John Rylands Library

John Rylands Library

John Rylands Library

In the last of my posts about historic libraries of Manchester, we will take a look at the John Rylands library, a neo-Gothic building situated on Deansgate in the city centre. The John Rylands library is now part of the University of Manchester, but it is open to visitors. It houses one of the most unique collections in the world, consisting of 1.4 million items collected from numerous countries, and covering a period of over 5000 years. The items include more than 250,000 printed books.

Although the building is a little dark and formidable in appearance, I personally think that the beauty of many Gothic buildings lies in the detail rather than the overall impression. It also has a much more attractive interior.

John Rylands Front Entrance

John Rylands Front Entrance

John Ryland Exhibition Gallery

John Ryland Exhibition Gallery

History

The library opened on 1st January 1900. It took ten years to build and was founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her late husband, John Rylands. She commissioned architect Basil Champneys to design the building in 1889 after being inspired by his design of Mansfield College in Oxford.

Enriqueta Rylands purchased Lord Spencer’s Althorp Library of 43,000 items in 1892, which was then regarded as one of the finest private collections in the world, with 3,000 of the items dating from before 1501. This collection made up the original stock for the John Rylands library at a purchase price of £210,000.

Since then further collections have been added to the library’s stock including:

  • The addition of Richard Copley Christie’s library of 8,000 volumes in 1901, which includes many rare books from the Renaissance period N.B. This was originally acquired by the University of Manchester, but was transferred to the John Rylands library following the merger with the university in 1972.
  • The purchase in 1901 of 6,000 manuscripts formerly owned by James Linsay, 26th Earl of Crawford, which was one of the rarest collections in Britain at that time
  • 5,000 items bequeathed by Walter Llewellyn Bullock in the 1930s, which are early Italian imprints

The library has Grade 1 listed status. It merged with the University of Manchester in 1972 and now houses special collections from both the John Rylands library and the university.

John Rylands Stained Glass Window

John Rylands Stained Glass Window

John Rylands

John Rylands was an industrialist who rose from humble beginnings to become Manchester’s first multi-millionaire. Together with his father and two brothers, he founded a textile company during the Victorian era. The company produced cotton goods and, at its peak, it owned 17 mills and factories, and employed 15,000 people.

Originally from St Helens, John Rylands moved to Manchester in 1834. By 1855 he had moved out of the city centre and into the suburbs. He bought Longford Hall in Stretford where he kept a library of books, which were mainly religious. On his death in 1888 he left over £2.5 million.

The Collection

John Rylands Rare Collection

John Rylands Rare Collection

John Rylands library now has a collection of over 250,000 books and well over a million items in total. These consist of an amalgamation of items from the John Rylands library and the University of Manchester’s rare collections. It is regarded as one of the finest collections of books, manuscripts and archive items in the world.

The collections span more than 5000 years, cover more than 50 languages and include a vast range of subjects. There are hundreds of archives from businesses, landed families, charities, trade unions and business associations. Papers from well-known scientists and academics are also housed here.

Other items worthy of mention are the medieval illuminated manuscripts, early printing including books printed by William Caxton and a fine paper copy of the Gutenberg bible, and the personal papers of historical figures such as Elizabeth Gaskell, John Wesley and John Dalton.

Present Day

John Rylands Extension

John Rylands Extension

The building was refurbished between 2003 and 2007 at a cost of over £17 million. This was funded by a grant of 8.5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £3 million from the European Regional Development Fund together with other funding. This funding provided enhanced facilities for both visitors and readers. The new facilities include exhibition galleries on the ground floor and a Special Materials Reading Room. The funding also financed conservation work to the building. Personally, I’m not too keen on the modern addition to the building but I suppose it’s all a matter of taste.

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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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