Wednesday, Jul 06, 2022

The Library Where Marx and Engels Met

Chetham's Library in Manchester is the oldest surviving public library in the English-speaking world

The Chethams Library was established in 1653
The Chethams Library was established in 1653 Kelly Whittlesey

Manchester is known more for its industrial past and football clubs. Few know that that the city has some of the best museums and libraries in the UK, outside of London. Founded in 1653, Chetham's Library, with its oak-panelled rooms, heaving bookshelves, medieval architecture, secret passageways and hidden courtyard, could have been a setting for a scene from a Harry Potter film.  The library, located cheek by jowl with the Manchester Arena and Manchester Cathedral, was built by a wealthy banker, textile merchant and landowner Humphrey Chetham as part of a school for poor boys. It is now well known for its classes in music. Established in 1653, the collection here includes historiographical books, artwork and religious texts, inluding over 100,000 volumes of printed books. most published before 1851.They have first editions of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Tucked away in a corner is a window alcove seating with a table on which a pile of leatherbound books are kept. This is where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would meet up when Marx visited Manchester. During his time in Manchester, Engels made many detailed studies, research and observations, which led to the publication of his influential work, The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Karl Marx lived in London, and was a frequent visitor to Manchester. It was in 1845 that the two started studying together in the alcove of the Reading Room at Chetham's. Later on, in 1870, Engels wrote to Marx, commenting on the special place the library held for him: “During the last few days I have again spent a good deal of time sitting at the four-sided desk in the alcove where we sat together twenty-four years ago. I am very fond of the place. The stained glass window ensures that the weather is always fine there. Old Jones, the Librarian, is still alive but he is very old and no longer active. I have not seen him on this occasion”.

The library has done a great job of holding on to this slice of history. The stained glass windows were damaged by a storm in 1875. These are now plain glass, but the desk and alcove remain as they were. And the books which the two studied are still there for visitors to browse through. Today Chetham's is also used as an atmospheric backdrop for weddings. People looking to feature a medieval building with beautiful gardens and tranquil surroundings book the place for a memorable and grand celebration.