Chetham’s: Inside the oldest public library in the English-speaking world

The buildings of a wealthy medieval college were transformed during the 17th century into a school and what is now Britain’s oldest surviving public library. Steven Brindle visits a remarkable survival; photographs by Paul Highnam for Country Life.

Manchester is famed as one of Britain’s great Victorian cities. It harbours some remarkable surprises, however, from its earlier history. At the north end of the City centre is an exceptionally fine late-medieval parish church, now the cathedral. Just to the north of this is an enclave of late-medieval college buildings that once housed the priests who served the church.

Today, it is home to Chetham’s School and Library, one of the oldest charitable institutions, and the oldest public library, in Britain.

Chetham's School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

West wing of the Cloister at Chetham’s School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Manchester in the late Middle Ages was a compact, but prosperous town, sitting on rising ground in the angle formed by the junction of two rivers, the Irk and Irwell. The manor house of the De Gresley family, lords of the manor, probably stood on the highest spot, 40ft above the nearby River Irk, and traces of three successive lines of defensive ditches have been found, centred on this site.

On the death of Thomas Gresley in 1313, the manor passed to his sister Joan and, through her husband, into the hands of the de la Warre family. John, 4th Lord de la Warre, had no children and, on his death in 1398, was succeeded by his brother Thomas, a clergyman.

Porch and Hall facade at Chetham's School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Porch and Hall facade at Chetham’s School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Thomas held the rectories of Manchester and nearby Ashton-under-Lyne and, in 1421, used his considerable wealth to found an independently endowed community or college of priests that would serve the former church. It comprised a warden or master, eight priests, four clerks, and six choristers. In 1534, the college had revenues of £40 5s 3d from lands and £186 7s 2d from tithes. Reflecting the resurgent fortunes of Henry V’s claims to the French throne, and the stirring nationalism of the moment, the parish church was re-dedicated to St Mary, St Denis (patron saint of France) and St George.

Thomas died in 1427, the last of the male line of the de la Warres, and most of the family estates passed to another branch of the family. The de la Warres remained the patrons of the church until the reign of Elizabeth I, but their interests were henceforth focused in Kent and Sussex. Thomas, however, gave the foundation his Manchester manor, with its manor house and property, which were added to the existing tithes.

Chetham's School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Cloister Court, aka Fox Court, Chetham’s School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Meanwhile, £3,000 was provided for building the new college and work to reconstruct the parish church was initiated under the direction of the first warden, John Hunt-ingdon. The college’s residential buildings, completed by the mid 15th century, have survived remarkably well.

By 1500, the Stanleys and other local gentry and merchant families were actively patronising the parish, adding more chantry chapels to the already large church. By the early 16th century, the magnificent choir stalls and a great west tower were being added.

At the Reformation, the college was dissolved under Edward VI’s Chantries Act of 1547, at which time the powerful Stanley family, Earls of Derby, seized control of its buildings. Queen Mary then re-founded the college. In most cases, Elizabeth I reversed such restorations in 1559–60, but Manchester’s college of clergy somehow survived and, in 1578, it was reconstituted as an establishment of a warden, four fellows, two chaplains, four lay clerks and four choristers to sing services.

Chetham's School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Baronial Hall at Chetham’s School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

In 1595, the remarkable scholar, mathematician, alchemist and philosopher of the occult, Dr John Dee (1527–1609), was appointed Warden by the Queen. The college was suppressed again during the Common-wealth, but revived once more at the Restoration. Manchester, therefore, almost uniquely in England, remained a collegiate church up to the foundation of the new diocese of Manchester in 1847, when the warden became the Dean of the new cathedral.

For the century after the Reformation, the Stanley family used the collegiate buildings as a residence. Their property was seized by Parliament during the Civil War and the near-derelict buildings attracted the attention of a remarkable local man: Humphrey Chetham (about 1580–1653). Chetham was the son of a prosperous cloth merchant, whose family had been in the trade since the 1530s. He and his brother, George, worked in successful partnership and, by 1619, their business was valued at £19,000.

Humphrey, who outlived his brother, invested some of his profits in land, buying the lordship of Turton in 1628. He also emerged as Manchester’s leading banker, with a reputation for probity and honesty. Chetham refused a knighthood and tried to avoid public service, but he was obliged to collect Ship Money for Charles I in the 1630s and subsequently serve as Parliament’s Treasurer in Lancashire in the 1640s.

Chetham's School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Library stacks at Chetham’s School and Library.

Chetham never married, but he was a gene-rous philanthropist. During his lifetime, he sponsored the education of poor local boys and decided to establish a permanent institution to carry on this good work. He died at his residence, Clayton Hall, on September 20, 1653, and was buried in the collegiate church.

Chetham’s will, made in 1651, set aside £7,000 for acquiring lands to be worth at least £420 per annum, as an endowment for a school with places for 40 poor boys from the Manchester area. £500 was set aside for the purchase of property to house the school, £1,000 for buying books to establish a free public library for Manchester, £100 for fitting out a library building and another £200 for founding another five small ‘chained libraries’ for the churches in Manchester, Bolton, Turton, Gorton, and Walmsley.

Towards the end of his life, Chetham was negotiating with the Parliamentary commissioners to acquire buildings of the Manchester College, which he described as ‘spoyl’d and ruin’d and become like a dunghill’. In 1654, his feoffees (the trustees of his charities) managed to acquire them. The buildings were fitted up to house Chetham’s School and Library, in about 1654–58, and they are still there, although the former was re-established as the celebrated School of Music in 1969. The Library is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.

Chetham's School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Reading Room chained books. Chetham’s School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Entrance to this miraculously well-preserved complex of 15th-century buildings is through a gatehouse that opens off Long Millgate into a spacious yard. The buildings are of red sandstone, two storeys high, with stone slate roofs. There were a couple of rounds of restoration in the 19th century, but these were done with some sensitivity.

To the right of the north gate, the entrance yard is closed by a long range that extends to the main block. This was probably lodgings for servants and guests and was later the school dormitories. At the far extreme, it houses the old kitchen, an impressive, double-height space, which retains its original open roof, and a notably broad fireplace.

Chetham's School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

The Reading Room alcove where Marx and Engels worked in 1845 at Chetham’s School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

The main block is quadrangular, organised around a little cloistered court and entered through a porch that opens into a screened passage at one end of the great hall. At first, this gives the impression of being an unaltered medieval interior, with its stone walls and open timber roof, but there have been a few changes.

Originally, there was a central hearth, with a louvre in the roof to let the smoke out. The great arched inglenook and fireplace in the west wall were probably introduced in the 16th or 17th century. Otherwise, the original arrangement survives almost completely, including the massive timber canopy over the dais and the entrance screen, perhaps the earliest example of this fixture to survive intact.

Chetham's School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Reading Room at Chetham’s School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

The original Warden’s chambers were sited, one over the other, at the south end of the hall beyond the dais. The lower one is now known as the Audit Room, because Chetham’s feoffees used to meet here to audit the accounts. There is 17th-century panelling and a plaster frieze, but the richly carved ceiling with its deeply moulded beams and carved bosses (which include a ‘Mouth of Hell’, devouring a sinner) are the original 15th-century work. Dr Dee lived here in the late 16th century, and his rooms have become a place of pilgrimage for devotees, being the only place where he resided that still stands.

When the college was built in the 1420s, there were chambers for the eight canons or priests in three wings around the inner courtyard, all linked, at ground- and first-floor levels, by cloister-galleries. The original layout is not clear, but it may be that each priest had a day-room at ground-floor level and a chamber above. There must have been further chambers for the four vicars or clerks, and the choristers and servants probably lived in the long east wing.

Le Clos du Peyronnet, France, the legendary English Riviera garden of William WaterfieldChetham's School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Reading Room grandfather clock. Chetham’s School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Chetham’s will required that his library should be ‘for the use of schollars, and others well affected’, and that librarian should ‘require nothing of any man that cometh into the library’. An L-shaped gallery was formed to house it in the upper floor of the south and west cloister ranges with their original 15th-century roofs. In the 1650s, a local joiner, Richard Martinscroft, was commissioned to make bookcases, set at right angles to the long walls and thus forming bays. Chetham specified that the books were to be chained to the shelves.

The feoffees, meanwhile, set to work to acquire a collection concentrating on theology, law, history, medicine and science that would be useful to the clergy, professional men and merchants of the town. The practice of chaining was abandoned in the mid 18th century; wooden gates were added to the bays. Readers were allowed to consult books in the Reading Room: originally, this was the War-den’s upper chamber, above the Audit Room, and it retains its original 15th-century bay window and open timber roof.

This room was panelled, probably in about 1700, and a fireplace wall was filled with a splendid composition of carved woodwork, including Chetham’s arms. Above is an eagle and, to either side, are wreathed obelisks, standing on piles of books and supporting lamps, for learning. There are figures of a Pelican, for piety, too, and a cockerel, perhaps representing Mercury and thus commercial acumen. This beautiful room, with its historic furniture, is still used for meetings of the Chetham trustees.

Chetham's School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

Jacobean staircase at Chetham’s School and Library. ©Paul Highnam/Country Life

The library has continued to grow to the present day, now housing more than 120,000 printed items, more than half of which date from before 1850 — it is one of our great historic collections. The space also holds a major selection of manuscripts, mostly of local and regional interest, and has grown to fill much of the 15th-century building. A new entrance was made in 1876–78, with a staircase rising in one corner of the main library, but, other-wise, the interiors are remarkably untouched; it is one of the most evocative and atmospheric historic libraries in Britain.

Over the centuries, Chetham’s School continued to fulfil its founders’ vision and was atmospherically photographed by Country Life in 1934. However, when a much larger institution, Manchester’s famous Grammar School, was established nearby, it seemed Chetham’s school needed a more specialised role. In 1969, the bold decision was taken to turn it into a co-educational Music School. Manchester Grammar moved to larger premises and the re-founded Chetham’s relocated to the Victorian building it had occupied.

Today, Chetham’s is an internationally famed School of Music. The library remains a vigorous scholarly institution, and the buildings are regularly open to the public. Thus, Humphrey Chetham’s foundations have evolved and thrived, as well as preserving the buildings that form their historic home. It is a remarkable record of continuity and adaptation. The founders could not have foreseen such outcomes, but they would surely be pleased.

Find out more about the building at chethamsschoolofmusic.com