James Crossley, founder of the Chetham Society, was Honorary Librarian at Chetham’s from 1877 until his death in 1883.
Known to many as ‘Manchester’s Dr Johnson’, Crossley was a writer, editor and significant literary presence in the city, as well as a prolific book-collector, amassing well over 100,000 volumes of which many were of antiquarian interest.
James Crossley was born in Halifax in 1800, the second son of a wealthy wool merchant. He was educated at Hipperholme Grammar School, as well as through the contents of his father’s own private library, developing an extensive knowledge of classical literature at an early age. At the age of sixteen, he came on a visit to Manchester and spent time at Chetham’s Library, an experience which made a deep impression upon him and almost certainly influenced the path of his own life. He was the owner of a precocious writing talent, and at the age of nineteen was already contributing articles to magazines and journals such as the Retrospective Review.
In 1817 Crossley began his legal career, becoming articled to Thomas Ainsworth, a Manchester solicitor. Here he struck up what was to become a lifelong friendship with Ainsworth’s son Harrison, who would himself become a well-known writer and author of nearly forty historical novels.
Crossley continued to practice law until his retirement in 1860, as well as giving time to political work for the Conservative Party and indulging his literary and antiquarian interests. In 1843 he and a group of friends founded the Chetham Society, which held its first meeting at the Library. He undertook much of the publishing work himself, as well as writing and editing many of the early volumes.
As a literary figure, Crossley’s influence and importance can hardly be overstated. He was on numerous committees, was President of the Athanaeum and was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, as well as making extensive contributions to Notes and Queries. He never married, but was a well-known and recognisable figure on the Manchester literary circuit and a popular and knowledgeable public speaker. In the later years of his life he was often to be seen making his way to Chetham’s Library wearing his customary dark cloak and wide-brimmed hat over his long silver hair.
Crossley was an avid book collector throughout his life, amassing an enormous number of volumes which amounted to probably the largest private library in Manchester. After his move to Stocks House in Cheetham Hill in 1878, he continued to collect, making piles of books on any available surface including the floor and the staircase. Indeed, so many books were piled on the stairs that in his later years he was no longer able to reach the first floor of his house.
Despite Crossley’s attachment to Chetham’s, only a handful of his collection is to be found at the Library. His personal library was dispersed by auction after his death, and many of the treasures he collected were lost to the city.
The Chetham Society continues to publish works on subjects of local antiquarian and literary significance. The most recent publication is a life of Crossley by Stephen Collins, which is available here at the Library. The portrait of Crossley on the front cover is on permanent display in the Library Reading Room.