Constructing ‘A Noble Library’: Enriqueta Rylands, a Woman Ahead of her Time

In honour of International Women’s Day on the 8th March (today incidentally!), I wanted to focus in on one very important woman within libraries – though it should go without saying that there are a whole host of impressive women throughout the field. This person is Enriqueta Rylands, the brains behind Manchester’s John Rylands Library (JRL), contrary to what the name implies! I have always had a soft spot for Rylands, as my family has something of a (some may say tenuous) connection to the library – my great x3 grandfather carved some of the decorative oak panelling within the building – so it has been a pleasure to research more about the endeavour for this blog post.

Though the JRL is now affiliated with the University of Manchester, housing its special collections, it began its life as a public library. It still continues to proudly admit all readers with no need to pay, and encourages them to not only access but to enjoy their special collections – this is specifically to align with Enriqueta’s vision of the library, which we’ll delve into in this blogpost! [1]

A picture of the statue of Enriqueta Rylands, which stands in the main Reading Room.
Enriqueta invigilating readers and visitors alike. The University of Manchester Library, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED

Just who was Enriqueta Rylands?

Enriqueta Augustina Tennant was born in Cuba in 1843 to a wealthy family thanks to her family’s dealings in sugar and land. However, Enriqueta’s fortunes quickly changed when she was a teenager upon the death of her parents. Unable to claim inheritance in Cuba, she was sent to live in England with members of her deceased father’s family in 1859. [2] Though she was a ‘white creole’ rather than someone with Spanish or Indigenous roots from Cuba, she still faced an uncertain future in England, facing prejudice for her heritage which was made all the worse for her lack of personal wealth. [2]. It was during this period that she became the companion of Martha Rylands, John Rylands’ second wife, and after her death in 1875, Enriqueta became his third wife.

John Rylands was Manchester’s first multi-millionaire and cotton magnate. Upon his death in 1888, he left an estate worth £2,574,922 to Enriqueta (£305 million adjusted for inflation in 2024), which formed the basis of funding for what would become the John Rylands Library – named in tribute to her husband’s memory. [3]. He was a lover of literature, though unable to devote as much time to reading as he would have liked. Instead, he often gifted books to poorer or rural Free Church ministers to help in their studies; Enriqueta could not have thought of a better way to memorialise her husband. [4] Less than a year after his death, plans had been submitted for the construction of the building. Even before this though, Enriqueta and her husband were interested in libraries and collecting – where many point to later acquisitions as the beginning of Enriqueta as a collector, Dr Elizabeth C. Gow makes the point that in 1881 an anonymous cataloguer put together a catalogue for the Rylands’ personal library at their residence in Longford Hall. The creation of the catalogue then ‘reflects the shared endeavour of John and Enriqueta to organise and define the library as a space and collection’ [5]

A Note on the Library’s Links to Slavery

Before we go any further, I feel that it is important to mention that while the John Rylands Library has done immeasurable good for the city of Manchester, the fortune used to create it was built off the backs of enslaved people in the Americas. To read more on this I would recommend taking a look at Dr Natalie Zacek’s article on the matter as part of the Rylands Reflects series, which explores the history of the library and its collections in context with colonisation, racism, and imperialism.

Building the Library

The library itself took over 10 years of careful planning and construction to bring to fruition – much to Enriqueta’s disappointment as initially it was planned to open in 1893 [6]. Deansgate was chosen as the location for the project – now a popular shopping street but then a cramped slum district, surrounded by warehouses, taverns, and slum dwellings, the majority of which were back-to-back with only narrow passages in-between. If there were any spaces between houses they were ruled ‘small and insufficient’! [7] It is not known why specifically she chose this area, though there are several theories for it. It’s suggested that perhaps she chose the site in order to gentrify the area both morally and in appearance – John Rylands himself wanted to ‘make the highest literature accessible to the people’ [8].

A map of Deansgate pre-Rylands from an 1880s sanitation report, there is a blue star that marks where Rylands will be!
A map of Deansgate pre-Rylands from the cited 1880s sanitation report – the star I’ve added marks where Rylands will be! The University of Manchester Library, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED


The architect Enriqueta chose for the job was Basil Champneys –  you might be familiar with his work as he designed several Oxbridge buildings including the libraries for both Mansfield College and Somerville College. Enriqueta’s choice of Champneys to helm the design work was in fact inspired by his work at Mansfield, where she was patron to the college.

Enriqueta took an active approach in all facets of the library’s construction, from books to building work, for the duration of the project much to the chagrin of Champneys; she was not afraid to voice her opinion on the architecture and fittings within! For just a taste of this, here’s a small list of some of the feedback she gave:

  • The statue of Gutenberg for the Reading Room was malproportioned (‘The portraits she has seen show him with a longer beard. Has the photograph exaggerated the length of the right shoe?’) and she demanded it to be adjusted. Rest assured it was! You can even see a close up of them here if you want to double check his work. [6]
  • Enriqueta wasn’t a fan of the light fittings and radiator grilles that Champneys had designed with ‘none of them being exactly to her mind’. This resulted in her going over Champneys and straight to the manufacturers, telling them to direct all correspondence to her as ‘the architect has nothing to do with this’. [6]
  • The traceried screens designed by Champneys to go in the Reading Room were nixed even after they were partially constructed, as they were too evocative of the Catholic church when she wanted to ‘avoid anything that gives an ecclesiastical appearance to the building’. Not only did Enriqueta foot the cost of modifying the screens, the craftsmen billed her for the time and materials used for the initial design too. [6]

(You can find a whole timeline of the construction, including the changes that Enriqueta requested, in the cited article’s appendix.)

If you’re wondering how Champneys took this, well, he had to yield in the end. However, that didn’t stop him from voicing his frustrations in a letter to William Linnell, advisor to Enriqueta, saying ‘I have taken a pride in the building and spared neither thought nor labour, nor, what has cost me far more, patience and humiliation, to make it worthy of Mrs Rylands’ intention.’ [9]. Enriqueta had a specific vision in mind, and she wasn’t going to give it up for anyone – and certainly not for the architect of all people(!) Despite all this strife during construction, the building itself was incredibly modern and forward-thinking. The library was one of the first buildings in Manchester to use electricity to power the lighting and it was generated from inside the building itself (motivated by fire safety after one of Rylands’ warehouses burnt down due to gas lighting) [3]. There were also complex filtration systems installed at Enriqueta’s behest to keep the air, and thus the books, clean from the industrial atmosphere outside.

The library’s Reading Room! kaysgeog, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED


Aside from the building itself, Enriqueta was also heavily involved with the acquisition of its contents. Initially, she began collecting modern reference works for the library in 1890, markedly more utilitarian and middle class compared to other bibliophiles’ collections. Upon the advice of Dr Samuel Gosnell Green, though, she moved into acquiring Special Collections and first editions in 1891, in particular Early English Bibles [5]. Acting on this advice and expanding her search to include rare books and manuscripts set the stage for the later acquisitions and changed the trajectory of the library entirely.

It was in 1892 when a watershed moment happened, the acquisition of the Althorp Library. The Althorp library had previously belonged to the Spencer family (yes, of Princess Di fame), with George John, 2nd Earl Spencer, cultivating the collection over 40 years. He ‘was not satisfied to merely have the best books, he was intent upon having the finest copies procurable of the best books’ [10]. This was supplemented by the fact that the core of this library came from the Reviczky Collection. The Reviczky Collection previously belonged to Hungarian nobleman Count Reviczky and was filled to the brim with Greek and Latin classic literature in tiptop condition – he famously disliked any manuscript notes and marginalia, resulting in an overall pretty pristine collection [10]. Upon the Spencer family going through a difficult period, the 5th Earl Spencer, John, looked to sell off some of the library – and here is where Enriqueta comes in. Poor luck for the Spencers was great luck for the burgeoning library, the sale being described by Dr Green as ‘a most stupendous piece of news’ [11].

Despite Enriqueta ordering the stop of all acquisitions in order to secure the Althorp Library, there was a very real prospect that the Althorp library could have been separated piecemeal and shipped off to (gasp!) America, much to the horror of bibliophiles all over England. Lucky for them then that Enriqueta bought nearly the entire library (40,000 volumes) for £210,000, barely a month after the intention to sell was announced [5]. There was a real sense of relief around this – the fact that she bought the library and ‘saved [it] for the nation’ from the “dreadful” fate of crossing the pond was repeated like a mantra when it came to talking about Rylands – from being mentioned in Enriqueta’s Freedom of the City scroll (we’ll get to that) to contemporary accounts, such as from her trusted librarian Henry Guppy who described keeping the Althorp Library in England as ‘an exceptional service’. [10] The acquisition of the Althorp Library catapulted Rylands beyond its original scope as a predominantly theological library into a multitude of different disciplines [10]. However, I feel it’s important to mention that, despite all this praise in the wake of the completion of the library, in order to bid on the Althorp Collection, she had to don the disguise of an anonymous ‘English gentleman’ [12]. Once it was discovered that she was the anonymous buyer, the opinion pieces came out of the woodwork. For some, the very idea that Mancunians might potentially have access to the collections was met with derision and insult, particularly from weekly gossip newspaper Modern Society in this rant sprinkled with antisemitism: [13]

Newspaper clipping reading: "We see the purchase of the Althorp library by Mrs. Rylands is confirmed, but not the gift of it to Manchester. We trust this magnificent collection will not go to that dirty, uncomfortable city. What do unsavoury Greek shent-per-shenters and uncultivated boors want with a library, and such a one? Besides, they have not enough light to read by, and the books they already have are wretchedly kept."
The University of Manchester Library, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED


we see the purchase of the Althorp library by Mrs. Rylands is confirmed, but not the gift of it to Manchester. We trust this magnificent collection will not go to that dirty, uncomfortable city. What do unsavoury Greek shent-per-shenters and uncultivated boors want with a library, and such a one? Besides, they have not enough light to read by, and the books they already have are wretchedly kept.” [14]

Unfortunately for them, that is exactly was Enriqueta intended to do, wanting to lift her adopted city out of its reputation as only good for industry. Luckily, other publications such as The Spectator were more supportive of her endeavour, saying:

We are glad that Manchester rather than London is to get Lord Spencer’s books, for we dislike the centralisation of all the great treasures in the Capital. The more great pictures and great libraries there are in the provincial towns the better.” [15]

Enriqueta stayed heavily involved even once she had relinquished a bit of control to Dr Green’s son, J. Arnold Green: she was still double checking her purchases against invoices and handlists to make sure that nothing was amiss and her money was being spent in the way she intended. [5]

The library was opened to the public on January 1st, 1900 – a very auspicious start.

Scroll with the 'Freedom of the City of Manchester' that was given to Enriqueta Rylands, featuring calligraphy, gilding, paintings of the JRL and Enriqueta's family crest.
The beautiful ‘Freedom of the City of Manchester’ scroll given to Enriqueta. The University of Manchester Library, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED

The Aftermath and Future

Enriqueta’s hard work in the planning and creation of Rylands didn’t go unnoticed once building work was finished and library was opened. For one, the Lord Mayor of Manchester presented her with the Freedom of the City of Manchester for ‘the generous manner in which she had founded and dedicated to the public, and enshrined in a beautiful and costly edifice, a noble library for the promotion of study and the pursuit of learning’ [16]. Later, in 1902, she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Owens College (which would eventually become the University of Manchester) as she ‘with splendid munificence has gathered in Manchester a magnificent library, as the most fitting memorial of one who cared much that the best books should be accessible to all’. [4]. The awarding chancellor was actually Earl Spencer – the very same she bought the Althorp library from!

Much like Oxford’s own Bodley, Enriqueta knew that she couldn’t simply put money in at the start and leave it to grow on its own – a consistent flow of cash was needed to ensure the longevity of the institution [17]. She endowed library with an annual income for maintenance, and if any collections became available that might suit the library but were outside of its budget, Enriqueta circumvented this by buying and donated them [4]. The sale of the 26th Earl of Crawford’s manuscript collections in 1901 is a great example of this, amounting to 6,000 volumes for a price of £155,000. Not only that, she paid for the cataloguing so that the collection could actually enter circulation and be used once it made its way to Rylands after her death. [4]. Her final gift was the entirety of her and her husband’s personal library from their residence at Longford Hall, bequeathed in 1903, and transferred upon her death in 1908.

This work carried on after her death, the board of trustees clearly taking on-board the intentions that Enriqueta had for the library and her legacy – which as we touched upon continue to this day. The governors strove to ‘make it an efficient working library for students […] so as to excite and diffuse a love of learning’ whilst also ‘[giving] the general public […] opportunities for forming some idea of the scope and character of the collections, and of the possibility of usefulness which the library offers’ [4] In this vein, they provided exhibitions on the collections, had a series of public lectures from 1901, and offered bibliographic demonstrations to those from local students, colleges, and craftsmen [4].

Wrapping Up

A truly philanthropic gesture, rather than hiding the library behind a ‘pay wall’ or the mists of academia, Rylands opened it to the public for their use at a time when Manchester was viewed as “home of the philistine” – this was only 40 years after the publication of Friedrich Engel’s The Condition of the Working Class in England and two years after its publication in English [3]. She could have so easily, with the immense fortune she had garnered, passed off her ideas to a board of trustees and washed her hands of it. Instead, she personally nurtured it for the entirety of the project, and still had an active role once she had stepped back and let the board of trustees take over upon its opening. I’ll finish on this quote from Enriqueta, chastising bibliographer E. Gordon Duff for the catalogue he created for Rylands being inaccessible for general readers – I think it sums up her mission statement for the library, and the sentiment of inclusivity is something that we as trainees should take to heart going into the field:

‘it is my wish that this library shall be of use in the widest sense of the word: for young students as well as for advanced scholars. It is not to be a mere centre for antiquaries and bibliographers, as its rich collection of early printed Books & M.SS. has led many, I find, to believe’. [18]


[1] “Special Collections.” [n.d.]. John Rylands Research Institute and Library <>

[2] Gow, Elizabeth. 2020. “Rylands Reflects: Whiter than White? Enriqueta Rylands’s Cuban Roots,” Rylands Blog <>

[3] Farnie, D. A. 1993. John Rylands of Manchester (Manchester, England: John Rylands University Library of Manchester)

[4] Guppy, Henry. 1921. The John Rylands Library, Manchester; A Brief Record of Twenty-One Years’ Work (MCM January MCMXII) (Manchester: The University Press)

[5] Gow, Elizabeth. 2023. Enriqueta Rylands: The Public and Private Collecting of a Nonconformist Bibliophile (Manchester: University of Manchester) <>

[6] Hodgson, John. 2012. “Carven Stone and Blazoned Pane’: The Design and Construction of the John Rylands Library,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 89.1 <>

[7] Bastow, Richard Austin. 1880. Report on the Health of the City of Manchester, 1880 (Manchester: Chas Sever)

[8] Letter from Green to Railton, 6 August 1892.

[9] Letter from Basil Champneys to Linnell, 3 August 1897.

[10] Guppy, Henry. 1935. The John Rylands Library, a Brief Record of Its History,1899-1935 (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press)

[11] Letter from Dr Green to Enriqueta Rylands, 17 June 1892.

[12] (anonymously), Ward, Thomas Humphry. 1892. “Sale of the Althorp Library,” The Times, p. 7

[13] [N.d.]. <>

[14] Modern Society, 1892. “Cutting from Modern Society” <>

[15] 1892. “News of the Week,” The Spectator, p. 3

[16] Manchester City Council. 1899. “Freedom of the City of Manchester” (Manchester City Council) <;sort:reference_number%2Cpage%2Ccurrent_repository;lc:lib1~1~1&mi=14&trs=15>

[17] “History of the Bodleian.” [n.d.]. Bodleian Libraries <> [accessed 7 March 2024]

[18] Letter from Enriqueta Rylands to Linnell ‘Re Mr Duff’, 13 April 1896.

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