Humphrey Chetham (baptised 10 July 1580 – 1653) was an English merchant and philanthropist, responsible for the creation of Chetham’s Hospital and Chetham’s Library, the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. He was born in Crumpsall, Lancashire, England, the sixth son of Henry Chetham, a successful Manchester cloth merchant who lived in Crumpsall Hall, and his wife Jane.
Chetham was educated at Manchester Grammar School, and in 1597 was apprenticed to Samuel Tipping, a Manchester linen draper. He remained with Tipping until 1605, when he moved to London to join his brother George, where they set up a partnership trading in various textiles. They sold raw wool, flax, and cotton fibre to spinners, and yarns to weavers in Manchester, then bought the finished products and sold them on the London cloth markets. It was evidently a very profitable business, as it allowed the brothers to acquire Clayton Hall in Manchester. On George’s death in 1627 Chetham became the sole owner, and in the following year he bought the lordship of Turton, near Bolton, along with Turton Tower, a medieval fortified house.
Accumulation of wealth
Chetham continued to add to his land portfolio by buying other minor estates and farms around Manchester; by 1640 he had become one of the largest landowners in the area. The growing cash surplus generated by his business allowed him to move into moneylending, and by 1640 Chetham had effectively become a substantial bank. He became known among the gentry of south Lancashire and north Cheshire as a “sympathetic and sound source of money”.
Although he did his utmost to avoid it, Chetham’s considerable wealth and influence made a public role inevitable. In 1631 he was asked to accept a knighthood, but he refused. He did however become the High Sheriff of Lancashire in 1635, a job he felt unable to turn down, and in 1643 he was made treasurer of Lancashire, responsible for collecting money for the maintenance of the armed forces.
Chetham never married and had no children, but he was a generous and supportive uncle to his many nieces and nephews. Probably from about the late 1630s he became an “enthusiastic benefactor of charitable causes”, and provided funds for the maintenance and education of twenty-two poor boys: fourteen from Manchester, six from Salford, and two from Droylsden. His ambition was to acquire the buildings of Manchester College to create a hospital for the boys, but that did not happen in his lifetime.
Death and endowments
Chetham died at Clayton Hall in 1653. In his will, written two years earlier, he left £7000 to be spent for the maintenance in perpetuity of forty poor boys from the Manchester area, along with £500 to buy a building in Manchester to accommodate them. In 1654 the feoffees[a] of Chetham’s will finally succeeded in buying the Manchester College buildings, which re-opened in 1656 as the Chetham’s Hospital and Library, along with five chained libraries[b] in local churches and chapels. Chetham also left £1000 for the purchase of books for the library, which remains the oldest free public library in the English-speaking world. Chetham’s Hospital, now known as Chetham’s School of Music, and Chetham’s Library continue to flourish.
- A feoffee is a trustee who holds a freehold estate for the benefit of, typically, some charitable purpose.
- A chained library is one in which the books are attached to their bookcases by a chain.