Chetham’s Librarians: Lives and Legacies

All good things must, as the saying goes, come to an end. This is sadly true of our recent exhibition, A Woman’s Write, which has been running since last summer; in that time, we’ve explored the stories of the remarkable women who made their mark on history with their literary endeavours (who you can still learn about in recent blog posts). At the same time, one thing’s ending is another’s beginning, and the same can be said of Chetham’s Library at the moment: our current librarian, Fergus Wilde, will soon be retiring, and his successor, Julianne Simpson, has recently been announced. We’ve chosen to mark this occasion by looking backwards as well as forwards, with a new exhibition that focuses on Chetham’s Librarians throughout history.

Fig 1: Our new exhibition on Chetham’s Librarians.

On display at the moment are various items from our collections connected with past Chetham’s Librarians. One such item is an obituary of Thomas Jones, one of our longest-serving librarians, who held the post for thirty years from 1845 to 1875. It was a role for which he was particularly well suited, and his friend and successor James Crossley described him as ‘one who was seemingly designed by nature for the place, and whose whole soul was in his work’. Jones’ diaries reveal the minutiae of his daily life and the consistency with which he carried out his responsibilities. Most mornings were spent dusting and cataloguing, and throughout his librarianship, Jones produced several volumes of catalogues, making the collections accessible to those who wished to use them. In the afternoons, he attended to readers’ needs, and it was soon after Jones took up the librarianship that two of the library’s most famous visitors, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, visited the library. They spent six weeks studying together in the Reading Room, and must have become acquainted with Jones during this time; years later, Engels fondly recalled him, and in a letter he wrote to Marx in 1870, he noted that ‘Old Jones, the librarian, is still alive but he is very old and no longer active. I have not seen him on this occasion.

Fig 2: Thomas Jones, Chetham’s Librarian from 1845-75.

Two further highlights from our current display are an advertisement for the librarianship when it was vacant in 1944, and a list of applicants for the role. One of the nineteen applicants was Hilda Lofthouse, who was ultimately appointed as Chetham’s Librarian, becoming the first woman to hold the position (although there had previously been a female assistant librarian). Hilda’s employment by the foreign office during the Second World War prevented her from taking up the librarianship until the end of the war the following year, and the task facing her when she did so was immense: a report made in 1943 had highlighted the library’s neglect during the war, and noted that ‘the books are most regrettably uncared for, covered with a dust that is thick and greasy, and full of the acids common to Manchester dirt’. Hilda therefore undertook a programme of cleaning aided by two library assistants, Pauline Leech and Kathleen Mark. A private log kept by these three women, in which they recorded their daily activities accompanied by pithy observations, is also on display.

Fig 3: Private log kept by Hilda Lofthouse and her assistants, 1947.

Rounding out our exhibition are some more recent items from our collections relating to the librarianship of the late Michael Powell, our longest-serving and dearly missed librarian, who held the post for thirty-five years from 1984 to 2019. During his lengthy tenure as Chetham’s Librarian, Michael was instrumental in guiding the library into the twenty-first century, and a newspaper cutting from 1988, currently on display, illustrates this perfectly: the cutting describes the adoption of an innovative technological approach to the conservation of the library’s books, described as a ‘sci-fi venture’, which Michael advocated for. Michael was also a vigorous promoter of the library, and a photo displayed alongside the cutting reflects this: it shows him and a much-younger-looking Fergus Wilde welcoming Prince Edward during a visit to the library in 2004, one of several visits to the library by members of the royal family during Michael’s librarianship.

Fig 4: A photograph of Michael Powell, taken in 1995.

Much more remains to be said about our past librarians and their assistants: Chetham’s Library has a storied history, and there are many more stories to be told. Among them are instances of book theft and imprisonment, codebreaking and scandal, and several large personalities. Over the coming months, we’re looking forward to sharing these stories in greater depth, showcasing the lives and legacies of individual Chetham’s Librarians and examining how they have shaped this library’s history over four centuries – so be sure to keep an eye on this space!


By Volunteer Emma Nelson


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  1. Sue Richardson

    Very best wishes to Fergus in his retirement and thanks for all his hard work. I haven’t worked in the library for some years, but have very affectionate memories of him and Mike Powell – they were always so helpful and friendly.

    • ferguswilde

      Thanks, Sue! Glad we could help – though let’s not forget how many Richardson publications you helped the library with! Our best wishes to you too.