Twenty-first century concerns about social inclusion and lamentations about the decline of local-authority amenities such as schools and libraries are nothing new.
Chetham’s School and Library was a seventeenth-century attempt to educate the underprivileged and give access to learning to members of the public.
Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653), a prosperous bachelor cotton-merchant and banker, made provision in his will to benefit the sons “of honest, industrious parents and not of wandering or idle beggars or roagues nor that any of the said boyes shal bee bastards nor such as are lame, infirme or diseased at the time of their ellection” by founding the school that still bears his name.
(In comparison, the older Manchester Grammar School, – which stood nearby until it moved out to Fallowfield in 1931 – was founded in 1515 by Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter, “for boys who, having pregnant wit, have been for the most part brought up rudely and idly.”)
His trustees bought the decayed college buildings that had been built by Thomas de la Warre, Lord of the Manor, when he refounded and rebuilt the parish church, now the Cathedral, in 1421.
They spent £400 on buildings and £1,000 on the books which were to be available to the general public free of charge.
Naturally, the books stayed firmly chained to the shelves, and readers had to move to the location of the book they wanted, using oak stools with S-shaped hand holds that remain in the library.
Stepping into the Library, which is accessible to tourists or readers alike, is a journey back in time.
Though the catalogue is now digitised, the books are still arranged in presses, secured by wooden gates instead of chains, and are brought to readers by library staff.
The table where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels researched and wrote in 1845 is still beside the stained-glass window which, Engels later remarked, “ensures that the weather is always fine there”.
Nowadays the school is a specialised music school, open to boys and girls, and some of the medieval buildings are off-limits to the public for much of the time.
Visitors are made very welcome, and guided tours are available. There’s no charge but donations are appreciated. It’s advisable to make an appointment simply to be sure of a place: http://library.chethams.com/about/visiting.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.
There are two separate handbooks for the two Manchester’s Heritage tours that ran in 2009 and 2019 respectively. The itineraries were entirely distinct, so the two handbooks interconnect. The 80-page 2009 edition is longer, but the 60-page 2019 version which includes a section on Chetham’s Library, has more depth and text: the older version is reduced in price to £10.00, while the later one is £15.00.