mobile menu decorative search icon decorativeSearch the site
John Rylands statue in The Historic Reading Room

The people

Enriqueta Rylands' original idea for The John Rylands' Library was to build a memorial to her husband that would also enrich the City's architecture.

Impressed by his work on Mansfield Collage in Oxford, Mrs Rylands commissioned architect Basil Champneys to design the building, and work began constructing it in 1890.

Our founders

Basil Champneys (1842-1935)

Architect of the original library building.

Basil Champneys was an important architect and The John Rylands Library is recognised as his finest work. He studied architecture under John Prichard, who worked in the Gothic style. In contrast, when Champneys began his own practice in 1867, he was a pioneer of the Queen Anne style. He designed several buildings in this style in Cambridge and Oxford, most notably at Newnham College in Cambridge. However, it was the gothic splendour he gave to Mansfield College in Oxford that appealed to Mrs Rylands.

Champneys saw architecture as an art form, rather than as a business. He submitted inspired plans for The John Rylands Library within a week of being asked, but it took ten years to finish the building.

The use of traditional methods and top quality materials led to delays and expense. Mrs Rylands often did not agree with Champneys about artistic aspects of the building, and both wanted the final say.

Basil Champneys was friends with a number of important artists and craftsmen, and thought that their work would enhance his vision for the building. However, the statues, stained glass and metalwork were all commissioned by Mrs Rylands against the wishes of her architect.

Despite these difficulties,The John Rylands Library is a great success. In 1912, Basil Champneys was awarded the Royal Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The same year, Champneys designed the extension to the rear of the library, although this was not completed until 1920. When Basil Champneys died in 1935, his obituaries recognised his inventive and artistic work.

Further information:

Edward Gordon Duff (1863-1924)

Librarian of The John Rylands Library (1893 -1900)

When Mrs Rylands purchased the Spencer Collection of rare books she appointed Edward Gordon Duff to catalogue it. Although he was only thirty years old, he was already a renowned bibliographer. When he was a student at Oxford, Duff began to catalogue early books and wrote letters to eminent bibliographers. Duff was not so enthusiastic about his academic work, and his lack of academic success probably prevented him from getting a job at the Bodleian or the British Museum (now the British Library).

In 1893 Duff was appointed by Mrs Rylands to catalogue the books she had acquired for The John Rylands Library. However, their relationship was not an easy one. Duff was particularly interested in the scholarly study of books printed before 1640. By 1895 he had produced a catalogue of early books, but it was not until 1899 that the main catalogue was finished. Mrs Rylands wanted the library to be usable for the public and not a museum to old books, but Duff objected to the routine work that this entailed. In 1899 Henry Guppy was appointed as joint librarian with Duff of The John Rylands Library. Duff resigned shortly after the library opened in 1900.

Edward Gordon Duff did not take another permanent post after he left The John Rylands Library. He wrote catalogues for a number of significant libraries and book collectors and continued to publish scholarly works about early English printing. Duff died in Oxford on 28 September 1924. He is still respected by bibliographers for his scientific approach to cataloguing.

Further information:

Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908)

Founder of The John Rylands Library.

Miss Enriqueta Tennant had a cosmopolitan upbringing. She was born in Cuba in 1843 into a family of wealthy sugar growers. As a child she lived in Cuba, England, France and America. Her parents both died suddenly, Enriqueta was an orphan by the time she was thirteen. She was close to her sisters and twin brother; their children called her 'Aunt Quita'.

In the early 1860s Miss Tennant became the companion of Martha, the second wife of John Rylands. As a well-educated and talented young woman, she was perfect for this role. Enriqueta cared for Martha until her death in 1875. Eight months later Enriqueta married John Rylands. They had no children of their own, but adopted a son and a daughter.

When John Rylands died in 1888, his widow founded a library in his memory. The library was built with the money Enriqueta inherited, but it was her taste, intelligence and determination that made the library so special. The people of Manchester recognised Enriqueta's achievement and generosity. She was the first woman to be awarded the Freedom of the City of Manchester. Mrs Rylands died in Torquay in 1908, after a long illness.

Further information:

Henry Guppy (1861-1948)

Librarian of The John Rylands Library (1900 - 1948)

Henry Guppy was born and educated in London. He worked for an educational publisher and was sub-librarian at Sion College before coming to Manchester. In 1899, just before The John Rylands Library was opened, Henry Guppy was appointed as joint librarian. Guppy became sole librarian in 1900 when his colleague Edward Gordon Duff resigned.

Guppy was librarian of The John Rylands Library for nearly fifty years, he was still working when he died aged 86. His personality had a major impact on the activities of the library. As it says in his obituary: "Mrs Rylands founded The John Rylands Library: Henry Guppy made it."

Henry Guppy was enthusiastic about providing access to the collections to the local community as well as to academics. He organised lectures and exhibitions for the public. He founded the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, which continues today. It was down to Guppy that this library was one of the first institutions to collect historical records of local families.

Henry Guppy was a firm believer in the power of books to improve society. He played an active role in the Library Association, and taught many aspiring librarians. From 1914 Guppy devoted himself to a huge project to rebuild the Leuven University Library in Belgium which had been destroyed by German troops. He tirelessly promoted the cause and coordinated the donation of over 50,000 books from across England.

John Rylands (1801-1888)

His achievements inspired the foundation of the library.

John Rylands was Manchester's first multi-millionaire. He was a shy man of humble origins, but became one of the most successful businessmen of Victorian England.

John was born at St Helens in 1801. In 1819 he joined his two brothers and their father in founding a textile company, Rylands & Sons. John was the driving force. In 1834 he moved to Manchester, the commercial heart of the cotton industry. Eight years later he took complete control of the business.

By 1855 John was wealthy enough to leave the polluted city. He bought Longford Hall in Stretford, near Manchester. Here he formed a library of books mainly on religious topics. John was a devout Nonconformist. His religious beliefs affected every aspect of his life. He treated his workers well, he gave generously to charities, and he published hymn-books and bibles. But he was reluctant to take credit for his good works.

John's life was marred by misfortune, but his faith sustained him. He outlived all of his seven children, and two of his wives. When John married Enriqueta Tennant in 1875, he was already an old man. Mrs Rylands looked after him through his declining years. John died at Longford Hall in 1888, leaving over £2.5 million. Founded by his widow, the John Rylands Library remains a fitting tribute to one of Manchester's greatest figures.

Further information:

Mrs Rylands purchased books and manuscripts for the library, always intending the collections to be used by the public. However, it was when she bought the Spencer collection of rare books and the Crawford Collection of manuscripts that the Library gained international renown. The books were catalogued by the respected bibliographer Edward Gordon Duff, who was librarian of The John Rylands Library until 1900.

After Duff's retirement, the library continued to collect and provide access to its collections, led by the librarian Henry Guppy. In the 1920s Guppy laid the foundations for the third major element in the library's resources when he invited local families to deposit their archives for safe-keeping, making The John Rylands Library one of the first public libraries to collect archives and papers of historic families.