Can you imagine living in a library? Now imagine that the library you get to call home is The John Rylands Library, the neo-gothic masterpiece in Manchester. This is truly a bibliophile’s dream and unfortunately for many of us, it remains just that. However, at one time, some former residents of Manchester were able to call Rylands Library their home. Here is its history.

The John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2020)

John and Enriqueta Rylands

First, a brief overview of the Rylands family and the foundation of the library. John Rylands (1801-1888) was born and raised in St. Helens. John’s father was a manufacturer and John and his two elder brothers followed their father into the profession. However, it was the three brothers who founded their own company which their father later joined, creating the firm Rylands and Sons.

In 1821 John Rylands moved from St. Helens to Wigan, where he commenced his mercantile business on Gidlow Lane. In 1825 he married his first wife, Dinah Raby (1803-1843). The couple had the following children; John Garthwaite (1826-1872), William (1828-1861), Joseph (1829-30), Emily & Eliza (twins) (1831-32), Eliza (1832 stillborn) and Emily (1834-34). Unfortunately, as the dates show, in the space of four years John and Dinah lost four children and ultimately John would outlive all of his children. These tragedies would shape the rest of his life.

John Rylands (Source: m74122, Manchester Local Image Collection https://images.manchester.gov.uk/)

In 1834 John and Dinah moved to Manchester, living first on Newton Street and then at Ardwick Green. Dinah died in 1843 and John remarried in 1848 to Martha Carden (1806-1875), the couple had no children. It was around the same time that John became the sole proprietor of Rylands and Sons, as his brothers had retired from the business and his father had died. In 1857 John and Martha moved to Longford Hall in Stretford, which was to remain his home for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, the hall was demolished in 1995 and only the entrance portico survives of the main house.

Around 1860, Enriqueta Agustina Tennant (1843-1908) was employed as a companion to Martha Rylands. Enriqueta was born in Havana, Cuba. She was the daughter of a merchant, Stephen Cattley Tennant and Juana Camila Dalcour. Her father died when she was young and the family moved to Paris. Enriqueta was eventually educated in Paris, London, and New York. Having lived with the Rylands’ for around 15 years in 1875, Enriqueta was a part of the family and around eight months after the death of Martha Rylands, John and Enriqueta married. The couple adopted two children; Arthur Forbes and Maria Castiglinoli.

Enriqueta Rylands (Source: https://www.jrri.manchester.ac.uk/about/people/student-spotlights/elizabeth-gow/)

The Library

In December 1888 John Rylands died at the age of 87 and he left the majority of his wealth and his shares to Enriqueta. This amounted to £2,574,922, which adjusted for inflation in modern terms is a jaw-dropping £288,9000,000.

John and Enriqueta had spent their time together donating to many charitable and philanthropic causes and this was a legacy Enriqueta was determined to carry on. She was inspired by the library at Mansfield College which had been designed by Basil Champneys and she commissioned the architect to build a library on Deansgate in memory of her husband.

There was an inauguration ceremony at the library on 6 October 1899 and it opened its doors on 1st January 1900 but work had started a decade earlier in 1890. Enriqueta was deeply involved in the project, right down to the finishing details. She also collected volumes and volumes of books to fill the library covering topics such as early printing, classics, theology, history, philosophy and the arts. In 1892 she purchased over 40,000 books belonging to the Earl Spencer, it was known as the ‘Althorp Library’. Later in 1901 she purchased over 6000 manuscripts from the personal collection of the Earl of Crawford of Haigh Hall. By investing her personal wealth in these personal-library sales, Enriqueta saved important books from being scattered across the globe into private collections. These books were now in a public domain and could be properly researched. Although the building is named after her husband, it is without a shadow of a doubt Enriqueta’s library. Shortly after the library opened, Enriqueta was awarded freedom of the city (the first woman ever to be granted this) and later, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Victoria University of Manchester. She later passed away in 1908.

The Caretakers’ House

The expansive size of the library needed someone to deal with the general day-to-day upkeep. Moreover, the extremely valuable collection necessitated the presence of staff seven day a week, every hour of the day. The logical solution to this was thought about during the design process and at the back of the library, fronting onto Spinningfield (which is now known as Spinningfields) was a purpose-built house for the caretakers of the library. For those who are familiar with the library as it looks today, the house was roughly located on the site where the modern extension containing the entrance and gift shop stands.

The south elevation of The John Rylands Library, as seen from Spinningfields. On the left of the image you can see the caretakers’ house. (Source: JRL022219tr, Spinngfield Elevation, Basil Champneys, 1890, https://luna.manchester.ac.uk/luna/servlet/view/all/what/Plans%2B%2528drawings%2529?sort=reference_number%2Cpage%2Ccurrent_repository

As the image above depicts, externally the house was in-keeping with the neo-gothic style of the library. There is very little information about the internal design of the house. This was because Rylands Library was completely built up on both sides, so the house was never intended to be seen by the general public, unless they happened to walk down the side street. The house was described in 1912 but only minimal detail:

‘At the rear of the building is a house for the caretaker, separated from, but in immediate connection with the main building. Adjoining the caretaker’s house is a spiral staircase which leads to all floors of the main building and under the house are the boilers and furnaces for the heating apparatus.’

However, the surviving floor plans of the library show the caretakers’ house was two storeys. On the ground floor were three rooms, one showing a sink and copper and the spiral staircase which connected the caretaker to the various different levels of the library. Upstairs there were four rooms. There was a private wire from the caretakers’ house to the Fire Station in case of a disaster.

On the left, close-up detail of the ground floor of the caretakers’ house. This plan shows the three ground floor rooms and how the house sat in relation to the library. (Source: JRL022212tr, Ground Floor Plan, Basil Champneys, 1890, Sheet 2, https://luna.manchester.ac.uk/luna/servlet/view/all/what/Plans%2B%2528drawings%2529?sort=reference_number%2Cpage%2Ccurrent_repository)

The house has been referred to as the caretakers’ house, as there was more than one caretaker at the library. In fact, the first caretakers of The John Rylands Library were husband and wife, William and Rose Digby. The 1901 census shows the couple living in the house attached to the library. They were both in their mid-twenties and living with them at the time of the census was a cousin, Herbert Carker, and Rose’s parents; Thomas and Emma Grimes. A decade later in 1911 William and Rose were still living and working at the library.

There is little information about the duties of the caretakers but I imagine they were responsible for general upkeep and cleanliness, keeping the building heated and keeping the lights on. The library was one of the first public buildings in Manchester to be lit by electricity, this itself would have been a spectacle.

By 1914 there were new caretakers of the library, Thomas and Alice Maud Fleet. Thomas (1868-1953) and Alice Maud (1877-1960) had previously lived at 25 Wood Street, which was another form of library-owned housing for its workers. Thomas had been employed as an engineer at the Library in June 1899 and just under 15 years later the Fleet family, including children William and Doris, moved to the Spinningfield house.

As Elizabeth Gow’s research has shown, Thomas Fleet was still working when he died in September 1953 and as Gow noted he was the last member of the original library staff (the other had been librarian Henry Guppy who died in 1948). A note sent to Alice Maud Fleet by the Governors praised Thomas who had given: ‘outstanding, faithful and loyal service to the Library over a remarkably long period of time.’ A pension was provided for Alice Maud and they attempted to find her a new home as she had to leave her home of 39 years at the library. Alice Maud later lived in Withington where she died in 1960.

Mid-Century Changes

The John Rylands Library narrowly avoided destruction during the December 1940 and June 1941 raids on the city and fire bombs were dropped on neighbouring buildings. Some of the windows and parts of the stonework were damaged by blasts but the library was largely unscathed. The bombing raids demolished a public house which stood next door to the library and the heat from this blaze weakened the lead work of some of the windows and twisted the frames. During air raids, readers and staff at the library were sent to the basement. As the basement runs several storeys below street-level, this made an excellent air raid shelter and it was still recalled by the children of Thomas and Alice Maud Fleet when they visited the library many decades later. Doris Fleet still lived with her parents at the outbreak of war and they must have spent many terrifying hours in the shelter at the very heart of the city.

By the mid-twentieth century there appears to have been two caretakers’ houses at the library. One was on the Spinningfields side, where the Digbys and Fleets had lived. The other was a ‘cottage’ on the Wood Street side of the library, which is presumably the former 25 Wood Street where Thomas Fleet had lived when he was an engineer.

The John Rylands Library, c.1988 This view shows the 1960s extension at the rear of the library. (Source: @TheJohnRylands (Twitter) )

The library was extended in 1962 with the opening of the Lady Wolfson building but within a few years the storage space was filled. The decision was made in the late 1960s to erect a four-storey extension on the Spinningfields side of the library. Unfortunately, this meant the caretakers’ house on this side of the building was demolished in 1968 and as John Hodgson’s research has shown Mr and Mrs Ramsey were moved into a caravan at the back of the library which the annual report noted they ‘faced the experience of caravan life with equanimity’. The cottage on the Wood Street side was also demolished around this time and it was replaced by a loading bay. In November 1970 the two caretakers of the library moved into new apartments on the top floor of the extension.

Further changes came in 1971 when adjoining buildings on Spinningfields were demolished. This opened up the area of Spinningfields which would have flooded light into the library. The 1960s extension of the library was itself demolished around 2004 and replaced with a modern extension which still stands.

The modern extension which covers the site of the former caretakers’ house. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2019)

If you get the chance to visit the library, as you ascend the staircase or the lift in this modern extension, you can now image that you’re travelling through what was once the Digbys’ kitchen or the Fleets’ bedroom! Although the house has long since disappeared, the survival of the library is testament to the hard work and the legacies of those families who cared for the building, a place they also called home.

Researched and Written by Thomas McGrath

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