Chetham’s Library

Chetham’s Library

For anyone with a love of history and books, a visit to Chetham’s Library in Manchester is an absolute must! Founded in 1653, Chetham’s Library is the oldest surviving public library in Great Britain. Stepping through its doors takes you straight back in time.

Stairs at Chetham's Library.
Stairs at Chetham’s Library. These ones are no longer used.

The building itself is older than the library and the poor boy’s school which it once housed. It was originally built in 1421 for the priests of Manchester’s Collegiate Church. Today, the beautiful sandstone building sits within the grounds of Chetham’s School of Music (for this reason I was unable to take photos of the outside of the building).

Shelves and shelves of old books at Chetham's Library.
Chetham’s Library
A close-up of books at Chetham's Liibrary.
Books at Chetham’s Library, including the Will of Humphrey Chetham.

Chetham’s Library was established under the will of Humphrey Chetham (1580 – 1653). Humphrey Chetham made his fortune in the cloth trade and became the most successful gentleman merchant of 17th-century Lancashire. Despite being a charitable man, he seemed reluctant to be in the public domain. He refused a knighthood in 1631 and was fined for doing so! As he grew older, Chetham began to pay for the education and maintenance of 22 boys from the Manchester area. He wanted to provide hope of a livelihood for underprivileged boys (girls at this time needed not to trouble themselves with education as they were expected to do nothing more than domestic duties!). Humphrey Chetham died aged 72 years on 20th September 1653 and was buried amid a large funeral at the Collegiate Church of Manchester.

Books, a printing press and type cases at Chetham's Library.
Books, a printing press and type cases at Chetham’s Library.

Chetham’s will stated that the library should be “for the use of schollars and others well affected” and that the librarian “require nothing of any man that cometh into the library”. The governors purchased College House to house the library. With the priests long since gone, the building had been used as a prison and arsenal during the Civil War and was now in a state of neglect. Local craftsmen carried out the restoration and the fitting and furnishing of the library. It was decided that the library should be housed on the first floor to avoid rising damp what with the Rivers Irwell and Tib close by. The books were chained to the bookcases in keeping with Chetham’s instructions.

Looking through Chetham's Library to the Reading Room.
Looking through Chetham’s Library to the Reading Room.

Most, if not all, libraries tend to have their books in subject and alphabetical order to make them easy to find. Not at Chetham’s library… The books were placed on the shelves in order of size, with large books at the bottom and small books at the top! It wasn’t until 1791 that a proper catalogue was produced, even then it was written in Latin and the books were listed only by subject and size. With the books chained to the shelves, readers had to make use of the 24 carved oak stools provided as portable seats. Imagine trying to study! By the mid-18th century, the system became somewhat more relaxed. The chains were taken off the books so the books could be taken to the Reading Room to study, and gates were put up to prevent theft.

The Reading Room at Chetham's Library.
The Reading Room at Chetham’s Library.
Books chained to two shelves in a portable library.
A portable library! The small chained library of Gorton.
A close-up of the chained books in the "portable" library.
A close-up of the chained books in the “portable” library.

The building has had some famous visitors. Karl Marx and his friend, Friedrich Engels, visited on more than one occasion. When writing to Marx in 1870, Engels wrote:

“During the last few days, I have again spent a good deal of time sitting at the four-sided desk in the alcove where we sat together twenty-four years ago. I am very fond of the place. The stained glass window ensures that the weather is always fine there. Old Jones, the Librarian, is still alive but he is very old and no longer active. I have not seen him on this occasion.”

The desk and alcove are still in the Reading Room and the books Marx and Engels consulted back in 1845 remain at the Library. I can see why Engels enjoyed sitting there!

The alcove and desk at which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sat at. in Chetham's Library.
The alcove and desk at which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sat at.

Books sat on a desk.

A chair in the Reading Room at Chetham's Library.
A chair in the Reading Room at Chetham’s Library.

Doctor John Dee was one of the building’s most famous residents. Long before the library’s existence, John Dee was appointed Warden of Manchester at the college in 1595. John Dee’s own library was one of the largest of its day. Five books from his collection are now part of Chetham’s Library. A table from John Dee’s time sits in the Audit room and a burn mark scorched into the table is said to have been made by the hoof of Satan after Dee summoned him!

The Audit Room at Chetham's Library.
The Audit Room at Chetham’s Library.

I visited Chetham’s Library as part of one of their twice-daily guided tours. The tours last around an hour with an additional 15 minutes at the end to enjoy the library. With just four of us in our group, we were able to ask plenty of questions, and our guide was very knowledgeable and friendly.

A close-up of a page from Samuel Johnson's English dictionary.
A close-up of Samuel Johnson’s first dictionary of the English Language.

There is so much more history to Chetham’s Library than I can possibly put here. I wholeheartedly recommend booking a tour of the library for yourself. I could have easily spent hours there!

Chetham’s Library is easily accessed by public transport with Manchester Piccadilly Railway and Metro Station just around the corner and Shudehill Bus Station just a short walk away.

Chetham’s Library, Long Millgate, Manchester M3 1SB


  1. tomthebackroadstraveller says:

    …the library is gorgeous. The history and knowledge that it contains is amazing. Thanks for taking me along for the tour.

  2. Kris P says:

    You have so many interesting historical places to visit, Nikki. I’m left wondering why Doctor John Dee may have summoned Satan, though, and if a book incited him to do it!

  3. Ju Lyn says:

    I love libraries but this one really is a historical visit! Thank you for taking us through this very beautiful space with such a long history! My favourite image is the chained books – I am imagining how they must feel

  4. Kelly says:

    What a marvelous place!! I can easily imagine myself sitting at that desk where Marx and Engels sat. Just think about all the feet that have marched up those stone steps!
    I got your latest correspondence yesterday. I will write back soon.

  5. Vix says:

    Wow! What a fabulous fella Humphrey Cheetham was, kudos to him for turning down a knighthood, too.
    Your photos are incredible, I can almost smell the old books and wood polish just by scrolling through.
    Cheethams’ Library goes on the Must See list! xxx

  6. Yvonne (@Fiction_Books) says:

    You are so lucky that you were able to take pictures inside, if not the outside, because you could never have explained this amazing place to anyone in words alone.

    The Reading Room is especially impressive, and I love the idea of the ‘portable’ library.

    If only buildings could talk of all the things which had happened within their walls and conversations they had overheard!

    Thanks for sharing such a lovely post! 🙂

  7. Marty says:

    Those beautiful old stacks! What I’d give to just wander around there as you did. Marvelous, polished wood everywhere too. I love the idea of the chained books — I was constantly roaming the offices of the attorneys who used my library that never returned material. Those would have come in handy indeed! What an absolutely wonderful place, thanks so much for sharing it.

  8. Lauren says:

    Wow, it looks so beautiful. What a great place to visit and experience. The photographs look so lovely. A very historical place to visit. Thank you for sharing about this library and your experience.


    • Nikki says:

      I was actually in Manchester for a concert which got cancelled, so I decided to stop for a couple of nights and make the most of my time there. There are a few Manchester themed posts planned! It’s a great place and I can’t wait to get back there.

  9. It looks like a very interesting place and your photos are great but paying £11 for a tour puts me off visiting. It’s been my intention for a while to go to the Rylands library, no booking necessary and it’s free too.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Turton Tower – it’s not far from me – but Humphrey Chetham owned the place from 1628 until his death and some of his chained books are on display there.

  10. Margaret 21 says:

    How fabulous. I can’t believe this ex-student at Manchester never went there, though I was a huge fan of the John Rylands library, which seems to have reinvented itself in the last fifty years.

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