The ‘Godly English Books’ of the Gorton Chest

The chained library in our reading room, also known as the “Gorton Chest”, is one of the most popular features on our visitor tours. But it is also an important historical resource. We are delighted to introduce Jess Purdy to the blog. She has been researching the books of our chained library as a part of her PhD project. Jess says,

“My research project is based around parish libraries and the reading practices of the ‘middling’ sorts of people in early modern England. It aims to explore the reasons for the foundation of these libraries, by clerics and the godly laity, and how the books contained in the libraries were read and understood. My thesis will be split into case studies, each one focussing on a different library, in various locations around England.

“The first case study concentrates on the Gorton and Turton chests, which were created with the money left by Humphrey Chetham in his will (1653). I’m interested in the feoffees (trustees) who had responsibility for carrying out Chetham’s will, such as their backgrounds, as well as the selection and purchasing processes undertaken in order to stock the five parochial libraries that Chetham stipulated.

“I’m also examining the surviving books in the chests. Both the Gorton and Turton chests have around 50 surviving volumes from the early seventeenth century, and one of the things I’m searching for is signs of readership. It could be something as simple as a folded page, or something more exciting such as handwritten underlinings or marginal notes made by a seventeenth-century reader.

“As my research progresses, I hope to be able to get a sense of which of the books in the chests were read and annotated most heavily – because this will help me to understand the needs, interests and preferences of middle class readers in early modern Manchester. Widening the scope of my research, I hope to draw in comparative analyses of other parish libraries founded elsewhere in England, to see if the trends evident in Manchester are representative of something more wide-ranging. Watch this space!”

Jessica G. Purdy is a PhD student working on a collaborative project with Manchester Metropolitan University and Chetham’s Library. The title of her research is ‘Reading the Reformation: Parish Libraries and their Readers, 1558-1709’.

If you are currently researching items in Chetham’s Library using our online catalogues, or have visited to consult the collections recently, and would like to share some findings on the blog, please comment below.


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  1. Stuart William Dewhurst

    I visited the Library yesterday with Jonathan Schofield. I was delighted to find the Gorton Chest in such great condition in the Reading Room. My tenth great grandfather Robert Dewhurst was the Rector of the Church of St James at Gorton. If I remember correctly he went there in the 1650s and was Minister up to his death in 1697. He would have used these books. I must get in touch with Miss Purdy as I would like to know whether Robert may have made any annotations

    • ferguswilde

      Dear Stuart, thanks for your comments and this interesting family connection, and we’re glad to hear you got in with one of Jonathan’s excellent tours. As I write, we’re completely closed to visitors and staff along with the rest of the country’s libraries, a situation we hope can change soon. If you’d like to send an email to us using the links on our Contact Us page, we’ll be happy to pass it to Jess Purdy. Robert Dewhurst would undoubtedly have seen and handled these books as Rector during these dates.