The History of The Library
The Manchester Law Library Society began its life in 1820, operating initially from premises above ‘the Star Inn’ public house on Deansgate. It since moved around the city as the society became increasingly wealthy. In the heyday of Manchester’s industrial and commercial growth, the Manchester Bar grew rapidly in size and the law library society, composed then entirely of barristers, grew accordingly.
In 1844, the library amalgamated with the Law Library Association (which had been established in 1838, and served as a solicitors’ library) to serve the needs of both solicitors and barristers. Having by then moved from premises on Deansgate to King Street, the library went on to move to premises on Norfolk Street, and Cross Street before settling at 14 Kennedy Street, where it commissioned the architect, Thomas Hartas, and the builder William Holt to build it a three storey library with reading rooms for members. The resulting Venetian gothic building was resplendent externally and internally with intricate and characteristic details, which attracted architectural praise, and not least from Prince Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, who twice visited the library.
The building was built in 1884 – the same year in which the society incorporated, becoming the Manchester Incorporated Law Society, a company limited by guarantee (under company number 00019836). The Manchester Incorporated Law Society is one of the few remaining companies limited by guarantee from the age which is not obliged to suffix its name with the word “Ltd”.
In the following year, the library moved into its 14 Kennedy Street premises where it remained for 130 years, making the library one of, if not the, oldest practitioner law libraries outside of London. As a local historian observed:
“[T]he building is noteworthy by virtue of having been built for the purposes of a law library and, London and the old universities aside, it is believed to have performed this function for a period longer than any other provincial law library” (D. J. Higginson, The Manchester Law Library: A Short History 1820-1885).
Although many of the rules and rituals of the library have changed – and not least the rule prohibiting solicitors from entering the library through the same entrance as barristers – much of the character and interior of the library building went unchanged, and for more than a century the library served as an oasis of calm providing reading rooms, and space for quiet contemplation, research, case preparation and meetings for the Manchester legal community, removed from the busy centre of Manchester.
By the end of the twentieth century and the turn of the millennium, 14 Kennedy Street had become something of an underused resource. Eventually, economic forces – particularly, increasing book prices and declining membership as chambers and firms grew to ever bigger sizes opting for in-house and online facilities – meant that the library could no longer afford to keep the Kennedy Street property and to maintain its extensive and rich resources.
In 2015, the library down-sized and moved accommodation to more modern, more centrally located premises. Whilst sad to say goodbye to its old home, the library is happy to move to accommodation closer to the CJC, the beating heart of Manchester’s legal community, and the library is proud to continue to provide lending library and reading room facilities for members of both legal professions. Onward Building has more modern facilities, including wheelchair access, more computer terminals, and free Wi-Fi access. And as well as being more conveniently located, the premises are ample and spacious enough for the library to continue its tradition of providing an oasis of calm for members to research the law and prepare their cases in reading rooms removed from the busy city centre.
Having begun life above a public house on Deansgate, the library has done a full circle, returning to accommodation back on Deansgate, albeit in a building which once belonged to the Temperance Society: ‘Onward Buildings’.
Governance and mission
Since 1884, the Library has been run by a board of directors, bringing together both young and old barristers and solicitors to represent the whole Manchester legal community.
The library’s purpose and mission are to provide reading room facilities and lending library services to both solicitors and barristers. Over the years, it has helped countless lawyers progress their careers, levelling the playing fields between big and small law firms, and between established and new practitioners.
Through the experienced and dedicated Librarian and her assistant, members of the Library are able to access remotely or on site numerous legal electronic databases.
The Library has had numerous friends and famous members pass through its doors over the past two centuries. Prince Richard has visited twice, and various eminent lawyers and later Judges have given speeches in the Library’s reading room.