As well as writing about places we’ve travelled to, it’s sometimes nice to focus on places a bit closer to home. And do have a lot to choose from here in Manchester. Today’s post is about one of the city’s historical (hidden) gems: the Portico Library.
The Portico Library first opened its doors (to members) in 1806, as a newsroom. Shortly afterwards—once a sufficient number of books had been acquired—it became a subscription library as well as a place for the Mancunian intelligentsia to peruse the daily news. The library survives to this day, and is a significant part of Manchester’s literary heritage.
The building was designed by Thomas Harrison and built by David Bellhouse
The idea for the Portico Library was conceived at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The story goes that a couple of Manchester men—Michael Ward, a surgeon at the Manchester Infirmary (which was on the site of what is now Piccadilly Gardens), and Robert Robinson, who was (I think) a bookseller and stationer—were inspired by a visit to Liverpool’s Athenaeum and wanted to create something comparable in Manchester. They gathered support from Manchester’s intellectual elite and—perhaps more importantly—from local businessmen (though there was not so much of a divide between business and academia then as there is now). Subscriptions were sold to raise money for the project, and architect Thomas Harrison (who also designed the Lyceum in Liverpool and the Commercial News Room in Chester) was commissioned to design a building to house the new library. Work started in 1803 and was carried out by David Bellhouse, who was also one of the founders of the library.
The Harrison-designed, Bellhouse-built Portico building is the earliest surviving Greek Revival building in Manchester. It’s now a Grade II* listed building, with a pedimented loggia and four unfluted Ionic columns facing on the Mosley Street entrance and a charming (almost secret) doorway round the corner on Charlotte Street next to a five-bay colonnade. The original design of the building had the reading room at ground floor level, with a mezzanine gallery housing the library and overlooking the reading room. In 1920, it was decided that the library would have to take a tenant to occupy the ground floor, and a ceiling was put in to separate the ground floor from the upper gallery (which were converted into the library as it is now). The original ground floor tenant was the Bank of Athens, who leased the property in 1921.
Exposed columns give some indication of the original floor plan
Downstairs is now occupied by The Bank pub (formerly the Forgery and Firkin). Although the pub’s ceiling obscures any view (or hint) of the library above, the columns of the gallery are exposed, giving some indication of the original floor plan of the reading room. However, you have to squint a bit to imagine this, as the pub bears far clearer traces of its more recent predecessor—it’s much easier to see how it’s a converted bank than a converted reading room. When she was in her late teens, Hannah used to sometimes drink in The Bank before heading off to Discotheque Royale nightclub for the night. Royales (as it was known) was housed in the old Theatre Royal on Peter Street, a theatre built in 1845, which saw performances from Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank in its heyday (as a theatre—it saw a famous performance from Take That in its heyday as a nightclub). Of course, Hannah knew none of this in 1995, and so had no idea that she was actually on a very literary pub crawl.
The library continued—and still continues—to live in the first floor of the building, and is now accessed via the doorway on Charlotte Street. The shelves (containing the library’s impressive collection of nineteenth-century literature) still sit in what would have been the gallery, with the central area being used as an exhibition and café space (tea, coffee and cake are available throughout the day). Above all of this is the wonderful painted glass and plaster ceiling dome, which is completely invisible when you’re outside the building but utterly stunning when you’re inside.
It’s a membership library (and you can join as a ‘town’ or a ‘country’ member, depending on how close to Manchester city centre you live), but it’s also now a venue for public events, exhibitions and meetings. The library also has a strong association with local literature, and in 1985 the Portico Prize was established to celebrate books set in the north of England.
The Portico has had many illustrious members over the course of its history—from John Dalton to Eric Cantona. The first secretary of the Portico’s committee was Peter Mark Roget, who began the work of compiling his thesaurus in the library, and the Portico is also mentioned (though pseudonymously referred to as the ‘Porch’) in Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The library still has a rare first edition of this book, and you can read more about de Quincey’s association with the library in this article by Grevel Lindop.
But our knowledge of (and love for) the library has come from attending events and visiting exhibitions, rather than membership. For instance, we were for 2014 Museums at Night Bad Language event, which featured special guest Rosie Garland reading from her then-about-to-be-published novel Vixen and poetry from Jo Bell, Rodge Glass and Marli Roode.
In 2013, we actually hosted our own event at the library. Blood and Water, the debut novel by Beth Daley, was published by Hic Dragones (aka: us) and had launch parties in Manchester and Leeds. We chose the Portico Library for the Manchester launch, because the opportunity to hold a book launch in such an amazing space was just too good to pass up.
More recently, we attended the Portico’s Christmas party. We do love Christmas, so it was great to be able to celebrate in such a lovely building. There were carols, mince pies and mulled wine, and a fantastic seasonal performance by The Shining Bones, a trombone quartet from the Royal Northern College of Music.
In May 2015, Hannah interviewed Emma Marigliano, the librarian at the Portico for her radio show. To hear more about the history of the Portico—but also about more recent plans and events—you can listen to the interview here: