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Chetham's Library

Address. Long Millgate, Manchester M3 1SB [Map]
Telephone. (0161) 834-7961
Fax. (0161) 839-5797

Governing body or responsible institution. Feoffees of Chetham's Hospital & Library
Function. Public library.
Subjects. Originally the whole range of knowledge. Now, history and topography of North West England.

Access. Open to all readers over the age of 18. Readers wishing to consult rare books and manuscripts may be asked for references and identification. - Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.
Special facilities. Photocopiers, microform readers.
Travel directions. Adjacent to Victoria Railway Station and Manchester Cathedral.


1.1 Chetham's library is the oldest surviving public library in the country with a history of continuous use of over 340 years. It was founded in 1653 in accordance with the terms of the will of Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653), a prosperous Manchester merchant, banker and landowner. Part of Chetham's fortune was used to endow a hospital school for the maintenance and education of forty poor boys, and part for the creation of five chained libraries in local churches. The sum £1,000, together with the residue of the estate, was left for the establishment of a ``librarie within the towne of Manchester for the use of schollars and others well affected to resort unto', and a further £100 was assigned to the adaptation of the library building and for equipment.

1.2 Since 1654 the hospital and library have been accommodated in the College House, a 15th-century building formerly used to house the Wardens and Fellows of the Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral). From the beginning the library had the service of a full-time librarian who was required by the governors to ask ``nothing of any man that cometh into the library'. According to Chetham's will, none of the books was ever to be taken out of the library; indeed they were all to be chained for their better preservation and security. No restrictions, however, were imposed on the subject-matter of the books, the governors being left completely free to determine the composition of the collection. They began in 1655 by seeking to cover the whole range of knowledge. In 1661 the governors invested the remainder of Chetham's estate in land, a decision which guaranteed the library a regular income enabling it to grow and to adapt itself to changing needs.

1.3 For the first four decades of the library's existence Chetham's relied heavily on the second-hand book trade in order to build up a scholarly collection of printed books and manuscripts as quickly as funds permitted. So quickly did the library grow that by the end of the century Chetham's collection was at least the rival of most Oxbridge college libraries. The 18th century saw a shift in the library's acquisition policy. Less emphasis was placed on the second-hand book trade and more on new books and in particular, on journals and periodicals.

1.4 By the middle of the 19th century the library was recognised as the most important public collection of books outside the British Museum and the universities and the only true public library in the country. In 1845 Chetham's received possibly its most distinguished readers when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used the library in the summer of that year in order to consult books on politics and economics. Evidently the library made a good impression on the two men. Writing to Marx in 1870, Engels commented: ``Ich habe in den letzten Tagen viel in dem kleinen Erkerchen vor dem vierseitigen Pult gesessen, wo wir vor 24 Jahren sassen; ich liebe den Platz sehr, wegen des bunten Fensters ist immer schön Wetter dort. Der alte Jones, der Bibliothekar, existiert auch noch, ist aber sehr alt und tut nichts mehr, ich hab' ihn noch nicht wieder dort gesehen.' [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 on 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.]

1.5 In the 1850s, following the creation of rate-supported public libraries in Manchester and elsewhere, the governors abandoned the policy of buying books on all subjects and restricted acquisitions to the arts and, in particular, to history and topography. During the 20th century the policy has been narrowed further to the history of the North of England and especially the North West, together with general and bibliographical studies necessary for the study of local history. The drop in acquisitions is also the result of the fact that by the 1830s other institutions had emerged in Manchester which provided a home for German publications. In 1830 the Foreign library was instituted with a policy that two out of every five books should be of German origin, whilst in 1859 the Schiller Anstalt was created with a notable library of German authors. Both institutions provided literary matter for Manchester's substantial German-speaking community. The former was taken over by the Manchester Libraries Committee in 1903 and the books now form part of the City's Public Library. The Schiller Anstalt ran until shortly before the First World War when it was closed and its library of c. 4,000 vols was dispersed.


2.1 The collection comprises c. 100,000 vols. The holdings include c. 30,000 books in c. 60,000 vols printed before 1850, c. 4,000 pamphlets and more than 3,000 broadsides. Among the early printed books are c. 90 incunabula of which 30 or more were printed before 1480. There are 32 incunables printed in Germany of which 2, the Cologne chronicle, Die Cronica van der hilliger stat van Coellen (Cologne 1499) and Schedel's Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg 1493) were written in German. The 1791 printed catalogue with c. 6,700 titles in 11,000 vols lists c. 15 per cent printed in Germany, i.e. c. 1,725 vols (see below 2.7 -2.8).

2.2 The library originally had a preponderance of divinity books with possibly two out of every three works acquired up to 1701 falling under the general heading of theology. At the close of the 17th century Chetham's contained approximately 3,700 titles. Of these perhaps over 3,300 (90 per cent) had been published on the continent and imported into England. Books printed in Germany probably account for between 25 and 30 per cent of the stock at this time. This holds still true for the pre-1700 holdings today.

2.3 Among the earliest acquisitions were editions printed in Germany of the Greek and Latin Fathers and ohter theological authors: John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen and Origen; indeed the very first book that the library bought in 1655 was the ten-volume edition of Augustine's works, edited by Erasmus and printed in Basel by Froben and Episcopius, 1541-1543. Modern theology was represented by collected editions of all of the German Protestant reformers, and in particular, Luther, Bucer, Zwingli, Osiander and Melanchthon, whilst one early purchase was the Centuriators' of Magdeburg monumental Lutheran history of the church, printed in Basel between 1559 and 1574.

2.4 Other subjects were not neglected. Indeed some of the most important scientific and historical works acquired at this time were of German origin. These include Basilius Besler's Hortus Eystettensis (Nuremberg 1613), bought for £10 in 1669, the earliest copy of this greatest of all botanical works to reach an English library; and Hartmann Schedel's Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg 1493), bought for 15 shillings in 1670, the margins of which contain a manuscript translation of the entire text into English, even today probably the only English version of the text of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Among the scientific works published in Germany acquired by the library are works by Copernicus and Alhazen, mathematical works of Marius Bettinus, and medical writings of Galen published in Basel 1538. German printings of bibliographical works were not overlooked: Gesner's Bibliotheca (Zürich: Froschauer 1583) sitting alongside the English writer John Bale, whose Scriptoribus Britanniae was printed in Basel in 1559.

2.5 Among the antiquarian material purchased at the end of the 18th century is a four-volume Latin Bible, printed in Basel by Johann Amerbach for Adolf Rusch and Anton Koberger about 1480, which contains the manuscript annotations of the great French humanist Guillaume Budé and which belonged to the celebrated book collector Jacques Auguste de Thou. This particular book was purchased in 1794 from Edwards of Halifax for the then enormous sum of 12 guineas.

2.6 According to the acquisition policy of the 18th-century, publications of scientific academies and learned societies were now seen as an essential part of the library's collections. Examples of German works acquired at this time include Acta Eruditorum (Leipzig 1682-1731); Miscellanea Berolinensia (1710-1743); Academia Caesarea Naturae Curioso Miscellanea Curiosa (1670-1706), Histoire de l'Académie Royale des Sciences et des Belles Lettres de Berlin (1746-1771); and Miscellanea Lipsiensia Nova (1742-1754).

2.7 In the library's first printed catalogue of the collections, published in 1791, which lists c. 6,700 editions of printed books in c. 11,500 vols, titles were classed under five major subject headings. Theological works accounted for 29 per cent of the total holdings, law 4.5 per cent, history 25.5 per cent, science and arts 24 per cent, and literature 17 per cent. Publications printed in Germany now accounted for perhaps 15 per cent of the collection or c. 1,725 vols. These figures may still be regarded as representative of the 18th-century holdings today.

2.8 German works were particularly strong in history, with over 50 titles listed under the sub-heading of German history alone, and in science and medicine. Other notable acquisitions include Zedler's Universal-Lexicon (Halle and Leipzig 1732-1754), one of the few examples of this work to find its way into a British library. Other notable examples of historical works are ``annales' and chronicles, e.g. Johann Thurmair (Aventinus), Annalium Boiorum ...libri VII (Basel 1580), Chronica Slavorum, ed. Reinerus Reineck (Frankfurt 1581) or Wolfgang Lazius, De gentium aliquot migrationibus (Basel 1572). Other authors to be mentioned are Johann Adlzreiter [pseud. of Jean Fervaux], Johann Christoph Bec(k)mann, Philipp Cluver, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Conrad von Liechtenau, Johann Petrus Lotichius, Heinrich Meibom, Johannes Pistorius, Johannes Schilter, Burkhard Gotthelf Struve, Johann Reinhard Wegelin and Werner Teschenmacher.

2.9 The 19th century saw a significant fall in the number of German works purchased by the library with the first 15 vols of Monumenta Germaniae historica (Hanover 1826-), perhaps the library's last important German acquisition. The drop in acquisitions can in part be attributed to the library's governors concentrating their ever decreasing resources on works of British history and topography, partly due to the rise of other libraries (see also above 1.5).


Bibliothecae Chethamensis Catalogus. 6 vols. Manchester 1791-1883

Catalogue of the library of John Byrom. Compiled by B. R. Wheatley. Manchester 1848

A Catalogue of proclamations, broadsides, ballads and poems. Presented to the Chetham Library ...by James O. Halliwell. London 1851

Catalogue of the John Radcliffe Collection. Compiled by C. T. E. Phillips. Manchester 1937

Card catalogue for 20th-century acquisitions

The library has now started work on creating a computerised catalogue of its early printed books. On completion in 2001 this will be available on the World Wide Web.

The incunables are recorded in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC).


4.1 Archival sources

Minute books of the Feoffees of Chetham's Hospital & Library 1653-. 8 vols

Chetham's Library accession registers 1655-

Booksellers' invoices 1655-1685

4.2 Publication

Phillips, Charles T. E.: Humphrey Chetham and his library. In: Manchester Review 3 (1944/45) pp. 280-293


Barker, Nicolas: Chetham's Library. An appeal. In: The Book Collector 44 (1995) pp. 300-317

Lofthouse, Hilda: Unfamiliar libraries 1: Chetham's Library. In: The Book Collector 5 (1956) pp. 323-330

Smith, H. S. A.: A Manchester science library. Chetham's Library in 1684. In: Library History 8, no. 4 (1989) pp. 110-115

Snape, A. C.: Seventeenth-century book purchasing in Chetham's Library, Manchester. In: Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 67 (1985) pp. 783-796

See also: A directory of rare book and special collections ...2nd ed. London 1997, pp. 436-439

September 1998

Michael Powell

Quelle: Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland. Digitalisiert von Günter Kükenshöner.
Hrsg. von Bernhard Fabian. Hildesheim: Olms Neue Medien 2003.