In 1863 Warburton’s nephew, Howard Warburton Elphinstone, to whom the building reverted on the failure of the Mechanics’ Institute, leased the building to a group of local gentlemen. The lease was granted for the term of 1000 years at the annual rent of one peppercorn if demanded. The Mechanics Institute was reconstituted in accordance with the Literary and Scientific Institutions Act which had been passed by Parliament in 1854. The objectives of the Institute were to encourage “the intellectual and moral improvement of all classes and the cultivation of Literature, Science and Art”.
In 1865 the Bridport School of Art was established. It functioned for a number of years alongside the Institute in the same building, and became the more influential organisation. It operated as an evening school and came under the management of the Higher Education Committee.
Probably the most notable student at the School was Francis H. (“Fra”) Newbery who, following an apprenticeship at the School of Art, qualified as an art master in early 1875. He was appointed assistant master at Bridport School of Art, helping it win significant national awards in competition with other schools of art. Newbery later became Director of Glasgow School of Art, crediting with bringing Charles Rennie Mackintosh and a number of his contemporaries to international fame and recognition.
The ground floor was used by the Institute as a Library and Reading Room, for conversation and games which included billiards, cards, chess and draughts. The rooms were decorated with museum cases of stuffed animals, fish and birds. Additional rooms for classes and lectures were added to the back of the building in the 1880s.
In 1883 the upstairs room was divided to provide two permanent studios for the thriving Bridport School of Art, one for beginners and the other for more advanced students. It was at this time that the extra classrooms were built onto the back of the Institute to compensate for the loss of the lecture room. The Art School continued to flourish and the building is usually referred during this period as the School of Art. From 1922 until the outbreak of War in 1939, the building provided accommodation for a Men’s Club.
During the Second World War (1939-45) at least part of the Institute building was requisitioned for war purposes. The building was temporarily used by American troops stationed in Bridport before the Normandy landings in 1944, including the Medical Detachment of the 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry. The Reading Room was used as a Red Cross Recreational Centre for the American soldiers. The first floor was for a time used as a Quartermaster’s Store for the Borough Evacuation Scheme.
After the end of the War part of the upstairs rooms were being used by the British Red Cross as a depot, while the ground floor consisted of a reading room, a card room and a billiard room. But local interest had declined and the Institute was running into financial difficulties.
By 1950 the committee concluded that its financial position was so weak that it could not continue, and responsibility for the building was assumed by Dorset County Council, on the basis that it could take on the building as part of a programme of Regional Libraries being established throughout the County. The building served as the town’s public library from 1952 to 1997, when the library service relocated to new premises.
The future of the building was uncertain, and various groups occupied parts of the building, and feasibility studies were carried out without any outcome, until 2002 when the building was declared unsafe. The situation was complicated by a claim that the charitable purposes of the Trust had failed and the building should therefore revert to the Elphinstone family.
In 2008 the County Council sought guidance from the High Court as to its duties with regard to the Institute, which depended on identifying the legal and beneficial interests. Meanwhile concern within the Bridport community about the neglect of the building and its uncertain future led in 2008-9 to an enquiry from the Bridport Local Area Partnership on behalf of a number of local cultural and community organisations, and a firm expression of interest from the newly formed Bridport Area Development Trust.
By this time the building had become a negative asset, because of its condition, and when the County Council’s claim was heard by the High Court in 2010, the Elphinstone family did not pursue their own claim. The judge, Master Nicolas Bragge, ordered that the Bridport Area Development Trust should be given time to develop a proposal and put itself in a position to take on the building. The initial period of six months was extended by a further 18 months in September 2010.
In 2012 the Bridport Area Development Trust made a successful Round One application to the Heritage Lottery Fund towards the capital costs of restoration, with match-funding commitments already secured from Dorset County Council, West Dorset District Council, Bridport Town Council, the Challenge Fund and the Architectural Heritage Fund. A further High Court ruling on 3 December 2012 ordered a further adjournment (till October 2014) of decisions on the fate of the building, to enable the BADT to complete its restoration plans and submit a final, Round Two application to the Heritage Lottery in early 2014.
Up-to-date news about progress with the LSI restoration project will be posted in the News page of this website.