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This article is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.

From Chetham’s Library

01: The Desk that Changed the Course of Human History
Michael Powell
Chethams Library

Chetham’s Library was founded in 1653 and is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. Located in central Manchester, its collection includes early printed books, manuscript diaries, letters and deeds, prints, paintings, glass lantern slides, and ephemera. [Image © Chethams, 2016].

It is simply a desk. Strictly speaking it is a table, an oak reading table with console legs resting in pairs upon triangular supports with a main central stretcher. It was made sometime between 1654 and 1658 by a Scots-born mathematician, cartographer, surveyor and part-time joiner called Richard Martinscroft, who was employed by the executors of Humphrey Chetham to furnish and equip the newly created public library in Manchester that Chetham had endowed. For this he was paid the sum of 1s 2d per day and to compensate him for his modest wage he received an additional payment in the form of beer. Joinery was clearly thirsty work and Martinscroft managed to get through about 10d’s worth a day, probably enough to buy twenty pints.

The desk is too large to go through the rather small medieval door that leads into the reading room, so it must have been made off site and then assembled in situ, a sort of seventeenth-century example of flatpack furniture. It has a rustic, utilitarian quality, perhaps not surprising given that Martinscroft was invariably well-oiled when at work and its purpose was simply to fill a space in an alcove. It has done its job well and has occupied this space for ...

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