How did money from slavery help develop Greater Manchester?

Portico Library, Mosley Street, Manchester

Grade II listed building

The Portico library opened in 1806 as a newsroom and library for gentlemen. Thomas Harrison was the architect of the building, whose purpose followed that of the Athenaeum in Liverpool.

The building still exists, though there have been alterations and the ground floor is no longer part of the library. The principal facade faces Mosley Street which in the early 1800s was establishing itself as the most elegant of Manchester’s streets. Membership of the library was limited to 400 proprietors and for much of the 1800s it was a socially exclusive institution, its members being drawn from the higher ranks of the professions and the business world. Women were not admitted as full members until the late 1800s.

John Ferriar

A leading figure in establishing the library and its first chairman was John Ferriar. A doctor and bibliophile, Ferriar made an early contribution to the debate on slavery when he published ‘The Prince of Angola, a tragedy altered from the play of Oroonoko’ in 1788.  This was a popular play and one of the few in which the leading character was a black man. Ferriar, a supporter of abolition, altered the play so that it became a more explicit statement against slavery, reflecting the mood in Manchester that followed the visit of Clarkson in 1787. Ferriar explained to his readers that his amendments to the original text were not to be considered for their poetical qualities but ‘to communicate and extend those impressions of the African slave trade’. Ferriar was one of the first anti-slavery campaigners to use a stage play to raise consciousness about the evils of the transatlantic slave trade.

Anti-slavery sentiments

Exactly how many other members of the library shared Ferriar’s sympathies is not known though many would have considered themselves to be enlightened men who would have sympathies with the abolitionists’ cause. The library’s most famous member, the chemist, John Dalton, was a Quaker, and whilst Dalton rarely involved himself in political questions, he presumably would have shared the same views of other Quakers against slavery. It is perhaps not surpising that with Unitarians and other dissenters among its members, that the library contained copies of the writings of Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce.

Some of the library’s other well known readers included Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sir Robert Peel, Thomas De Quincey and Peter Mark Roget.

This information was provided by Terry Wyke.

Photo credit:  Creative Commons Gerry Scappaticci