Chetham’s Library: Standing the test of time
Chetham's Library in Manchester, the oldest surviving public library in Britain, has seen it all, from terrorist attacks to historical meetings
There is something charmed and indestructible about Chetham’s Library, the oldest surviving public library in Britain. Founded in 1653, it sits in the shadow of the Manchester Arena on one side and Manchester Cathedral on the other.
In May, a 22-year-old British Muslim terrorist blew himself up with a home-made bomb at the Arena, killing 22. In 1940, the Luftwaffe had pounded the cathedral in the week before Christmas. In 1996, Irish Republican Army terrorists exploded a bomb in a truck next to a Marks & Spencer store nearby.
Chetham’s Library remained unscathed through it all. “If Mr (Donald) Trump has any special ideas about starting the next big war, this library may be the safest place," said the friendly guide showing us around.
The library used to be attached to a school for poor boys, both built by Humphrey Chetham, a land-owning cloth merchant. Today that school is renowned for teaching music.
Chetham wanted the library to be kept free in perpetuity. Its collection includes medieval manuscripts and Middle English poetry, old Latin works and scientific texts, and first editions of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The collection now focuses on works from and about Manchester and the surrounding region.
The school was a response to the dire conditions for children during Victorian times. Some of Britain’s poorest people lived in slums along the banks of the Irwell, near the library. Few children lived till 5, and those who did were taken to work in coal mines where hardly any lived beyond 20. Over the decades, conditions only got worse.
An alcove on the first floor of the library has a table with benches on three sides. Two German men met here in the 1850s and talked about the appalling poverty they saw all around. The two men—Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx—envisioned a different future.
Engels was the son of a wealthy businessman in Wuppertal who was frustrated by his socialist leanings. He sent Engels to Manchester in 1842 to work at one of his subsidiaries—an experience he hoped would make Engels act responsibly. Instead, Engels saw the tragic lives of the poor in Manchester, and in 1845 published a harrowing account of their destitution, The Conditions Of The Working Class In England.
Jonathan Schofield, who writes about Manchester’s history, told the Financial Times recently that of the places where Engels and Marx met, only Chetham’s Library remains. When he takes Chinese visitors to see the table where the books they used are still kept, “some of them cry", he said.
Engels’ writing shocked Britain’s elite. For in the 1840s, the country was booming: New colonies were being set up and linked by rail, and China had been defeated in the first Opium War. The sun, it seemed then, would never set on the British empire. But this wealth was built on colonial exploitation and the toil of hundreds of thousands of people who lived in “half or wholly ruined buildings… rarely a wooden or stone floor to be seen in the houses, almost uniformly broken, ill-fitting windows and doors, and a state of filth", as Engels described it.
In 1845, Benjamin Disraeli, who would go on to become prime minister, published a novel called Sybil, in which he raised the taboo question of “two nations", or the coexistence of the rich and the poor. A few years later, Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times. Engels, on his part, was documenting reality.
In Britain today, there is renewed interest in communist ideas among the young, as the unexpected success of Thomas Piketty’s critique of the global economy, Capital In The Twenty-First Century (2013), or the rise of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, which political pundits did not see coming, show. While the misery of 21st century Britain cannot be compared with Victorian squalor, homelessness has become more visible in recent years. The financial crisis of 2008 has shattered many comfortable assumptions, like the next generation being better off than the current one. The Grenfell Tower fire, in which dozens of poor perished, has reminded Britain of the inequality within.
Manchester has seen a resurgence in civic pride, with new infrastructure. Its quays have a beautiful arts complex. Now the city is welcoming Engels back. Phil Collins, a Mancunian artist, scoured former Soviet-era towns and brought an abandoned sculpture of Engels to Manchester, where it now stands restored. A man from Europe, rejected by a European state tossing aside socialism, has returned home to the city where industrial capitalism was born, but which now feels the angst of its consequences.
The table where Marx and Engels met at Chetham’s Library would have been mute witness to their conversations. The warm, sunny afternoon is quiet. You no longer inhale the stench along the river; the slums that dotted it are long gone. But inequities persist. We have learnt more, and have peaceful means to change the world. Challenges remain, but the answers are there, in those books.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
He tweets at @saliltripathi