Chetham’s – The Oldest Public Library in the English-Speaking World

In my quest to blog about some of Manchester’s wonderful historic libraries, I thought I would start with Chetham’s in view of its claim to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. It’s a fascinating place to look at and I am amazed that I have only recently visited it for the first time considering how long I have lived in Manchester. With my joint loves of books and poking about in old buildings, I was in my element.

Chethams Entrance

Chetham’s entrance

Although visitors are advised to book in advance, I arrived on spec because I was going into Manchester city centre anyway. After a 10 minute wait due to a service taking place in the adjoining school, I was allowed access to the library and entered a beautiful medieval courtyard.

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Visitors have to be accompanied by a guide (I presume it’s because of the value of some of the old books and other relics). I think my guide soon realised that progress around the building would be slow as I continuously stopped to take photographs and admire the paintings, ornate windows, beamed ceilings etc. etc. I suppose there are only so many ‘wows’ you can contend with so she eventually left me to cover the top floor unaccompanied – yippee!

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History

Here’s a little of the history:

The library was established in 1653 under the will of Humphrey Chetham, a wealthy Manchester textile merchant, banker and landowner. It began as a school for the poor, although the building that houses the library dates back to 1421 and was built as a college for priests. Chetham’s is now a music school with the library attached.

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Humphrey Chetham’s portrait above the fireplace in the reading room

The history of the building is very much in evidence as you walk around Chetham’s. The walls are built from sandstone quarried locally in Collyhurst, and I marvelled at the thickness of the doors, and the beautiful oak furniture in the reading room.

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Original doors

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The oak table and leather backed chairs (also oak) in the Reading Room were purchased in the 1650s. Two students were working at the other end of the table during my visit so I wasn’t able to take a picture of the whole table. The chairs are of Cromwellian type, characterised by the square backs, turned legs and scroll work on the leg connectors.

The collection of books in the library dates back to the library’s inception in 1653, and continues to expand. Nowadays the collection focuses on the history and topography of Greater Manchester and Lancashire as well as other topics of local interest. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to examine the books as they’re kept in gated alcoves.

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The gated alcoves and beamed ceilings with a view through to the Reading Room

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Some of the wonderful old book collection under lock and key

Lastly, I’ll finish by adding a few images of the Baronial Hall although it was difficult to capture in all its glory.

In future blog posts I’ll be visiting some of Manchester’s other historic libraries.

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