to the full depth of 260 fathoms.
At first the men called it “an engine to kill people”, but in a few years, 391 Tresavean miners wrote a letter of thanks to the Committee, 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. Over the years, 14 other mines introduced Man Engines, until the last closed down in 1919, to be replaced by cages and wire rope.
Picture - The Man Engine
Sir Charles remained the Society’s President for 34 years, until the age of 83. He said “Miss Fox was the mother of the Polytechnic, I was its foster mother.” His influence and generosity were crucial to the work of the RCPS, and he received one of the four Gold Medals that the Society ever awarded.
It had been decided to award silver and bronze medals as well as cash prizes for exhibits of special merit. One of our first Silver Medals was awarded to a 16 year old mason’s son from Altarnum, Neville Northey Burnard, for a slate relief carving of the Laocoon statue in Rome, copied from a drawing in the Penny Magazine and carved with tools made by himself from six inch nails. With Sir Charles’s support he moved to London where he enjoyed a very successful career, and had a great deal to do with the Poly for many years.
The medals were hugely popular and were handed out enthusiastically - in fact they almost bankrupted the Society. By 1869 nearly 1,000 had been awarded, as well as £4,000 in cash – a fortune in contemporary values.
Sir Charles Lemon served as Member of Parliament for Penryn, and funded the establishment of what is now the Camborne School of Mines. He was at one time President of three scientific societies in Cornwall: the Royal Geological Society, the Royal Institution, and the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society from its foundation until his death.
Picture - Laocoon by N.N Burnard
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 in Falmouth Docks, blowing a large iron anvil to bits. Exhibitions demonstrated the electric telegraph, electric lighting, the telephone, wireless telegraphy, gas and oil engines, rock drilling machinery, and many other scientific inventions.
In 1882, the Poly’s Jubilee Year, the Falmouth Drill Hall was hired to house the mechanical exhibits, connected to the Polytechnic Hall by telephone, while the Polytechnic Hall housed the ‘fine and useful’ arts. The Hall was lit by electricity, with a 12 h.p. steam engine in Porhan Street providing the power. The exhibition lasted an unusual eleven days, and a Bee Show was held on the Moor.
But at some point the initial impetus simply had to slow down. During the latter half of the 19th century, exhibitions grew less popular, the mines stopped subscribing, the cost of awards became exorbitant, we needed a full time Secretary, and our Annual Report had to be published and distributed – all of which were important to us, but sapped our few resources. The prices of tin and copper dropped, Falmouth lost the Packet Service in 1850, unemployment rose, though the arrival of the railway in 1863 did improve matters for a while. However our funding remained precarious, and there were times when the Committee considered having to close down the Poly.
Another problem was the refusal to allow the Hall to be used for any other purpose than the exhibitions. Thus our great Polytechnic Hall sat empty and unused for the greater part of every year, and it was not until 1898 that members agreed that the Hall, our only source of revenue, had to be put to use, and made available for other purposes.
Picture - Jubilee Exhibition Committee 1882
During the war the Hall was used as a ‘Soldiers’ Room’, with volunteers selling over 6000 cups of tea ‘at a very reasonable price’. Exhibitions and visits and medals were cancelled, and the academic publications and researches carried out by learned Victorian men and women, and published in our Annual Reports, were gradually overtaken by government and the universities. The country entered an era of mechanization, and the inventions we had exhibited became outdated or patented.
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. For years the Falmouth Steam Laundry had its office upstairs, and various firms rented the front rooms downstairs. The Poly applied for a licence for Concerts, Balls and even Dramatic Entertainments, though we did not produce any of these ourselves. A Dance Hall with Bands used the Hall regularly, until complaints from up and down Church Street put an end to that. However, the Hall and premises were at least providing revenue for the Society.
In 1910 the Hall was let for showing the first films in Falmouth, which continued until 1938, when the well-known Harris Brothers terminated their lease of the Hall. In due course films became hugely popular and several cinemas opened in Falmouth, so there was a gap in the Poly’s film activities until 1991 when we started to run our own programme.
Picture - The Soldiers Room 1914
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 the 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 below.
For nearly twenty years the Museum proved popular, but expensive to maintain, with very little in return. Conditions deteriorated until 1950, when the Council agreed to disband it. Many of the exhibits were returned to their owners, while the remainder were sold or dispersed.
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.
Picture - The Well in the Gallery
In In 1947, novelist and playwright Howard Spring became a member. He deplored the mechanization that was overtaking the world, and injected a new emphasis on cultural programmes. He gave lectures and talks, and wrote and produced a number of plays for the Poly which were performed with great success. The stage and Hall were developed into a well equipped small theatre with permanent seating. He and his wife Marion worked tirelessly for the Poly, raising funds and inspiring a new enthusiasm for the arts.
In 1953 Howard Spring was elected President, and re-elected twice. His nine year Presidency and his inspired leadership transformed the Poly, and helped to fulfill the principal aim of the Fox sisters ‘to promote the useful and fine arts’. We named the Spring Gallery after him.
Howard Spring died in 1965, having succeeded in giving the Poly a new purpose, and turning an empty exhibition hall into the welcoming theatre we enjoy today.
“I am glad that our Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society is more actively than ever encouraging music and painting and drama as significant occupations for its members. It is a tendency from which nothing but good can come, for every man is a polytechnic society of a sort.”
Picture - Howard Spring