The John Rylands Library is a stand-out neo-Gothic building located on Manchester’s busy Deansgate – and as well as it being of significant cultural value, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city centre.

But where does the name (and the fame) come from? The Library was founded as a memorial to John Rylands by his wife Enriqueta, who bought the site for the building in 1889.

Enriqueta Augustina Tenant herself was born in the Cuban capital of Havana in 1843 and moved to Manchester following her education, which took in locations including London, New York and Paris. During the 1860s, she became a companion of Martha Rylands, who was at the time married to John Rylands – but died in 1875. Enriqueta then went onto marry the much older John eight months later.

The couple stayed together until John’s death in 1888 – and it was then she set out to create a library in his memory.

Enlisting the help of architect Basil Champneys (responsible for notable designs including Somerville College Library in Oxford and Newnham College, Cambridge), Enriqueta envisaged a library in the Victorian Gothic style. It also appears to take considerable influence from church architecture; perhaps not a surprise considering that the library was intended to be largely theological.

The John Rylands is also a library with more than one love story behind it. A key story is Enriqueta’s lifelong love of books, which she collected throughout her life – many with surprising tales of their own. For example, she secretly negotiated buying the 2nd Earl Spencer's library - which she bought for the record price of £210,000 in 1892. Not only was this absorbed into the library, but in a show of celebrating female power in the literary sphere, Enriqueta commissioned Alice Cooke, a Manchester academic, to index it.

In turn, there were an estimated 40,000 books in the core of the library collection by the time it was inaugurated in 1899. The inauguration date highlights the other unavoidable love story too – Enriqueta’s love for John – as this was the date of their wedding anniversary. The library then went onto open to the readers and visitors right at the start of the 20th century, on the 1st of January 1900.

And this is a location of many firsts, as on the same day the library was inaugurated, Enriqueta Rylands was also admitted to the Freedom of the City of Manchester, showing the significance of her contribution and the first woman to take this role. The library also became one of the first public buildings to be electrically lit in Manchester.

It was not a wholly straightforward journey, however.  Although the location chosen by Enriqueta was indeed a central area, it was at the time surrounded by a combination of tall buildings and narrow streets – which made the construction of the library itself even more complicated.

In fact, some critics even raised concerns that such a city centre location would not be suitable for holding potentially delicate books. Mrs Rylands in turn worked to negotiate Deeds of Agreement so neighbouring buildings would be fixed at a certain height in the future.

However, considering that neighbouring buildings all had what was called a ‘right to light’ (i.e. enough space to let light in) this meant that architect Champneys still faced a number of challenges. In turn, he designed the building in tiered steps and gave it a roof that was almost flat as well as a low entrance block, to let light into the library without compromising the surrounding structures. This is not without flair however, as the entrance on Deansgate is especially elaborate – and the original entrance actually resembles the gatehouse to a monastery.

Another unmissable feature is the use and colour of the stone, which is largely Cumbrian sandstone. The dark red on the exterior is thanks to Barbary Stone from Penrith, and onlookers might also notice engravings and designs including the J.R. initials, the symbol for St Helens – the native town of the Rylands’ family - and the arms of the historic five English, two Scottish and two Irish universities. And for that extra Gothic twist, there are some gargoyles and grotesques too.

How about inside? The interior is a more delicate ‘Shawk’ stone from Dalstone, and it certainly makes a striking contrast from the modern glass annexe guests enter through today. This was added during a recent renovation which finished in 2007.

The original library is accessed via a set of stairs, and the main first floor reading room – often now holding a number of exhibitions – gives a striking cloister-like feel thanks to vaulted ceilings and quaint oriel windows.

Ascend another series of steps and guests will find a particularly popular attraction inside the library - the Historic Reading Room, complete with reading alcoves and stained glass. The especially unnerving part of this room? It feels like it is three flights up but is in fact only two: as the building has two unequal storeys which lends the impression of three floors – again, another feature to work with the space restrictions.

A further unusual choice in the Historic Reading Room itself is the stained glass within: actually a choice of Enriqueta herself, going against Basil Champneys’ judgement.  In the artwork there can be found characters from Schleiermacher to Moses, as the designs feature people from intellectual history, with theological figures in the western window and literary and artistic figures in the Eastern window. In this room guests will also find white marble statues of both Enriqueta Rylands and John Rylands himself, sculpted by John Cassidy.

But what about the contents of the library itself?  Right now the library holds over 250,000 printed volumes, numerous archival items and more than a million manuscripts. There are also some especially valuable items, including illuminated manuscripts from the medieval period, a paper copy of the Gutenberg Bible and books printed by William Caxton – thought to be the first person to bring the printing press to England in the 15th century.

And it goes beyond books… as there are a number of rare artefacts as well as papyrus fragments housed in the library.  The St John Fragment, for example, thought to be the oldest New Testament text, is based here, and documents from North Africa too. 

Although Enriqueta herself died in 1908, she gave her remaining private collections to the library and £200,000 so it could continue to expand – as it has up until this day. Since then over 180,000 books, 3,000 manuscripts and many more artefacts have been added, and it merged with the University of Manchester in July 1972.  It was granted Grade I listed status in 1994.

Open to the public seven days a week, the library hosts regular exhibitions and family-friendly events. For more information you can visit the website.

John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester M3 3EH

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