“Chetham’s Library was founded in 1653 and is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. It is an independent charity and remains open to readers and visitors free of charge.”
Well there you have it, Chetham’s Library has to be one of Manchester’s true hidden gems. The Library building itself isn’t actually visible from the main entrance, and I suppose gives me at least one excuse for having never visited. The Library holds regular exhibitions which can be found on the website – Chethams. Initially the title ‘Godlies, Merries & Pleasant Histories The Chapbook tradition’ didn’t give much away, and normally would of resulted in a complete ignorance fuelled about turn. But no thanks to some Godly intervention did I regret any initial doubt.
As the newly built shelves at Chetham’s Library began to be filled with large, leather-bound works on important subjects like religion, philosophy, science and history, another, quite different sort of book began to find its way into the noisy busy streets of Manchester: little books, cheaply made, quickly produced, and priced to match, filled with songs and poems, stories of love and adventure, histories and moral instruction. At first they were known Simply as ‘little books’ advertised in one publisher’s catalogue as ‘small godlies, small merries and pleasant histories’, but by the early nineteenth century they had found a name for themselves – chapbooks – named after the travelling chapmen or pedlars from whose packs they were sold to an increasingly literate population,
Chapmen were travelling salesmen who supplied a wide variety of small goods to the scattered communities of pre-industrial Britain: pins and needles, sewing threads, fancy buttons, ribbons, pocket scissor, cloth and many other small items likely to be needed by a country housewife as well as the books which took their name, A well-off chapman would have owned a donkey or horse while the less successful simply carried his pack on his back, and lucky Indeed the man (or woman. a few plied the trade), who made enough money to set up a proper shop in a market town, from where, in turn, other chapmen could be supplied with goods.
The main printers of chapbooks were also to be found in these market towns. At first, of course, to London, where generations of printers sold small chapbooks from a shop in Aldermary Churchyard, Bow Lane, rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire. By the middle of the eighteenth century, other market towns became important centres of chapbook production: Newcastle, Banbury, Bath, Penrith and Manchester where chapbooks formed part of the trade of the very first printer, and where the great chapbook-printing family, the Swindells, held sway until the middle of the following century.
How were they made, these chapbooks? Until the early nineteenth century, they would nave been printed on wooden hand presses, like the one here In the Library, and later the cast-iron equivalent. They were printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper which was folded to make a booklet of eight, sixteen or sometimes twenty-four pages. Their illustrations were generally crude woodblock prints or worn type ornaments. The paper was cheap, the type rather haphazardly set, and they were quickly, even carelessly produced. Despite that undeniable indictment they have a charm that meant they were purchased, not just by the working classes at whom they were aimed, but also by wealthy collectors, anxious to own as many of them as- possible. Those collectors often bound them together in boards, the reasons for many of the survivor, such as those shown here from the collections at Chetham’s Library, Manchester Central Reference Library and two private collectors.
Today, chapbooks are the source of intense scholarly interest. Tiny repositories of traditional literature, local, economic and industrial history, they are studied for what they can tell us about the past. Their production and distribution sheds light on the history of the book and the rise of capitalism, their topical songs record patterns of immigration and emigration. Yet their charm remains a potent reminder of the power of cheap literature, and their spirit can be traced in such varied published material as tabloid newspapers. Penguin paperbacks, zines, religious tracts, comics, small press books, blogs and even reality television.