The Portico Library, 57 Mosley Street, Manchester, M2 3HY – Visit Now
This well-hidden Manchester library speaks volumes about the upper class elite of a bygone era – but what else does it say about the city it calls home?
I have never been fond of the idea of a gentlemen’s club. It hints at things that remain curiously ingrained: British boarding schools and a ruling elite, places where men can sink into leather-backed chairs and take in the papers, away from the constant jibber jabber of the womenfolk they routinely bar.
At first glance, Manchester’s Portico Library appears to fall into this category, with its members-only areas, club chairs, cooked lunches and neatly laid-out newspapers. Yet despite being a relic of an upper class past, the Portico is not a gentlemen’s club. Sure, it was established in 1806 by men determined to have their own version of the sort of club that Liverpool was already home to (the city’s Athenaeum drew envious glances almost as soon as it opened in 1797). But the Portico was set up as a library and newsroom, a place where gentlemen – and women, after the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act and including the industrial novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell – could gather to digest the shipped-in news. This was the only place in Manchester that you could regularly read the London papers; back in the early 1800s, the Portico was where, politically speaking, it was at.
These were places where men could take the papers away from the jibber jabber of womenfolk
The Portico was aspirational, to say the least. The city’s earliest Greek Revival building, it was designed by the celebrated architect Thomas Harrison, and the huge Ionic columns that flank its original entrance were more than a passing nod to the intellectual achievements of ancient Greece. Its collection of around 25,000 books on Voyages and Travels, History, Biography, Polite literature (including some impolite literature, too) reflect the mindset of the Georgian and Victorian members who set it up – people like John Dalton (who pioneered atomic theory), Mark Roget (of Thesaurus fame) and the opium eater and essayist, Thomas de Quincey.
Today the library is slightly diminished in stature – if not in aspiration. Access is now via a side door on Charlotte Street; that original entrance, and the whole of the grand ground floor, has been leased off. This little entrance leads up a narrow set of stairs, unpromising beginnings that open out onto what remains: a great domed gallery surrounded on all sides by mainly 19th century volumes that stand on similarly aged bookcases. Members sit at mahogany tables, researchers leaf through 200 year-old books and – perhaps best of all – tea and cake is served to all-comers, with lunch served also between 12pm-2pm on weekdays.
In fact, the gallery is open to the public every day, too, and is a regular venue for events and exhibitions. While there are some parts of the library that are out of bounds, stumbling upon this remnant of a gentlemanly past is an unexpected treat. It says better things about Britain’s privileged history that the library has since diversified, and is open to the people of Manchester, and beyond – to anyone, in fact. It talks quietly of a city that was big on ambition and that had its eyes on the rest of the world. Of men who got together to build a library that would add weight to Manchester’s literary, scientific and political learnings, and of the men and women who work there still. Come here, read and then head out into the city renewed.
Services and Facilitiesmembership, library, gallery, annual literary prize, regular events, lunchtime cafe
AccessibilityAccess is by staircase only
Commercial and hire servicesAvailable for hire