This library, which has been in use since 1653, is housed in Chetham’s Hospital, which also accommodates Chetham’s School of Music.
The library was established in 1653 by Humphrey Chetham, as set out in his will “for the education of the sons of honest, industrious and painful parents”.
The property has had a busy past. It started out as a manor house in the center of the medieval town of Manchester and stood high on a sandstone bluff where the rivers Irk and Irwell met. In 1421, the Lord of the Manor, Thomas de la Warre, managed to get a license from Henry V to transform his parish church to a collegiate foundation. He then donated the manor house for use as the new collegiate accommodations. It held a warden, four clerks, eight fellows, and six choristers.
From 1515 to 1518 the Manchester Free Grammar School for Lancashire Boys was built, so it sat between the college buildings and the church. Over the next few years, the college was dissolved and then re-founded; it started operating formally again in 1578 as Christ’s College and was resettled with wardens and fellows. In the Civil War, it was used as both an arsenal and a prison. Then in 1653, the building was purchased with the legacy from Chetham’s will.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels often met there, sitting on a window seat and reading from economics books. It is thought the research they completed here in this library ultimately led to the creation of The Communist Manifesto.
The Library holds 60,000 books published before 1851 and over 100,000 books in total. On its shelves, there are collections of 16th and 17th-century printed manuscripts. They have periodicals, journals, manuscripts, books on local history, and broadsides, which are printed only on one side, like a poster.
The library also has a large fine art collection with many portraits, including those of such notables as William Whitaker and Elizabeth Leigh. It is also rated as a museum and holds accreditation by the Art’s Council England. It is one of only 1,800 museums that is qualified under the new Designation Scheme; this means that the library holds items of significant national importance.
One of the substantial collections pertains to the Belle Vue Zoo and Gardens, which is Manchester’s zoological center in operation from the 1830s to the 1980s. The collection contains many posters and photographs, as well the financial papers of John Jennison, the owner of the Belle Vue Zoo and Gardens. Thanks to a grant of £45,000 obtained in 2014, curators are now starting the laborious task of making some of the collection available online to viewers. Many of the artifacts are available to view on the site.
The library is run as an independent charity and is open to visitors and readers, free of charge, Monday to Friday. Even though anyone can access the library, researchers and readers must make an appointment to do so.