Chetham’s Library in Manchester is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. It was founded by the bequest of Humphrey Chetham,* who became fabulously wealthy as a result of trading in fustian, a cloth made from a mix of linen and cotton, and controlling the entire supply chain reaping profits all the way through: the Jeff Bezos of his day. A religious man, he wanted to use his wealth to overcome poverty by curing ignorance, and paid for the education of 20 boys. He once declined a knighthood, an affront for which he was fined. When he died in 1653, by his will he established a school for 40 boys, Chetham’s Hospital, as well as the library.

The building housing the library is even older, dating from 1421, when it was built for the housing of a college of priests attached to the nearby church, now Manchester Cathedral. It can be seen through the entrance gate archway in the picture above. The sandstone buildings can be seen to advantage in this photo, with the library wing in the distance — by which I don’t mean the downtown skyscrapers.

The school, which now occupies the site vacated by Manchester Grammar School — the red brick structure on the left of the gateway — is now a School of Music. Because it’s a place of study, access to the library is by guided tour, on the hour. Entry is free, with a suggested donation. They also have a few items for sale: notably a handsome little book about the library published by Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers in London. The place still acts as a free public library, though you’ll need to make an appointment to come in and consult a volume. Their catalog is on-line and may be found here.

The books in the library were originally chained, but now they are protected by gates closing off each bay. 

Chetham’s Library’s collections contain 40 medieval manuscripts, and 120,000 printed books, most published before 1850 when for space reasons they began to restrict their purchasing largely to Mancuniana. They have a copy of The Nuremberg Chronicle from 1493 with a 16th-century English translation in the margin.

Chetham’s will also left £200 for the provision of “five small libraries of books, designed to be ‘chained upon desks or to be fixed to the pillars or in other convenient places’. They were to be located in the parish churches of Manchester and Bolton and in the parochial chapelries of Gorton, Turton and Walmesley.” The one from Gorton has survived and has been acquired by the library. It may be seen here. The books in these little libraries were all of an elevating nature, and in English.

Perhaps the highlight of the tour is the very table at which Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx sat researching and writing during Marx’s visit to Manchester in 1845. They display it with books they are known to have consulted — not the actual copies, reprints. 

As a tail piece you may admire this blogger reading up on The Poor.

Thanks to Peter Sowden for notification of this survival.


* Quaintly the Library pronounces his name to rhyme with cheat ’em, while the school, often referred to as Chet’s, uses a short e. Chetham spelled his name various ways and nobody knows how he’d have pronounced it.