During the last decade of the 18thCentury, England was embroiled in a long and costly war with France. As the major port on the western seaboard of England, Liverpool played a key role in this war.
If Liverpool’s merchants and other professionals were to carry on trade and assist the port’s growth, they were in vital need of commercial and political information.
Information of this nature was almost exclusively gleaned from newspapers and periodicals. The usual way to read these was in coffee houses, which were frequently overcrowded and noisy. The need for a congenial environment in which to read the papers was obvious. Thus, a number of the leading citizens conceived the idea of establishing such a setting, and so the principle of the founding of a club was born.
In 1797, those citizens circulated a document entitled ‘Outlines of a plan for a library and newsroom’ to potential subscribers. With typical late 18th Century directness, the first sentence read: “It has often been a matter of surprise to many inhabitants of this place, and still more to strangers, that in a town of such commercial and national importance as Liverpool, the conveniences and accommodation for the acquisition of knowledge, both local and general, both ancient and modern, should be so imperfect as they most confessedly are.”
The proposal came at a time of spectacular growth in the importance of Liverpool as a port and trading centre during the 18th Century. By 1792, Liverpool had 17 % of all trade through English ports. From 1760 to 1801, Liverpool’s population grew from 25,000 to 77,000. By the end of the 18th Century, the town supported not only ship owners, merchants, and manufacturers, but also a burgeoning professional class including lawyers, doctors, and clerics.
The prospectus proposed “to procure a regular supply of newspapers, both town and country; all the periodicals of any value, and all the pamphlets that have reference to subjects of local or general polity or commerce”. The writers of the prospectus went further: the institution was to provide books for the acquisition of general knowledge and for entertainment. The existing Liverpool Library, founded in 1758, was deemed to be failing in this respect by the writers of the prospectus.
The idea of such an institution seems to have originated in the provinces and not in London. Existing London clubs were political in nature, or founded with gambling as their main activity. The more serious London clubs, like the London Athenaeum and Garrick, postdate the Liverpool Athenaeum by some years.
On 1st January 1799, the building had advanced to the point that the newsroom could open. The library opened on 1st May 1800. The premises were in Church Street, opposite Clayton Square and near to St. Peter’s Church.
The name ‘Athenaeum’, chosen by the founders for the new institution, comes from the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athene; the diphthong in the name reflects the fact that ‘Athene’ can be spelt ending with an ‘a’ or an ‘e’.
Having remained on its original site for nearly 150 years, the Athenaeum was faced in the late 1920s with a local authority which needed to widen Church Street to accommodate the large volume of vehicular traffic. This would involve the demolition of St. Peter’s church and the Athenaeum building. The Committee of the Athenaeum, after long negotiation with the local authority, was able to secure a long lease on a newly built and empty building in Church Alley. They commissioned an architect to design the interior to reflect that of the old building, and so in 1928 the Athenaeum moved to its present site. A brass cross set in the pavement of Church Street marks the position of the altar of the church, and the Athenaeum building is on its graveyard.
The Athenaeum is, and always has been, a haven in the heart of Liverpool that offers a distinguished setting and an atmosphere unrivalled in the City. It was founded in 1797 to provide a meeting place where ideas and information could be exchanged in pleasant surroundings. Today, it continues to provide this facility in the elegant building near the Bluecoat Chambers in Church Alley.
In addition to its Newsroom, the most splendid room of its kind in Liverpool, the Athenaeum has a justly renowned library, an attractive dining room, and two smaller meeting rooms. The institution is open on Mondays and Tuesdays from 9.00am to 4.00pm, and from 9.00am to 9.00pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. It is not open at weekends, save for special functions, such as weddings (for which it is licensed). It is regularly used for outside functions. There is no overnight accommodation, but special rates are available at nearby hotels. Rooms in the Institution are available for hire on a room by room basis.
The Athenaeum has a distinguished list of members or Proprietors as they are referred to within the Athenaeum, drawn from every walk of life from across the City of Liverpool and beyond. Early Proprietors played a major part in the national movement to abolish slavery, and several Nobel Laureates have been Proprietors.
Today’s Proprietors include clerics, lawyers, doctors, and accountants, members of the armed forces, academics, commercial people, and many others.
The heart of the Athenaeum is undoubtedly its library. This is one of the greatest proprietary libraries in the UK.
In 1848, Washington Irving wrote in his sketchbook:
“One of the first places to which a stranger is taken in Liverpool is the Athenaeum; it contains a good library and a spacious reading room and is the great literary resource of the place”.
The “good library” of 1848 has grown considerably. Containing books, prints, maps, and charts, it is one of the most important regional history resources in the country. Although the privileges are primarily reserved for its Proprietors, arrangements can be made, under terms agreed by the Committee, for researchers and others to make use of the library.
The Athenaeum is over two hundred years old, but still maintains its dignity and vigour, without, it is hoped, any stuffiness.