It’s funny how things turn out. John Rylands was born in 1801 and helped to create what was at one time the biggest textile company in the UK. John Rylands & Sons employed 15,000 people, mainly across North West England in and around Wigan, Bolton and Manchester, in 17 mills, factories and warehouses. As well as being an astute and highly successful businessman, Rylands was a generous philanthropist; yet he is chiefly remembered for the internationally renowned library in Manchester that bears his name, founded in his memory by his widow.
Rylands’ legacy was also dictated by events in his personal life that no one could have anticipated. His first wife, Dinah, died in 1843 after 18 years of marriage; all of their six children also predeceased their father. JR was married to his second wife, Martha, for 27 years from 1848 until her death in 1875. His third, and final, wife was Enriqueta Augustina Tennant, who had been Martha’s companion. Born in Havana the same year that Rylands’ first wife died, Enriqueta was 32 and unemployed when she married the 74 year old tycoon just a few months after her former boss had expired. Clearly, with a 40-year age gap they felt there was no time to waste; and only a mean cynic would suggest this was anything other than a love-match. The happy couple spent a further 13 blissful years together until John passed away in their small mansion, Longford Hall, Stretford, in 1888 aged 87 years.
John Rylands’ estate was worth more than £2.5 million – an astonishing amount in those days - and Enriqueta lavished £224,086 of this building the now world-famous library in memory of her husband. It was designed by Basil Champneys in 1889 (allegedly with input from the strong-willed Enriqueta) and took 10 years to construct, running three times over budget. It was dedicated to the public on 6th October 1899 – the Rylands’ wedding anniversary – and opened on 1st January 1900.
John Rylands Library was one of the first public buildings to have electricity and is built of pink and red Cumbrian sandstone in loud Victorian Gothic style. Personally, I find the outside clumsy and reminiscent of something from a bad horror movie; but internally it is exquisite, with a graceful staircase, soaring arches and beautiful features and iconography everywhere you look. It is, actually, a work of art, in parts resembling a church. The reading room is a particular joy, with an upper gallery and statuettes of notable religious figures, philosophers – even the printers, Caxton and Gutenberg – running around the edge. 40 feet overhead is a magnificent vaulted ceiling. At either end are two enormous stained glass windows. John Rylands Library is one of the most popular visitor attractions in Manchester – and I can’t decide whether or not that fact should surprise us. Even the toilets are worth a look – the cubicles in the ladies, apparently, being of dimensions large enough to accommodate Victorian bustles; plenty of room for manoeuvre in the loo must have been quite a consideration then and, even now, it’s nice to have enough space to stretch, isn’t it? The library was extended in the 1920s, 1960s and, more recently between 2003-07 when £17 million was spent creating a new public reception, shop, café and additional storage for the collections, as well as refurbishing the original building. They’ve pulled off a neat merger of the old and new, and the shop actually sells interesting and fun things you might want to buy.
Enriqueta originally intended to create a large public theological library, but that changed when she purchased the Althorp Library, or Spencer Collection, from the 5th Earl Spencer in 1892 for £210,000 (see A Bit About Althorp). This unique collection of 40,000 volumes included many rare items, including a Gutenberg Bible printed around 1455 – in fact, the Spencer Collection contains about 3,000 books printed before 1501. In 1901, Enriqueta paid a further £155,000 for a collection of more than 6,000 manuscripts in some 50 different languages from the Earls of Crawford. This was just the start; the acquisitions continue to this day. Now, the John Rylands Library is part of the University of Manchester and holds much of the University’s special collection of early printed books, manuscripts and other precious items – 250,000 printed volumes and about a million manuscripts and archives. It holds the personal papers of a number of famous people and writers, including Elizabeth Gaskell and John Wesley. Among the irreplaceable fragments of papyrus in the library’s collection is the “St John’s Fragment” – also known as “Papyrus P52” – a tiny part of a New Testament Gospel measuring 3½ inches x 2½ inches (6 x 9 centimetres) written in Greek in the 2nd century AD. The earliest piece of text in the library is a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known work of literature in the world, written on a clay tablet about 5,000 years ago.
Enriqueta died in 1908, in Torquay. Manchester owes her big time for the inspiration and resolve which gave the city such a wonderful building and collection. The firm John Rylands & Sons was taken over by Great Universal Stores in 1953 and ceased trading in 1971. It’s funny how things turn out.
Visit the University of Manchester Library website for more information.