News | November 30, 2023

Portico Library Awarded £453,964 to Transform its Historic Building

Joe Fenn/Portico Library

The Portico Library in Manchester

The Portico Library in Manchester has successfully received support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund for its project Reuniting the Portico Library, Uniting People

The project will enable the Portico to develop detailed plans to transform the unique historic library and secure its future by creating an accessible and sustainable space for arts, books, food, learning and history for Manchester's residents and visitors.

The Portico, a much-loved cultural destination in the heart of Manchester, was established in 1806 as a ground-breaking newsroom and library, and will now work with experts and a range of community stakeholders to trial plans for the bold £7 million capital development project that will transform the building and preserve the historic book collection.

The £453,964 development grant will contribute to the production of environmentally sustainable architectural plans, mapping out how the Library can reunite all three original floors of the Grade II Listed building for the first time in more than 100 years.

During the development phase, which will start immediately, the Library will invite local communities to work with them on testing how to transform the ground floor and basement into an open and welcoming area with dining and exhibition areas, a ‘Northern Bookshop’, educational activities, a collections-care lab, plus flexible and high-quality event and meeting spaces. The upper floors will conserve and enhance the existing heritage, showcasing the unique book collection, manuscript archive and architecture. The technical access requirements, such as a lift, will be supported by creative consultation to establish how best to make the building fully accessible for all.

The Portico’s founding aim was to further knowledge by combining resources to make books, periodicals and newspapers available to more people in Manchester. These resources initially came from founding Portico Members, who were doctors, lawyers, merchants, factory owners and other members of the professional classes who profited from the lucrative and exploitative cotton trade and expanding industrial city. The project will collaborate with partners and a Critical Friends group to examine the Library’s radical roots and complex legacies today. 

The Library, built in the style of a Greek temple, played an historic role in the information revolution that swept across Europe during the 19th century, supporting the rapid expansion of literacy and the diffusion of knowledge. Membership was initially limited to those men who could afford it (women could only become members after the Married Women Property Act of 1870), though many pushed for free public access to books. Early Portico members also campaigned for conditions in factories to be reformed, founded the Guardian newspaper after Peterloo in response to press censorship, took part in innovations in medicine and climate science, created the first English thesaurus and advocated for radical political change. Early members and users included the celebrated Manchester author Elizabeth Gaskell and more recently the footballer Eric Cantona and writers Gary Younge and Val McDermid.

John Carpenter, the Portico Library’s Chair, said: “The news that The National Lottery Heritage Fund is supporting the Portico Library's bold scheme to open up and share its extraordinary heritage and collection, to Manchester residents and visitors, is a major cultural signal to Manchester, the North and the UK. This visionary project, years in the making, fulfils our mission of working with the many people in Manchester to explore, share, and celebrate their diverse stories and the city's literary and global heritage.”