Library Interior

Library Interior

Cloister Court

Cloister Court


Chetham's Library in Manchester, England, is the oldest free public reference library in the United Kingdom. Chetham's Hospital, which contains both the library and Chetham's School of Music, was established in 1653 under the will of Humphrey Chetham (1580–1653), for the education of "the sons of honest, industrious and painful parents", and a library for the use of scholars. The library has been in continuous use since 1653. It operates as an independent charity, open to readers and visitors free of charge. The hours of operation are Monday through Friday from 9am-12:30pm and 1:30pm-4:30pm. Anyone can access the library, however readers and researchers must make an appointment at least one business day in advance.

The library holds more than 100,000 volumes of printed books, of which 60,000 were published before 1851. They include collections of 16th- and 17th-century printed works, periodicals and journals, local history sources, broadsides and ephemera.

Chetham's was the meeting place of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels when Marx visited Manchester in the summer of 1845. The economics books Marx was reading at the time can be seen on a shelf in the library, as can the window seat where Marx and Engels would meet. The research they undertook during this series of visits to the library led ultimately to their work on The Communist Manifesto.

Chetham's Library has been accredited by Arts Council England, and is one of 1,800 museums across the nation to have qualified as an institution acting in accordance with Arts Council England's new Designation Scheme. Such designation declares Chetham's Library collections of great national importance.

Paintings featured as a part of the library's vast fine arts collection library include portraits of William Whitaker, the Reverend John Radcliffe, Robert Thyer, the Reverend Francis Robert Raines, and Elizabeth Leigh. An Allegory with Putti and Satyrs, oil on canvas, attributed to sixteenth century artist and Netherlander Vincent Sellaer, is also a prominent part of the Chetham's Library collection.

One of the most substantial collections pertains to Belle Vue Zoo and Gardens, Manchester's most renowned entertainment attraction and zoological center, in operation from the 1830s to the 1980s. The collection contains thousands of posters, programmes and photographs, as well as the financial and business papers of the owner, John Jennison. While collection objects are currently available for review onsite, a 2014 grant of £45,000 obtained by Chetham's Library, will allow curators to make the collection available to online users, via digitization projects.

The manor house of the Lord of the Manor, in the centre of the medieval town of Manchester, stood on a sandstone bluff, at the confluence of the River Irwell and the River Irk. In 1421 the rector of the parish church, Thomas de la Warre (Lord of the manor of Manchester), obtained a licence from Henry V to refound the church as a collegiate foundation. He donated his manor house for use as the college of priests' buildings for the collegiate church (later to be the cathedral). There was accommodation for the warden, eight fellows, four clerks, and six choristers.

The Manchester Free Grammar School for Lancashire Boys was built between the church and the college buildings between 1515 and 1518. The college was dissolved in 1547 by the Chantries Act and sold to the Earl of Derby. It was re-founded as a catholic foundation by Queen Mary and again disbanded by Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. In 1578 the collegiate church was re-founded by charter as Christ's College and re-occupied by the warden and fellows. In the Civil War it was used as a prison and arsenal.

In 1653 the college buildings were bought with the bequest of Humphrey Chetham, for use as a free library and blue coat charity school. At that time there was no facility for independent study in the north of England and Chetham's will of 1651 had stipulated that the Library should be "for the use of schollars and others well affected", and instructed the librarian "to require nothing of any man that cometh into the library".

The twenty four feoffees appointed by Humphrey Chetham set out to acquire a major collection of books and manuscripts that would cover the whole range of available knowledge and would rival the college libraries of Oxford and Cambridge. In order to protect the newly acquired books from rising damp the Library was housed on the first floor and, in accordance with the provisions of Chetham's will, the books were chained to the presses (bookcases). Twenty-four carved oak stools with 'S'-shaped hand-holds (which are still in use) were provided as seats for readers.

In 1718 the feoffees offered the Manchester poet and inventor of a system of shorthand, John Byrom, the post of Library Keeper. Byrom, who was an avid collector of books, declined the offer but after his good friend, Robert Thyer, became Librarian in 1732, frequently acted as an agent for the library, purchasing books at London auctions. Byrom's library, which included the manuscript of his poem "Christmas Day" (which became the Christmas carol, "Christians Awake") and some 2,800 printed books, was presented to the library by his descendant, Eleanora Atherton, in 1870.

The books were originally uncatalogued and placed in the presses in size order. The first catalogue wasn't produced until 1791, and then was written in Latin and only listed the size and subject of each book. The practice of chaining the books was abandoned in the mid eighteenth century when gates were erected to prevent theft.

Additions were made to the buildings by J. E. Gregan (1850s), Alfred Waterhouse (1878) (grade II listed), and J. Medland Taylor (1883–95). Manchester Grammar School was extended along Long Millgate in 1870. Manchester Grammar School moved to Fallowfield in the 1930s, and after standing empty for many years the original building was destroyed during the Second World War, leaving only its new block. This became part of Chetham's School of Music in 1978. The old college building, which became the music school in 1969, still incorporates Chetham's Library and is Grade I listed.


* Humphrey Chetham *

Humphrey Chetham (1580–1653), the most successful gentleman merchant of seventeenth-century Lancashire, was born in Crumpsall, near Manchester. His fortune was made in the cloth trade, mainly in buying and selling fustian, a strong woven fabric made of linen and cotton. He was a shrewd and successful businessman, and in the 1620s began to purchase land and property in the Manchester area.

Chetham’s wealth brought him into the public domain, although he was a reluctant official, and in 1631 he was fined for refusing a knighthood. In 1634 he was appointed High Sheriff of the County of Lancashire, but refused a second term on the grounds of infirmity and old age.

For many years before his death Chetham attempted to make provision for a large charitable scheme. Towards the end of his life he began to pay for the education and maintenance of twenty-two boys from the Manchester region. His concern was to overcome poverty by curing ignorance, and to provide the hope of a livelihood for underprivileged boys. The school he founded was known as Chetham’s Hospital because it was a place of shelter as well as instruction. Humphrey Chetham died unmarried on 20 September 1653 at the age of 72, and was buried amid much pomp and ceremony at the Collegiate Church of Manchester.

* Medieval Buildings *

Chetham’s is built on a sandstone outcrop at the confluence of the Rivers Irwell and Irk, a site of strategic importance which has been occupied since Roman times. The present building dates from the second quarter of the fifteenth century. In 1421 Thomas de la Warre, Lord of Manchester and rector of the parish church, obtained a licence from Henry V to re-found the church as a collegiate body, with a warden, eight fellows, four clerks and six lay choristers.

De la Warre gave up his own manor house and land for the impressive new building, which was built of local sandstone, quarried in Collyhurst and brought to the site by river barge. The generous accommodation included a large hall, the warden’s own lodgings and a set of rooms for each of the fellows. In addition, the complex had its own bakehouse, brewery and stables, as well as ample domestic facilities and guest rooms. Other than the church it was the largest building in the medieval town of Manchester.

The survival of such a complete medieval domestic building is rare in itself, and its troubled history makes that survival all the more surprising. In 1547 the College was dissolved and the Stanley family acquired the property as a town residence. The College was re-founded, closed down and re-opened, but gradually fell into a state of disrepair until its triumphant resurrection as the vessel for Humphrey Chetham’s glorious legacy. Visitors should note that parts of the medieval building other than the Library are not normally available to view during term time.

* Cloister Court *

The three-sided cloisters are ranged around a central courtyard, and the small stone doorways which originally led to the fellows’ rooms can still be seen. All of the ground floor rooms had a fireplace and were of a generous size. The windows which light the lower walkway are originally likely to have been unglazed, and remains of seventeenth century shutters said to belong to them.

Unusually, the cloister is double storeyed, the upper walk giving access to the fellows’ bed chambers. The cloisters are ranged around a small cobbled courtyard which has become known as the Fox Court, due to an optical illusion: as one looks through one of the three openings at the top of the old stone well, the light of the other two is reflected from the water, giving the impression that one is staring into the eyes of an animal trapped in the well.

* Audit Room *

Originally one of the rooms allocated to the warden of the medieval college, this is one of the most richly appointed in the building. The most notable decorative feature is the timber ceiling, divided into nine panels by moulded ribs decorated with bosses including some with grotesque designs and an impressive Mouth of Hell mask with a sinner ensnared in its jaws. Each panel is divided by diagonal ribs. The design is consistent with a date from the first half of the fifteenth century, and there are some similarities with the panels in the roof of the choir of the Cathedral.

The elaborate plasterwork consists of a trail design, probably carried out during the seventeenth-century conversion. The panelling and doors are also of seventeenth-century date. The set of twelve ladder-back mahogany chairs date from about 1770 and stand cheek by jowl with earlier oak furniture, including a three-legged chair said to have belonged to Humphrey Chetham, and some carved panel-back chairs typical of the north country. Two further items date from the beginning of the eighteenth century: a handsome walnut settee with cabriole legs resting on ball and claw feet, and a one-fingered lantern clock, still in good, albeit noisy, working order.

The large oak refectory table against one wall bears a strange mark in one corner, which according to legend represents the devil’s hoofprint. In 1595 the Wardenship of the College passed to John Dee, a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth and a learned scientist, astronomer, mathematician and philosopher who was also the owner of a large library. His reputation as an alchemist and student of the occult was well established, and his arcane endeavours are supposed to have resulted in the appearance of the devil, who materialised over the table and left behind the mark of his hoof.

* Reading Room *

The magnificent Reading Room contains some of the most beautiful furniture in the building. In the days of the College this room was part of the warden’s accommodation. Following the alterations of the 1650s to create the Hospital and Library, it was used to hold meetings of the feoffees. In the centre of the room is a very large gate leg table surrounded by a set of twenty-four leather backed chairs, of Cromwellian type, with oak frames, square backs and turned legs connected by a stretcher carved with scroll work. Both the table and chairs were purchased in the 1650s for the use of the feoffees. The two other tables in the room were probably made for the Library in the 1650s by the joiner Richard Martinscroft who was responsible for making the presses and library stools. Both tables are made oak draw-top tables of very unusual design.

Above the fireplace is a portrait of Humphrey Chetham, the only contemporary portrait of the founder. The tympanum above that depicts an elaborate heraldic and emblematic display commemorating Chetham and his foundation. His coat of arms is in the centre, flanked by obelisks resting on books and supporting torches symbolic of learning. In the centre is an eagle symbolising power and strength. To the left a cock, perhaps to suggest vigilance and hard work, while on the right a pelican feeding her young – a traditional symbol of Christ’s sacrifice.

The walnut tall-case clock is the first recorded gift of an ex-pupil. It is the donation, in 1695, of Nicholas Clegg, who left Chetham’s in 1689 and set up in business as an instrument-maker. The clock maker was Thomas Aynsworth of Westminster and the barometer set in the door was made by John Patrick of London. The clock has a 30-day movement, and is accurate to a few seconds gained or lost each month.

* Baronial Hall *

The hall is a wonderfully preserved example of the timber halls found in the north west of England, and is comparable in size with Ordsall Hall, Salford, and Rufford Hall, Lancashire. The magnificent open timber roof once accommodated a louvre opening to allow the evacuation of smoke from a hearth in the centre of the room. Some time in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries this was replaced with a simple fireplace with a shallow lintel, which was in turn replaced in the nineteenth century by the large inglenook fireplace still seen today.

The current stone flagged floor was laid in the mid-seventeenth century as part of the alterations to the Hospital and Library, and in the days of the College would have been swept earth laid with straw or rushes. The hall retains the beautiful oak screen of three equal sections, of which the central part was originally moveable, but is now fixed. The purpose of the screen was to keep out draughts and to conceal the entrances to the buttery and pantry situated at the back of the hall. At the top of the hall an impressive oak canopy projects over a raised dais, where the warden and visiting dignitaries would have dined at high table.

* Association Room *

This impressive double storeyed room was until recently the kitchen of the College and Hospital. Lit by two lines of windows facing the courtyard, it contains the remains of two fireplaces on the north and east walls. The larger, in the north wall, has a fine joggled lintel with a tall relieving arch, above which are examples of cooking equipment. Recesses in the walls would have been used as storage for food.

Underneath the Association Room there is an extensive network of cellars which at one time gave access to the River Irk, an important transport link and source of food in the early days of the building’s history. Early drawings of this aspect of the College buildings show steps leading down to the riverbank and a boathouse.

* Visiting *

They operate a system of timed entry for visitors to the Library. If you’d like to look round, please arrive at one of the times below. If you’d like to bring a group or you’re coming to them to use the Library’s collections, please email them at or call them on 0161 834 7961 in advance.

  • The times are: Monday – Friday at 10.00 | 11.00 | 12.00 | 13.30 | 14.30 | 15.30
  • Please note that only the Library and a small part of the medieval building are normally available to view. For a closer look at the Library and a full tour of the medieval buildings, they offer guided tours through their partner Jonathan Schofield which can be booked through his website. The Library is closed on public holidays, and between Christmas and New Year.

    Please note that the Library will occasionally need to close to visitors. They will always try to make sure closures are advertised well in advance on their website and on social media, but if you are travelling a distance, or if your visit is of particular importance, we suggest you contact us in advance.

    They share a site with the School of Music, and to meet safeguarding guidelines visitors to the Library are escorted across the yard during term time.

    Research and Study. Use of the library is free, and no membership or reader’s ticket is required. Readers and researchers need a prior appointment made at least one working day in advance in order to consult Library material. Appointments may be made by email, phone, or letter, but please be sure to allow time for them to reply if email or letter are used: if you haven’t received a reply to your email, they don’t have an appointment and may not be able to help you on arrival. In order to read on a Monday, they need to be contacted by the preceding Friday at the latest. If time is short, please phone them rather than using another method of contact. New readers may be asked to provide ID or a letter of reference. Regrettably they are not able to offer desk space to readers who are not consulting Library material.

    Chetham’s is located opposite the National Football Museum (the Urbis building). Entry to the Library is through the main gate on Long Millgate, just off Cathedral Gardens. If you have arranged to drive to the Library, you should note that major construction works are currently underway in Manchester city centre in preparation for the new Metrolink line. The one-way system, which is already somewhat confusing, is subject to changes and diversions and they recommend that you phone them for directions.

    Visitors with disabilities. Access to the historic first-floor library is via a flight of eighteen stairs, and regrettably no lift can be installed. Wheelchair users and others unable to manage the stairs have full access to the collections by the use of ground floor study rooms; the shelves are not browsable by any reader, so those working from the ground floor enjoy equal access to the collections with those able to ascend. Please contact them in advance with details of your requirements.

    Other languages. A history of Chetham’s Library, written by Library Patron Gill Williamson, is available here in a number of languages.

    Parking. Parking on site is available only to holders of disabled parking permits or similar recognised permits. There is a multi-storey car park at the nearby Manchester Evening News Arena, the entrance to which is on Trinity Way.

    * Chetham's School: From Poor Boys to Music Students *

    In the later part of his life, Humphrey Chetham gave part of his accumulated wealth to several charitable causes. He contributed to the costs of repairing the Collegiate church in Manchester and churches in several villages nearby, with which his family had connections. Whilst holdings positions of responsibility within Manchester and the surrounding area, he influenced the policies and practice of giving assistance to poor people in the town. He was also generous to members of his family. He gradually redirected his charitable interests towards education and learning. He gave sums of money to local towns and villages to finance the teaching of skills to boys such as weaving, working in wood and building.

    Only able boys of poor families were included: through the training for which he paid, they would escape poverty. He paid for a small number of poor boys in Manchester to live with suitable families and to receive an education. These were orphans or boys whose parents could not afford to look after them. It was a natural evolution of his charitable giving to establish an institution which combined residential accommodation and school (a “hospital”) and which had its own buildings. He was enthusiastic about purchasing for this purpose the old College associated with the Collegiate Church in Manchester. This was to accommodate both his school and library. He died before the purchase was completed and his 24 legal representatives (“Feoffees”) had responsibility for putting his proposal into action.

    The 40 boys selected for the school had to show that they had the ability to learn. They had to live in Manchester or particular villages with which the Chetham family had links. Their parents had to be of good character and be unable to pay for the care and education of the boy concerned. The boys came to the school when they were 8 or 9 years of age. They were interviewed by the 24 Feoffees and were required to say from memory three statements from the Christian religion – The Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed. The boys wore a uniform of tunic, flat cap, stockings and buckled shoes. Little documentary evidence is available from the early days of the school about their lessons, recreation and welfare. The boys stayed at the school until they were 14. At that age they became trainees in local enterprises, where they would be taught a skill and have paid employment.

    The school gradually increased in size and in the late 1800s, there were around 100 boys. Novels of the period and the photographic record give insights into their lives. The entry requirements and procedures remained unchanged and the boys continued to wear the same uniform until 1954. An Education Act was passed by the Government in 1952 changing the status of the school and combining it with another charitable school in Manchester (Nicholls School). In 1954 the boys from Nicholls School joined their Chetham’s School colleagues in the buildings of the old College.

    The school became a secondary school funded by the Government. It enjoyed a fine musical tradition because for many years the choirboys from the former Collegiate Church (by now Manchester Cathedral) had been educated at Chetham’s School. The new secondary school continued until 1969. At that time the Government wanted to establish a specialist music school for boys and girls in the north of England and Chetham’s School was a natural choice on which to base its plan.

    Today Chetham’s School of Music has around 290 students and is the largest school of its type in the United Kingdom. It is funded from the Government’s Music and Dance Scheme and bursaries are made available to students whose parents cannot afford the fees. There are also talented students from overseas, who are privately funded. Prospective students are selected on the basis of an audition to identify exceptional musical talent and potential. Although a few students are admitted around the age of 8, the majority come at 11.The choristers of Manchester Cathedral continue to be educated at the school until the age of 13.


    Location : Chetham's Library, Long Millgate, Manchester M3 1SB

    Transport: Manchester Victoria (National Rail) then 3 minutes. Bus: M11A, 8, 10, 27, 59, 67, 92, 93, 96, 97, 98, 100, 113 and Metroshuttle 2 stop close by.

    Opening Times: From 9:30, Monday to Friday; see above

    Tickets : Free

    Tel: 0161 834 7961