Revealing a hidden gem

I recently wrote an article that was published in ARC magazine in December and have the pleasure of sharing it with you below:

Revealing a hidden gem

Giants of industry, commerce, politics, arts and literature have graced the grand winding staircase to the stately library and many of them left papers relating to their triumphs and disappointments in life.

The Athenaeum is hidden away in the heart of Liverpool, tucked back from the city centre. A Gentleman’s (and now Ladies) club dating from 1797. The Athenaeum was founded by a group of Liverpool’s leading gentlemen looking for somewhere congenial to obtain and read the latest news.  A prospectus was written and circulated promising “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”. There was also to be a library “for the acquisition of general knowledge and for entertainment”. On 1st May 1800 the Athenaeum was opened on Church Street.

I started working at the Athenaeum Library in January 2016 as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund project to set up an archive and improve access to the collections. My first task was to undertake a survey of the archives where I very quickly realised the immense amount of work that was ahead and the vast amount of treasures that were lurking in the stacks and strongroom.

The survey revealed that the Athenaeum housed not only its own collection of archives built up through the daily running of the club but also several large collections that had been donated by Proprietor’s over the course of its 200-year history. These have included the collections of Robert Gladstone Junior, Charles Hutton Lear and Nicholas Monsarrat.

The archive collection paints a vivid picture of Liverpool’s history through its content of: share books, minute books, account books, architectural drawings, legal documentation, scrapbooks, coins, bank notes, watercolour paintings and correspondence.

The collections reflect the range of member’s interests over time. Mr William Roscoe (1753-1831), banker and a leading slave abolitionist was one of the first Proprietors’ of the club. On his declaration of bankruptcy his friends clubbed together to buy his book collection and donated it to the Athenaeum on the understanding Roscoe would have access to it for the rest of his life. The collection is housed in the Committee room and includes original manuscripts and a debtors list compiled upon Roscoe’s bankruptcy.

Dr James Currie (1756-1805), a slave abolitionist and a distinguished Proprietor of the period, was a physician known for his reports on the use of water for treating fevers and as the biographer of Robert Burns. Upon his death in 1805 he had in his possession Burns’s Glenriddell manuscripts which were subsequently donated to the Athenaeum in 1853 by his daughter-in-law Mrs W Wallace Currie. In 1913 the Athenaeum needing to raise money for the Library sold the manuscripts at auction to Mr John Gribbel, an American gentleman. This caused public outcry in Scotland on the grounds the manuscripts would be lost to Scotland forever. Mr Gribbel agreeing that the manuscripts should not be lost to their homeland donated them to Scotland, where they reside in the National Library of Scotland.

Another large collection donated by a Proprietor was by Robert Gladstone Junior. Robert Gladstone Junior was the great nephew of the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. He left an assortment of papers covering a wide range of topics; one would even go so far as to say he was a bit of a hoarder!

In his archive we have found correspondence dating from the early 20th century regarding; the duties of the RSPCA, British Fasciti, Suffragette movement and the building of the Mersey Tunnel along with ephemera such as Liverpool to Manchester railway centenary ties, special constable buttons off his uniform and a campaign rosette from his political career.

Interestingly, Gladstone’s archive included a large collection of minute books, correspondence and reports of the work of the Civic Service League. A voluntary organisation ran by prominent Liverpool gentlemen and women throughout the First World War. The work of the league included; drill practice, driving ambulances, aiding injured soldiers, sending candles and darned socks to the front line and providing care packages of food to prisoners of war.

The above illustrates a sample of the collections found within the Library of the Athenaeum along with 60,000 books, sketches, maps and charts. Many of the books are rare and reflect the interests of Proprietors’.

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”.[1]

This statement is still true today.

Nicola Hubberstey

Archivist, The Athenaeum



[1] W Irving, Sketch Book, (London 1848)