Thursday, 17 April 2014

Paul's blog post

Here is the second in our occasional series of blog posts written by those who volunteer and do work experience at the Library. Today, it's the turn of Paul Carpenter, who has been working with us on a Wednesday over the last year. Paul writes:

"I remember very clearly the first time I visited Chetham’s Library. As I walked through the gateway I was astonished by the beauty of the medieval buildings. It seemed extraordinary to me that these wonderful buildings, relics of a much older, pre-industrial Manchester, could have survived only a stone’s throw from Victoria Station. While the Manchester rush hour continued apace outside the walls I entered the Library and was captivated by its calm, its beauty. It seemed to me to be the embodiment of endurance, of continuity and scholarship. On my first visit I was privileged to see and hold some of the Library’s treasures. The thrill of holding a first edition of Paradise Lost is a memory I will always cherish.

Over the course of my life I have had many jobs. I have picked fruit, smelted steel, worked on assembly lines and in hospitals. For the last thirty years of my life I worked in social work and
criminal justice. I ended my career as a senior manager in the prison service working at Strangeways and other High Security prisons throughout the country. One institution I have never worked in, until now, was a library. However, libraries have played a central part in my life. I left school at the age of fifteen without any qualifications. As a young adult I felt the lack of an education keenly and determined to educate myself, I spent many hours in the Central Library in Cardiff, my home town. There began a love affair with books and history which has continued to this day. It is no exaggeration to say that access to public libraries transformed my life. So when I took early retirement in 2012 and was looking for some productive activities it seemed appropriate that I should repay the debt I owe to this country’s public libraries. I remembered the wonderful visit to Chetham’s and asked Michael, the Librarian, if he could use my services as a volunteer.

My timing could not have been better.When I approached Michael in 2013 the Library had just acquired a remarkable set of diaries by an equally remarkable man. John Reed kept a diary from 1939, when he was ten years old, until just before his death at the end of 2012. These diaries covered over a hundred volumes and millions of words. They documented the life of a gifted and unusual man. He was a working class boy from London who won scholarships to public schools and Oxford. He studied with Tolkein and C. S. Lewis. He went to Rhodesia when it was a British colony and at considerable personal risk threw himself wholeheartedly into the struggle for African Independence. He went on to play a major role in establishing university education in newly independent Zambia.

My first job as a volunteer was to help the Library staff make some sense of the vast amount of material they had acquired. In the course of this I read some fascinating entries on a schoolboy’s experience of the Second World War, life in the RAF as a national serviceman, and some vivid insights into student life in 1950s Oxford. He has some wonderful descriptions of C. S. Lewis. However the most important aspect of the diaries are the insight they provide into the politics of African Nationalism in the 1960s when John Reed was rubbing shoulders with young men such as Robert Mugabe and other African leaders. As such the diaries are a fantastic resource for historians of this period. One of the highlights of my time as a volunteer was the opportunity to accompany Michael to Oxford to meet Emeritus Professor of History Terence Ranger, an old friend and colleague of John Reed, who has used the diaries extensively in his own research.

Since working on the Reed diaries I have worked on a diverse and fascinating range of Library materials, including books, photographs, letters, pamphlets, prints and ballads. I have sorted, listed, sifted, shifted and photographed them. Through these items I have been able to move through time from the twenty-first century to the sixteenth. Highlights for me have been reading a traveller’s guide to Europe and the Middle East written by an Elizabethan merchant, and sorting through an extensive collection of Hogarth prints. Later material I have particularly enjoyed working with from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has included the documentary photographs of the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, produced for the original share holders and a wonderful series of photos of China and Japan taken at the turn of the twentieth century.

Being able to work at Chetham’s is both a pleasure and a privilege. From the first day I have been made welcome by the staff and encouraged to feel I have a role to play in the Library’s ongoing story. One of the great joys for me is sharing the staff’s knowledge of the collections. When I make a comment on some subject and Michael says ‘have you seen our book on…’ I know he is about to produce some rare and remarkable treasure, such as an atlas of Elizabethan county maps or some delicate and exquisite watercolours of volcanoes from the eighteenth century. I look forward to more days like those."

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


Find us in the new Marketing Manchester magazine along with some of the city's other beautiful libraries including the revamped Central Library.

The bear necessities

The Belle Vue collection continues to grow in surprising ways. We have recently acquired a most unusual relic from the Zoological Gardens - a beautifully engraved red leather and chain bear collar.

In response to a Manchester Evening News article about our recent grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Trust, Jill and Richard Salisbury of Derbyshire got in contact with the Library. Would we like the bear collar to add to our collection? We certainly would! Richard’s family had lived next door to the Jennison family in Hathersage in the 1930s and 40s and had been given the bear collar, which had disappeared into the attic for many years.

As far as we know, very few items like this survive from the zoo’s heyday. The name of Richard Jennison on the collar suggests that it dates from around the end of the nineteenth century, although we would be very glad to know more about this fascinating object. Do get in touch if you have seen one like it before, or have any more information.

Gertrude Neisen

Sadly we had no response to our query last month asking for information about the mystery monkey woman at Belle Vue. This is a pity, as the prize was going to be an all-expenses-paid holiday in the Maldives...

Anyway, this will have to go to the member of the Library staff who discovered her identity, for the mystery woman turns out to be Gertrude Niesen (1911-1975), an American torch singer, comedienne and actress. She was photographed at Belle Vue in May 1938, following a week of concerts at the Opera House in Manchester.

In the mid-1930s Niesen was at the height of her popularity. In 1933 she was the first to record ’Smoke Gets in your Eyes’ and three years later appeared in Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. What she made of her visit to Belle Vue isn’t known, although she looks ever so slightly uncomfortable holding these rare white monkeys which had been sent from Assam the day before. You might say she got off lightly, as other visiting celebrities were given boa constrictors or crocodiles to pet.
Those interested in hearing the amazing Gertrude, who incidentally was voted the greatest torch singer of 1935, should check out her performance of 'Where are you?' on You Tube. It’s weirdly wonderful and ever so slightly sinister.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Space monkey

More slightly worrying fun from the halcyon days before the invention of health and safety...

This wonderful photograph is from the Belle Vue collection of Brian Selby, which he is kindly allowing us to digitise as part of our current project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.

Obviously a press image, the photograph, dated 2 November 1960, is captioned on the back, and reads:

 ‘Looking rather like a ‘space monkey’ climbing a rocket - is this rather curious Chimpanzee - from the Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester…. Actually he is just investigating an eight foot long firework rocket before it goes ‘whoosh’ - with thousands of other fireworks next Saturday - which is Guy Fawkes Day…'

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Worse ways to die...

Among the items that we are getting ready for digitising as part of our Belle Vue project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collection Fund is a ledger containing reports on animals in the zoo in the early years of the twentieth century. 
Written by George Jennison, the grandson of the founder, the book shows how the zoo’s curators faced an ongoing struggle to keep the animals healthy and alive in the face of Manchester’s smoky, cold and damp atmosphere. The book is full of fascinating detail - how much a rhino eats in a week (a half-grown specimen ate 19 stone of hay and 7 stone of bran), the sexual habits of polar bears and kangaroos (don’t ask), but is best for the accounts of things going wrong such as the time the monkeys escaped when a shell from one of the evening firework displays blew a hole in their cage. Six of the monkeys escaped but all were recaptured the following day, two apparently found walking around Longsight.
Whilst many of the animals died young, a problem with all animals in captivity, few were accorded a cause of death quite so unusual as the male bison who died in November 1913. The ledger entry is shown in the photograph and transcribed below. Look away now if you are of a delicate disposition:

Nov 15 1913: Male bison down unaccountably, we thought at first a broken leg - but from information received Nov 4th and seeing how easily it supports the weight on either side, I believe it is from 'beastly' ill use of itself, arising propably [sic] from the fact that the female will not stand for him. I have often remarked he was not as well as he ought to have been.

Nov 19 1913: Bison died after 3 days on the ground - a victim propably [sic] of self abuse.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Up the chimney

Keeping priceless manuscripts up the chimney is certainly one of the less orthodox ways to archive material, but we'll try anything once here at Chetham's. Fortunately the private papers of Humphrey Chetham were later discovered and are now properly looked after and bound in guard books. Read more on the website.