Manchester is not only the home of the oldest free public reference library in the United Kingdom – Chetham’s – but boasts one of the thirty-odd surviving independent subscription libraries in the country, the Portico Library, founded by a consortium of Manchester businessmen in 1802 and opened on Mosley Street in 1806.
Originally set in a fashionable part of town, the Portico Library provided an exclusive, politically neutral meeting-place for the professional and business communities, enabling members to read, research and keep up with the news in quiet, comfortable surroundings.
The architect Thomas Harrison of Chester provided an impressive entrance through an Ionic portico which led to a galleried newsroom lit by a glazed dome, “larger by 700 square feet than the coffee room of the Athenaeum in Liverpool”. Bookcases lined the first-floor gallery. The total cost of construction was £6,881 5s 3d.
By the 1830s the properties on Mosley Street were given over to trade, as the merchants moved out to such suburban developments as Victoria Park. Members commuted into town for business and used the library mostly in the daytime. By 1900 most of the members were described as “gentlemen”, though some were cotton manufacturers and merchants.
The Portico Library is rightly proud of its distinguished members. Paul Roget (1779-1869), a physician at the Infirmary and the author of the famous Thesaurus, was the first Secretary. The scientist John Dalton (1766-1844), a lecturer in a Manchester dissenting academy, was accorded honorary membership in return for “superintend[ing] the going of the clock”. The Rev William Gaskell (1805-1844), minister at Cross Street Chapel and a noted academic, was Chairman for thirty years and is commemorated in the library by a portrait and a bust.
Others included the engineer Sir Joseph Whitworth Bt (1803-1887), the cotton manufacturer, merchant John Rylands (1801-1888) whose widow founded the Library that bears his name on Deansgate, and the industrialist and politician Ernest Simon (latterly Baron Simon of Wythemshawe, 1879-1960).
Members’ families visited the Library from the outset. An irritable notice of 1817 declared “Children should not on any account be suffered to…touch the prints, or to turn over the leaves”. “Ladies of the respective families of the Subscribers” were allowed to use the Library, and one of them, Mrs Ann Frost, was allowed membership in 1853, though limited formal membership for women was only introduced in 1873.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century the social and cultural environment in which the Library operated changed increasingly rapidly. Though the cotton trade remained robust, Manchester’s prominence in national politics had shifted to the Chamberlains’ Birmingham. Municipal free libraries, scattered across the city, reduced the need for the Portico’s book collection. The Proprietors debated at length amalgamating with the Athenaeum, selling the book-collection, or selling the entire building.
A practical solution was found after the end of the Great War. In 1920 the ground floor and basement was leased to the Bank of Athens, which paid for an internal glazed dome to allow the library to occupy the first-floor level with an independent entrance on Charlotte Street. The Manchester Evening News commented that if the Portico “cannot claim to be rolling in money, it may claim that there will be plenty of money rolling beneath it”.
The building was listed in 1952, which both ensured its survival and limited the scope for adaptation.
Eventually, after Lloyds’ Bank, successors to the Bank of Athens, moved out, the internal dome was replaced by a solid floor, separating first-floor library from the area below, which became a public house called The Bank.
This transformed library was inaugurated in 1987, and its flexibility led to a rebirth of the institution, which in addition to offering books, periodicals and light refreshments as it always did, mounts exhibitions, hosts performance events, hosts weddings, awards literary prizes and welcomes outside visitors.
A visit to the Portico Library forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour. For further details, please click here.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.
The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.