Hidden British libraries

John Rylands Library, Manchester
John Rylands Library, Manchester

We take a tour of some of the most historic and beautiful British libraries to find reading rooms worthy of our literary greats

Duke Humfrey's Library. Credit: Greg Smolonski/Bodleian Libraries/University of Oxford
Duke Humfrey’s Library. Credit: Greg Smolonski/Bodleian Libraries/University of Oxford


Oxford’s university libraries are among the oldest and most celebrated in the world. Generations of students have been consulting their shelves since the Middle Ages, when a room in the university church of St Mary the Virgin was set aside for scholars. Today, Oxford’s Bodleian Library has over 12 million printed items, housed in 30 different sites. The historic core of the Bodleian can be found in two remarkable buildings: Duke Humfrey’s Library and the Radcliffe Camera.

Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester and younger brother of King Henry V, originally gave the university his priceless collection of more than 281 manuscripts for the opening of his namesake library in 1488. Sadly, just three of these manuscripts survive today, as the library was purged of ‘superstitious’ books during the English Reformation. The library was revived by Thomas Bodley, a wealthy diplomat in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who married a rich widow (whose first husband had made a fortune trading in pilchards).

The old library was refurbished to house 2,500 books in 1602 and became a legal deposit library, with the right to acquire every book published in the kingdom. It became tradition that the Bodleian’s collection could only be read in situ, no books were to be loaned. Even King Charles I was refused permission to borrow a book in 1645.

Duke Humfrey’s Library is now the oldest reading room in the university and houses ancient and rare items, from manuscripts of the Gospels from the 3rd century to a Shakespeare First Folio and a copy of the Gutenberg Bible (one of only 49 left in the world). With its original oak bookcases and intricate panelled ceiling, Duke Humfrey’s is a time capsule from a distant era. No wonder it was used as the location for the Hogwarts library in the Harry Potter films.

Over the centuries, new libraries were built to house Oxford’s ever-expanding collection. The best of them is the Radcliffe Camera – a monumental circular domed building, which is one of Oxford’s most spectacular sights. Opened in 1749, it was named after its donor, physician John Radcliffe, (the word camera means room in Latin). The ‘Rad Cam’s’ golden stone walls house England’s earliest circular library and is now one of the main reading rooms of the university. However, visitors can see for themselves the Radcliffe’s glorious spiral staircase and can gaze from the upper gallery at the domed ceiling. It’s a wonder students can keep their heads in their books.

Herford cathedral, chained library, River Wye, England, UK
Hereford Cathedral on the River Wye is home to the Chained Library. Credit: Tony Eveling/Alamy


Older than any of Oxford’s libraries, is the Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral, which has been a working theological library since the early 12th century. Although now housed in a modern extension in the Cathedral Courtyard, it can claim to be one of the oldest libraries in the world, still keeping its ancient books with the original chains, rods and locks intact.

Chained Library, Hereford
Chained Library, Hereford

Books were rare in medieval times, each one meticulously inscribed and illuminated by craftsmen, so this ancient security system was vital to prevent theft. The Chained Library’s bookcases, which date from the early 17th century, contain 229 precious manuscripts. The oldest volume is the Hereford Gospels, dating from 800AD, but the glory of the collection is the astonishing Hereford Mappa Mundi, one of the world’s unique medieval treasures.

Measuring five feet by four, this extraordinary single sheet of vellum (calf skin) shows the history, geography and destiny of humanity as understood in Christian Europe in the late 13th century. It contains drawings of more than 400 cities and towns, Biblical events, animals, birds and strange creatures, and pictures from classical mythology.

Although now recognised as the most remarkable illustrated English manuscript of any kind, it was little regarded for centuries and, at one stage, was buried beneath the floor of the cathedral.

John Rylands Library, Manchester
John Rylands Library, Manchester. Credit: John Rylands Library


Manchester was Britain’s first industrial city and its museums reflect its historic place as the Victorian ‘Northern Powerhouse’, but it is also home to what is often described as ‘the Taj Mahal of the North-West’, the John Rylands Library. The nickname is a reference to widow Enriqueta Rylands’ love for her husband; Rylands dedicated the library to her late husband John Rylands, one of the city’s richest manufacturers.

A woman of commanding ability, Enriqueta oversaw every detail of the building of the library with a fervour bordering on the religious. Indeed, with its soaring Gothic spires, magnificent main staircase, vaulted ceilings and superb stained glass windows, the John Rylands Library, which opened in 1900, looks more like a cathedral than a reading room.

Enriqueta wanted the library to be an inspiration to the city’s huddled masses and a showcase for Manchester’s innovative  industries. Thus the building was one of the first in the city to be lit by electricity and boasted a revolutionary air-filtering system to reduce pollution. Art nouveau light fittings, radiator grilles and metalwork, even the toilets, with their plush marble-top sinks and oak cisterns (and with enough room for Victorian ladies and their bustles), were designed to show off the city’s superlative craftsmanship.

The treasures of the library span well over five millennia and derive from all corners of the globe. From 5,000-year-old clay tablets to Dickens’ novels in their original wrappers, the collection also includes a first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the 2nd-century St John Fragment – the oldest existing remnant of the New Testament. Other highlights include the Rylands Haggadah, a beautiful Hebrew 14th-century manuscript and the Bhagavata Purana, a sacred Hindu text written on a 15-metre roll of silk.

The library was built next to what was then a slum to show Manchester’s underclass that culture could be on their doorstep. Lovingly preserved in all its splendid detail, the John Rylands Library remains free, a haven of man’s pursuit of intellectual brilliance in a harsh industrial climate.


Tucked away in the tiny village of Hawarden, near the historic city of Chester, is Britain’s only Prime Ministerial library and also the only public library with bed and breakfast attached, Gladstone’s.

There are 26 bedrooms secreted around this delightful Grade I listed building, which was bequeathed to the nation by William Ewart Gladstone, the ‘Grand Old Man’ who dominated British politics in the Victorian era, becoming prime minister four times and spending 62 years in the House of Commons.

Gladstones library
Gladstone’s Library

Gladstone was a great believer in reading and read more than two thirds of the 32,000 books he donated to create the library. Then in his eighties, he used a wheelbarrow to transport the books from his home to the library and unpacked them himself. The existing library now has more than a quarter of a million items and visitors can spend the day browsing the exquisite reading room, reading by the fire or taking part in one of the regular tours. Gladstone’s also hosts dozens of lectures, masterclasses and talks, as well as organising a major literary festival every September. 


Letterbox at the Signet Library. Credit: © Loop Images Ltd/Alamy
Letterbox at the Signet Library. Credit: © Loop Images Ltd/Alamy

The Signet Library, in the centre of Edinburgh’s Old Town, was described by King George IV, as “the finest drawing room in Europe”. The library, built in 1822, is home to the prestigious Society of Writers to her Majesty’s Signet (also known as the WS Society), an association of Scottish lawyers and one of the oldest professional bodies in the world.

The Signet’s two libraries are the last word in Georgian elegance, lined with classical pillars and casement bookcases.

The Upper Library also boasts a lavish classical cupola painting decorating the ceiling dome and a massive stained glass window commemorating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

The Signet is not generally open to the public, although afternoon tea can be booked in the Lower Library.

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