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Off the Shelf: Books & their borrowers in 1850


Today, The Portico Library’s books sit on the same shelves as they did in 1850, providing a snap-shot of the borrowing and reading habits of Manchester’s Victorian residents. The Library retains detailed records of who borrowed what when, providing an intimate glimpse into their passions and predilections. In this exhibition, we present the original volumes that were borrowed, including Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Ruskin’s Modern Painters, with further information about the readers.

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Portico Library committee minutes, 1850   These committee meeting minutes, signed by the Library’s longest-serving Chair, William Gaskell (husband of Elizabeth), show the books that were bought for the collection in April 1850.  The facing page records the members discussing the need for conservation work on books damaged by pollution and extra shelves to accommodate the growing collection.

Portico Library committee minutes, 1850

These committee meeting minutes, signed by the Library’s longest-serving Chair, William Gaskell (husband of Elizabeth), show the books that were bought for the collection in April 1850.

The facing page records the members discussing the need for conservation work on books damaged by pollution and extra shelves to accommodate the growing collection.

Jane Eyre.   Charlotte Brontë, 1848  Borrowed by J. Samuels, 25th April 1850  The 1850 book issues record shows that Jane Eyre was extremely popular with Portico Library members immediately after its publication. Brontë’s friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, herself a successful novelist, frequently visited the Library.

Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Brontë, 1848

Borrowed by J. Samuels, 25th April 1850

The 1850 book issues record shows that Jane Eyre was extremely popular with Portico Library members immediately after its publication. Brontë’s friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, herself a successful novelist, frequently visited the Library.

An historical essay concerning witchcraft: with observations upon matters of fact.   Francis Hutchinson, 1718  Borrowed by T. R. Bennet, 4th June 1850  On its publication in 1718, this essay was welcomed as a substantial blow to the still-widespread practice of witch hunts and executions. Though Hutchinson met fierce opposition from many, his book contributed to the repeal of the earlier Witchcraft Acts.

An historical essay concerning witchcraft: with observations upon matters of fact.

Francis Hutchinson, 1718

Borrowed by T. R. Bennet, 4th June 1850

On its publication in 1718, this essay was welcomed as a substantial blow to the still-widespread practice of witch hunts and executions. Though Hutchinson met fierce opposition from many, his book contributed to the repeal of the earlier Witchcraft Acts.