The Portico Library

Manchester, England

The Portico Library is one of Manchester’s longest-running institutions.

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Discover the Portico Library in Manchester

The Portico Library, located on Mosley Street in Manchester, is the city’s original 19th-century home of literature and learning. Designed in the Greek Revival style—the first of its kind in Manchester—by architect Thomas Harrison of Chester, the Portico Library was built between 1802 and 1806 by one of the founders, David Bellhouse. The library was recorded in the National Heritage List for England, as a Grade II listed building on 25th February 1952. With a historic collection of over 25,000 books and archives spanning over 450 years, the Portico is an independent subscription library and newsroom.

Its mission is to work with Manchester’s diverse communities and visitors to explore, share, and celebrate their stories and the city’s literary heritage. Part of their vision is to be the most accessible, sustainable, and dynamic historic library. Everyone is welcome to enjoy the free exhibitions, participate in events and workshops, dine in the Portico Kitchen cafe (Monday - Friday), and discover the building’s history and beautiful Regency-period architecture.

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The History of the Portico Library

In 1802, a group of forward-thinking merchants, professionals, and intellectuals had the collective vision of establishing a library in Manchester to promote learning, literary interests, and the arts. Built with wealth derived from the Industrial Revolution, British empire-building, and colonial expansion, this vision materialised in 1806 when the library officially opened its doors.

Early members—all men until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870—included world-famous authors, future Prime Ministers, leading scientists, and educators. Significant members included Peter Mark Roget, the author of the first English thesaurus, and John Dalton, the founder of atomic theory. Celebrated Manchester author Elizabeth Gaskell also used the Library extensively, while her husband William served as its longest-serving Chair.

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The Portico Library Today

In 2017, the Portico Library became a registered charity. Collaborating with the city’s many communities, the Library addresses the city’s history through events, exhibitions, and learning programs. The Portico Prize promotes Northern writing and publishing, while the Portico Sadie Massey Awards nurture literacy and learning among young people. The Library prioritises inclusivity, welcoming everyone regardless of gender identity, disability, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy and maternity, age, or nationality.

In November 2023, the Library received a £453,000 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This grant will be used to make improvements on the building and preserve its collection of books, uniting all three original floors for the first time in over a century. The ground floor and basement will become a "northern bookshop" with educational activities, dining and exhibition areas, and meeting spaces, while the upper floors will house the Library's books and archives.

Part of the grant (£96,173) was put towards the Portico’s "People, Purpose, and Place in Historic Books" project. This project will focus on books documenting travel to East Asia, particularly China, and works exploring folklore and myths from the Yorkshire and Lancashire borderlands, near Manchester. These books are often outdated or use insensitive language yet remain vital resources, so bringing them up to date for modern readers is an important and exciting project. Critical to the success of this project is the partnerships with the Wai Yin Society in Manchester and the Centre of Folklore, Myth, and Magic in Todmorden.

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The Portico Library Collection

The Portico Library’s collection consists primarily of literary works by Manchester's influential Georgian and Victorian residents, covering an array of subjects including travel, biography, fiction, science, poetry, history, and maps. The library also offers reading lists and bibliographies compiled by members and researchers, covering diverse topics such as 19th Century Women Travellers, Evolution, Fine Arts, and Jewish Literature & Culture. For deeper engagement, individuals can opt to become members, readers, or researchers, granting them access to the entire collection.

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Collection Highlights

Some of the collection’s highlights include works by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin, and Samuel Ringgold Ward. Giovanni Battista Belzoni’s "Plates Illustrative of the Researches and Operations in Egypt and Nubia," is a rare book filled with hand-coloured lithographs of ancient Egyptian antiquities. Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin’s "Icones Plantarum Rariorum" was donated to the library by Henry and Lynne Simon and is a scientific volume. And Samuel Ringgold Ward’s autobiography documents his escape from slavery and advocacy against oppression

Another highlight are the first editions of Elizabeth Gaskell’s "North and South”, a novel detailing the social fabric of Victorian Manchester. Although initially excluded from membership due to her gender, Gaskell accessed the Portico Library through her husband William.

Preserving the Collection

Many of the rare and fragile items in the Portico Library’s collection are carefully conserved by a volunteer collection care team. This team is led by renowned book conservators who run an Adopt-a-Book initiative, which allows visitors and members to sponsor a book and contribute directly to the restoration efforts.

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Inside the Portico Library

The Architecture

The sandstone ashlar library follows a rectangular design characterised by a three-bay pedimented loggia with four ionic columns set slightly forward and steps between the columns. Beneath the loggia at first floor level are two entrance doors and three square windows. On the ground floor, five-bays of ionic semi-columns have tall sashed windows in each bay. Originally the reading room was situated on the ground floor, with the library occupying the rest of the space, including the mezzanine gallery. At gallery level above, a Regency-period glass dome—a striking feature—was inserted.

Exhibitions, Events, and Access

Throughout the year the Portico Library hosts free public exhibitions and events beneath the iconic painted glass-domed ceiling, where visitors can explore the collections and architecture in all its glory. On weekdays the library encourages personalised group tours for those wishing to deepen their understanding of the library’s Georgian and Victorian collections. For members, access includes not only the reading room but also a collection of both ancient material and contemporary fiction and non-fiction. And for those interested in research, the library provides access to the city’s archives, manuscripts, and illustrations.

The Portico Kitchen

Adjacent to the library’s main space is the Portico Kitchen, one of Manchester’s oldest and most charming lunch spots. Serving food Monday to Friday, the kitchen offers a menu crafted from locally sourced ingredients; hearty traditional staples are offered alongside trendy, pinterest brunch dishes and tempting cakes. On Saturdays, visitors can enjoy hot drinks and cakes.

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The Portico Library Questions


What you need to know

The Portico Library
57 Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3HY
53.479656, -2.240517
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