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Library of the Month: Portico Library

Posted By Administration, 29 August 2019

Library of the Month: Portico Library

Portico Library

The delightful Portico Library in Manchester is our latest Library of the Month. Thanks to Emma Marigliano, Librarian at the Portico, for providing the article and photographs below.


The Portico Library was opened in 1806 following a visit by four Manchester men to Liverpool. On discovering its Athenaeum they felt that Manchester should also boast an institution which would combine the pleasures of a library and newsroom. The design by neo-classical architect Thomas Harrison, build and initial collection was made possible by 400 subscribers made up of bankers, clerics, physicians, scientists, merchants, manufacturers and other established and educated men of Manchester. The Portico, then, represented all that was great and good about Manchester and the region at a time when the city was perceived as one of the successes of the Industrial Revolution as well as a hot spot for invention and innovation. It was not for nothing that Manchester got the reputation of ‘doing today what the rest of the world will do tomorrow’.

Unfortunately, the innovation didn’t stretch to allowing married women to become ‘proprietors’, as they would have been known, because until the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870, a woman would have to relinquish her own property to her husband. There is not a great deal of evidence in the Library’s archives to show that many single or widowed women became members of the Library in their own right until after the two world wars and, in particular, from the Second World War. Curiously, one of our independent sister libraries – The Leeds Library – was established long before the Portico and allowed women from the outset.

Its first chairman, physician and Unitarian John Ferriar, was among the first to pioneer a Public Health Board to tackle the problems of health and hygiene in the brutal living conditions which prevailed at the time and which were responsible for the typhoid outbreaks of the early 19th century. The Library’s first Secretary was Peter Mark Roget who is famed known for his enduring Thesaurus, despite the digital age, and is likely to have started writing it in The Portico before he moved to London in 1808! Other luminaries include Richard Cobden , radical and Liberal statesman who, along with John Bright, formed the Anti-Corn Law League.

Although the Reverend William Gaskell, minister of Cross Street Chapel, was the longest serving Chairman of the Portico for 35 years it is his wife, Elizabeth, who attracts the visitors. Her many novels reflect the gritty and the Manchester life in the Victorian age and four of them have been dramatised for TV to great success.

By the end of the 19th century the Library’s finances were at a critical level and various solutions were discussed at committee level over a number of years, including a lock stock and barrel sale. It was eventually decided to split the building and lease half of it. Consequently, to this day, the Library occupies the first floor and tenants, beginning appropriately with The Bank of Athens, have occupied the ground and basement areas. The Portico’s fortunes, throughout most of the 20th century, fluctuated (mainly downwards) until the last two decades when a new tenant and a flurry of grants and funding enabled the Library to enter a new phase of adaptability and liveliness.

For too long the Library has been perceived as a ‘gentleman’s/luncheon club’ because of its paying membership, its comfy armchairs and its book-lined reading room and gallery. But, in fact, the Portico’s collection represents the culture, intellect, reading and collecting habits of a city that was one of the main players of a world experiencing change and enlightenment. For over two decades the Library has not only welcomed but encouraged researchers and the public to access its mainly 19th century collection, to come to the many talks, lectures and so on in its programme of events and to visit the exhibitions. These last either promote local and regional artists and craftspeople or focus on the Library’s collection along with partner societies and institutions.

The Portico continues to attract prominent figures and we are lucky to count amongst a membership today such notable personalities as Val McDermid, Stuart Maconie, Guy Garvey and Tony Lloyd, amongst many others. The Portico Library is a vibrant and lively place for reading, writing, relaxing and even for enjoying our popular lunches and snacks.


Emma Marigliano

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