Chances are that, if you haven’t already paid Portico Library a visit, you probably haven’t even noticed the suspicious doorway that sits at the side of The Bank pub on Moseley Street.
The building itself was designed in the Greek revival style by architect, Thomas Harrison and was erected in the city between 1802 and 1806. Its first recorded use was 1806, when 400 founding subscribers campaigned for the opening of the library during Manchester’s emergence as the ‘first modern city’.
Early readers and connections included world-famous authors, politicians, scientists and educators – all of whom were men, until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 allowed the undisclosed property rights of married women, which besides other things, meant that women could own and control property in their own right.
Many of the library’s first ever members were free thinking rebels, with some of them also penning some very important and influential books. Celebrated Manchester author Elizabeth Gaskell used the Library while her husband William acted as its longest-serving Chair.
Her work is hailed as some of the most important by social historians, giving detailed accounts of Victorian life and societies especially working class, poorer conditions. At the time of her writing, Manchester was at the centre of great political change and much radical activity. Elizabeth observed these social tensions and detailed a lot of what she saw in her novels.
Portico Library has been operating now for over 200 years, and still to this day draws in visitors from all over the world looking to dip their toes in the history books and explore the city’s complex past through its eclectic events and exhibitions.
It’s currently showcasing ‘Tracing The Art of a Stolen Generation: the Child Artists of Carrolup’, which is a free exhibition by the Curtin University. The exhibition shares the story of the First Nation children and families from Western Australia who have survived the impact of colonisation to find love, strength and resilience through the art of the child artists of Carrolup.
Hundreds of artworks created by Aboriginal children at a Native Settlement in Western Australia were sold in the UK in the 1950s. This exhibition returns the artworks to the UK after 70 years to share the story of the artists and the healing journey of their descendants.
The library also houses a gorgeously cosy cafe, where you can enjoy hot and cold drinks whilst exploring the library’s 19th-century research collection. The Portico Library’s collection of over 25,000 books includes many first editions and details the interests of Manchester’s most influential Georgian and Victorian people.
The books offer an intriguing insight into the culture and lived stories of industrial revolution Manchester at the height of the colonial era, as well as covering a wealth of subjects with a particularly strong focus on topics such as travel, biography, fiction and science.
Portico Library is a unique space to explore for free in the heart of the city. It often hosts talks, workshops and various theatre performances alongside its calendar of exhibitions, too, making it a great place to become immersed in both Manchester’s past and present art history.
The library is open Monday & Friday 9.30am – 4.30pm, Tuesday & Wednesday 9.30am – 5.30pm, Thursday 9.30am – 8.00pm and Saturday 11am – 3pm.