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Humphrey Chetham’s Private Papers

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Of all the collections the Library really ought NOT to misplace, the private and business papers of the founder Humphrey Chetham must rank quite highly. Remarkably, however, they have been lost not once but twice, although happily they are now returned to their rightful place on the Library shelves.

The papers first came to light in the early nineteenth century, when the then-librarian, J.T. Allen, discovered a bundle of manuscripts concealed in the chimney of his apartment at the Library. These were identified as records of Humphrey Chetham’s public and business affairs in the mid-seventeenth century, and subsequently proved invaluable in shedding light on the character and history of a man of whom previously little had been known.

A large number of the documents are receipts written or received by Chetham, and relate primarily to his landed and commercial interests. Many also relate to his time as Treasurer of the County Palatine of Lancashire and as collector of subsidies during the Civil War. Other documents concern the settlement of his affairs after his death, and the foundation of the Hospital and Library.

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Allen spent a good deal of time working on the papers, and the majority of the manuscripts were bound in guard-books and added to the Library’s collections. Some of them, however, remained in Allen’s personal possession, along with his notes and extracts, and these in turn passed into the ownership of the antiquarian James Crossley. They were only returned to Chetham’s Library in 1885, when the Library was obliged to purchase them from the sale of Crossley’s library, finally completing the collection and preserving it in safety at the Library, where fortunately they still remain.

As well as being used for studies of trade and politics in mid-seventeenth century Lancashire, Chetham’s papers have been the major primary source of the only two standard lives of Humphrey Chetham which have so far been published: Raines and Sutton’s Life of Humphrey Chetham (Chetham Society, 1903) and Stephen Guscott’s Humphrey Chetham 1580-1653: Fortune, politics and mercantile culture in seventeenth-century England (Chetham Society, 2003).

In recent months, new work has begun on the letters, and in particular on updating the only existing catalogue of the collection, that compiled by John Eglington Bailey when he was Secretary of the Chetham Society in the 1880s. This brief handwritten listing has remained the principal guide to the contents of the papers, although it provides only a title and a date to summarise each document. One of our volunteers at the Library, Dr Robert Stansfield, has been working on converting Bailey’s catalogue into a more detailed summary of each document, verifying dates, and also expanding it by specifying those individuals mentioned in transactions and letters. This should make the catalogue a more useful resource for researchers, and also means that it is possible to identify those documents in the collection which have already been transcribed and published. We are extremely grateful to Robert for his painstaking work, and also for his not insubstantial contribution to this article.

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A letter to Humphrey Chetham from Sir Thomas Fairfax (1612-1671), Parliamentary Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War.