Bridport & West Dorset News, Views, Videos & Curiosities

Bridport backs plans to save historic Institute

MORE time is being sought for work on a plan to turn Bridport’s old Literary and Scientific Institute into a new Heritage and Study Centre incorporating the town’s museum.

The Institute in East Street, a Grade II* Listed Building, is one of Dorset’s historic treasures.

It began life in the 1830s as one of Britain’s first Mechanics Institutes, meant chiefly to educate young working class men.

It became a more middle-class Literary and Scientific Institute in 1855.

During the Second World War it was a Red Cross recreation centre for American soldiers and a quartermaster’s stores.

From the early 1950s until 1997 it housed Bridport’s public library, and then until 2002 it was home to the award-winning digital arts combo PVA, trading as Labculture Ltd.

Nowadays it’s on English Heritage’s list of buildings at risk.

There’s been a long and complicated legal dispute between Dorset County Council and descendants of the original freeholder about the ownership of the property [see below for more details], but earlier this year the High Court decided that people in Bridport should be given six months to see if they could come up with a plan.

And they have. The plan – unanimously supported at a meeting in Bridport Town Hall – is to create a new Heritage and Study Centre focusing on Bridport’s cultural and industrial past, present and future.

The High Court is now being asked to grant more time so that a detailed business plan can be prepared.

“Various suggestions have been made for the future of the building, but the need to secure major restoration grants means that only proposals which are likely to generate income over a sustained period have any chance of success,” said town councillor Charles Wild. Since January, he’s been working on a voluntary basis with local consultant Crystal Johnson to investigate possibilities for the Institute’s future.

Coun Wild continued: “The trustees of Bridport Museum have indicated that they would like to investigate the possibility of establishing a new local attraction, incorporating the existing museum collection but with a wider focus on the cultural and industrial heritage of the Bridport area. The ownership of the building could be transferred to the Bridport Area Development Trust, which could sub-let it to the Museum Trust if the project can be shown to be viable. 

“This looks the strongest of the suggestions which has come forward since we started looking for a solution to the building, and is gaining a lot of support.

“It could be a great use of the building and its wonderful interior spaces.”

Sandra Brown, chairman of Bridport Museum Trustees, said: “Obviously there is a lot to consider, but we think this is a very exciting possibility and well worth investigating. The Museum trustees are very supportive of this initiative.

Crystal Johnson said: “We’re very grateful for the help we have received from a number of people over this short period, coming up with a range of suggestions and thoughts on how they could be funded, and some really interesting suggestions came up at the meeting..

“Six months has obviously left us working to a very tight timeframe. Having got the support of the meeting (to which we invited all those who responded to our public appeal in early March), we have asked for a short extension of time in order to complete a project proposal with costings and financial projections which could be submitted to the High Court.”

Anyone who would like to offer practical help is asked to contact Charles Wild (01308-420808) or Crystal Johnson (07968-577867).

Related Posts on Real West Dorset: With many photographs Suggests (a bit cheekily, I suppose) that Oliver Letwin might like to contribute 

Editor’s Note on the legal situation: My understanding of the case is that, in 1863, the Trustees of the Bridport LSI were given a lease of 1000 years, under the provisions of the Literary and Scientific Institutions Act of 1854.

In 1951, Dorset County Council was appointed sole trustee by the Minister for Education, who ordered that the building should thereafter vest in DCC.

However, in the 1990s, the Charity Commission suggested that things were not as simple as they might look: there could, in fact, be two trustees; DCC as the body governed by the 1863 lease; but also an institution of trustees governed by the LSI rules – although that institution appears to have ceased to exist as a legal entity in 1951.

To further complicate matters, descendants of the original freeholder have also sought to claim title.

It’s possible – no, make that likely – that my understanding is far from complete, but I’ve included this note to try to give a rough idea why the High Court thought it might be a good idea to see what the people of Bridport could suggest. It might be a way out…

And who knows? It might be. The economic climate of the times is against plans for heritage and study, but a new centre could be a fantastic thing for Bridport to have.