This article was first published in the January 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine


When you take a seat in the alcove of the reading room of Chetham’s Library in Manchester you can sense that it’s a special place. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sat at this very table, spending the summer of 1845 studying heavy volumes – titles that today’s visitors can still see, such as William Petty’s Essays in Political Arithmetick from 1699 or the 1797 three-volume State of the Poor by Frederick Eden – and fermenting the ideas that would form the basis of The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848.

Humphrey Chetham wouldn’t have foreseen the historical significance of the institution – the oldest public library in the English-speaking world – that his estate posthumously provided in 1653. Occupying a medieval building in the centre of Manchester, Chetham’s Library offers an oasis of calm in the heart of this ever-changing city, just yards across Cathedral Gardens from the tall and imposing glass triangle that houses the National Football Museum. The library continues to attract curious tourists and scholars. The visitors’ book shows that, in the last 24 hours alone, it has welcomed people from Bhutan, Moscow, Geneva and Colombia. But, despite the gentle stream of human traffic, these wood-lined corridors feel largely untouched since the 17th century, when they were converted from former monks’ quarters into a seat of study and learning.

Knowledge beyond reach

“Chetham’s continues to have an important role not only as a tourist destination but also as a serious research library, with collections that have been designated of national and international importance,” explains Dr Mark Towsey from the University of Liverpool.

“But in thinking about its significance at the time, it is worth establishing precisely what the term ‘public library’ actually meant in the mid-17th century. This was an age when books were still unfamiliar objects, very expensive and not part of most people’s day-to-day lives. Libraries were the preserve of the wealthy, hoarded away in closed collections in country houses, cathedrals and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.

“Chetham’s was intended to be something different: an institution dedicated to collecting and preserving knowledge for the ‘public’ good. But while it was to be free and open to the scholarly community, there was little expectation that ordinary people would have any desire or need to use its books. A modern equivalent would be the British Library – a scholarly repository for researchers, like Chetham’s was for Marx and Engels.” Just a few feet from their alcove is a ‘chained library’, one of five that Chetham set aside provision for in his will and which were located in different locations across latter-day Greater Manchester. Resembling a huge office bureau, this astonishingly well-preserved example folds out to reveal 51 17th-century books chained to it (at the time, books were extremely valuable, hence the fitting of chains to prevent theft). Chetham was precise in what each one would hold: “Godly Englishe Bookes… for the edification of the common people.”

More like this

Chetham’s Library is but one of Manchester’s significant contributions to the rise and evolution of public libraries. The story accelerates rapidly during the early Victorian era when a series of parliamentary acts established free public libraries. This legislation, notes Dr Towsey, was a reflection of the shifting times.

“By the mid-19th century, the ‘reading public’ became more diverse and wide-ranging. Since the age of Humphrey Chetham, books had become ever more accessible and fashionable, emerging as a fundamental part of everyday life. Around 60 per cent of the population could read by the middle of the 18th century.

“Reading became an enjoyable pastime and became regarded as a key to self-development and self-improvement. Put simply, in an age when formal education was extremely uneven and rudimentary at best, people educated themselves through reading. But there remained one major problem. Books were still extremely expensive, luxury items. Only the very wealthiest families could afford to buy all the new books they might want to read.”

Thirst for knowledge

During the 18th century, book-borrowing was offered in a variety of ways, whether by for-profit commercial libraries, religious congregations, or taverns that made newspapers and pamphlets available to read while their patrons took refreshment.

Here in Manchester, the Portico opened at the turn of the 19th century, an important subscription library whose doors, like those of Chetham’s, remain open today.

“By the 1830s and 1840s,” explains Dr Towsey, “there had developed a flourishing, unregulated library culture built not by the state but by autonomous individuals acting from a range of motivations – profit, sociability, self-improvement, entertainment, civic pride.

“While all of these DIY libraries served specific, sometimes overlapping reading ‘publics’, none of them were public in the modern sense of offering books for free to the whole community. Subscription fees tended to be expensive, sometimes prohibitively so.”

The Public Libraries Act of 1850, combined with upgraded legislation in 1855 and 1866, brought a new player to library provision: government. This offered a significant sea-change, permitting local boroughs to raise taxes to cover the establishment of free public libraries. The 1850 Act, though, restricted their construction to boroughs with populations in excess of 100,000.

Heavily populated Manchester easily qualified and the city established the world’s first stand-alone free public lending library in September 1852 – Manchester Free Library. (Across the river Irwell in Salford, the Royal Museum & Public Library had opened two years earlier but, being attached to a museum, this had been set up through the 1845 Museums Act.)

When it opened its doors, the Manchester Free Library was so popular that, during its first few weeks, a police constable had to be deployed to maintain order. Its opening ceremony was graced by none other than Charles Dickens, who declared that the new building would be “a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets and the cellars of the poorest of our people”. The novelist and politician Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton agreed. “I call it an arsenal,” he announced, “for books are weapons, whether for war or self-defence.”

Private funding

The 1850 act did not, however, precipitate a tidal wave of similar libraries being established. For one thing it only empowered the largest boroughs. Secondly, it restricted the use of tax income to constructing buildings and paying staff. Paying for the acquisition of books was another matter. Although subsequent acts of 1855 and 1866 sought to clarify these funding issues, very few free public libraries were initially built. And when they were, private money was often required.

“Private benefaction has always been a tremendously important part of library culture,” reasons Dr Towsey. “It carried over into the era of publicly funded libraries operated by local government, rather than sitting simply as a precursor. Most obviously, the Dunfermline-born steel magnate Andrew Carnegie supported more than 2,500 public libraries across the UK, the USA and other parts of the Anglophone world, working in partnership with local authorities.”

Other benefactors upon whose wealth public libraries depended included the newspaper proprietor John Passmore Edwards, who funded 24 libraries in London, the Home Counties and Cornwall and gave thousands of books to libraries across the world, and the sugar king Henry Tate, who established free libraries in Streatham, Brixton and Lambeth. In Manchester itself, the John Rylands Library was established in 1900 by the widow of a local philanthropist. It’s another of the city’s historically significant – and beautiful – libraries still open today, now part of the University of Manchester.

Benefaction often came with conditions. While the likes of Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton excitedly embraced the empowerment that free public libraries could offer, others were more cautious. With such libraries still largely reliant on donations to fill their shelves, “book stocks reflected what middle-class patrons thought the poor should be reading, rather than what they actually wanted to read,” says Dr Towsey. “Also, elites came to support libraries because they were worried about what the working classes would read if left to their own devices, and about what else they might get up to in their spare time. They considered libraries an invaluable tool of social and political control.”

The degree to which free public libraries improved literacy in the second-half of the 19th century is unclear, but Dr Towsey says there is at least anecdotal evidence of their transformative effect. “Several detailed case studies from the Victorian period have shown that libraries tended to be exploited by young readers below their mid-30s who were eager to use books to change their lives, pull them out of precarious work and improve their economic fortunes.

“Public libraries did succeed in bringing some readers to books whose previous opportunities would have been extremely curtailed,” he continues, “but it was not until a new wave of philanthropic support and the reforming Public Libraries Act in 1919 that libraries had truly widespread and consistent national reach.”

By then, of course, the ideas of Marx and Engels – forged in that peaceful Manchester reading room – had similarly reached far and wide.

Public Libraries: Five More Places To Explore


British Library, Central London

Where most books can be found

The largest library in Europe (based on the number of its catalogued holdings), the British Library was part of the British Museum until 1972 and shared the same site until 1997. The library receives a copy of every book published in the UK, a legal stipulation upon all publishers.


Liverpool Central Library, Liverpool

Where grade II meets spanking new

After an extensive £50m refit, Liverpool’s main library now has a thoroughly modern interior. But keeping its place among the lattice of staircases and escalators is the tremendous grade II-listed Picton Reading Room, the first library in Britain to be illuminated by electric light.


The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Where all Scottish life is recorded

With around 24 million items, including 15 million books and almost 2 million maps, the NLS is the first port of call for any scholar of Scottish history, but also holds fascinating items such as the letter that accompanied Darwin’s submission of his On the Origin of Species.


Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire

Where you can stay the night

Founded by the four-time prime minister in 1894, this is an important haven for writers in north Wales (around 300 books were “inspired, started, revised or finished” by authors while at the library). You can also stay in one of its 26 boutique bedrooms.


Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Where 12 million printed items live

Although primarily serving the students and staff of Oxford and thus not strictly a public library, private researchers can use the extensive holdings of the city’s most famous library if they successfully apply for a reader’s card. Public tours of this venerable institution are also available.


Historical advisor: Dr Mark Towsey, reader in modern British history at the University of Liverpool. Words: Nige Tassell