Historical overview

For a comprehensive telling of the Letherium’s history from its inception through to 1940, please see “The Origins and History of the Manchester Letherium 1833–1940” by Prof. Albert Samuels.

Commissioned by the Manchester Letherium Steering Committee in 1997, this pamphlet documents the foibles and fortunes of the many Letherium incarnations.

From psychologically unstable donators, to dubious funding sources, to global prestige, this text charts the colourful history of Manchester's Letheria in their many forms and functions. Essential reading for Letherium enthusiasts and scholars alike.
Origins and History Cover
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Drawing of MML exterior  
The only known image of the MML's exterior: a drawing made for the east elevation of the 1901 building.
Click here to see whole drawing (new window).    


  Before succumbing to the German Luftwaffe in Manchester’s infamous blitz of December 1940, the Manchester Municipal Letherium (its last official name, henceforth the MML) once stored the abundant personal collections of Manchester industrialists whose international trade networks brought vast quantities of material and cultural wealth from external sources. The MML, situated at the corners of Princess and Whitworth Streets in central Manchester, was a fine example of the then popular Edwardian Baroque style, common for warehouse designs of the time. Scattered across eight floors, this proto-museum was, up until its untimely destruction, seen largely by the public as a store for the spoils of Manchester’s industrialist elites. Little remains of this building today, save vestiges of oral history and a few shards of its initial foundation—still visible on Princess Street. The bombs that fell on the building that night in December of 1940 proved to be entirely successful, destroying even the Letherium’s own archive. The building at Princess and Whitworth Streets which housed the MML represented the last of a series of structures and organisational philosophies.
Manchester's First Letherium  
The first Letherium in Manchester

A Previous Golden Age

  With its earliest roots in the late 18th century, the Letherium had its beginnings in the private collections of Henry Withecombe. From that single patron, the collection and its minders grew as the 1800’s advanced. During its “Golden Age” between 1835 and 1865 the Letherium was governed by a council of eight Manchester based industrials and philanthropists. Collections were housed in its first purpose-built structure in Manchester, located on Peache Street. Due to changing economic fortunes in the 1870’s and chronic mismanagement, the Manchester Letherium Society, which governed all aspects of the Letherium’s early operation, eventually decided to give up the Peache Street building and to use warehouses throughout the city to store the collections until such time that proper accommodation could yet again be found.
Image: Manchester Central Library  
MML board members during the Whit Day Parade, just steps from the almost completed MML, 1899.

Shifting Fortunes

  It wasn't until the great successes of Manchester’s Ship Canal at the turn of the 20th century, combined with a move by the Corporation of the City of Manchester to embrace and fund the Letherium’s on-going activities, that the second Letherium building was commissioned to be built. After considerable delay and various financial troubles, the Manchester Municipal Letherium, designed by Charles Dobsworth, was finally opened at its Princess and Whitworth Street location in 1899.

Always the poor cousin to the more prestigious and popular Manchester Museum, the Letherium’s position within Manchester’s cultural environment waned as the 20th century progressed. Its destruction in the Second World War put an end to what was by then, a beleaguered and withering institution.

But now - some 150 years after its inception and sixty years after its destruction - the Letherium is benefiting from renewed interest. Attitudes governing the acquisition and care of art and artefacts have shifted from the 19th century tendency for importation and collection of objects to the current interest in their re-circulation and re-contextualisation within the UK. The most recent incarnation of the Letherium is thus charged with publicly re-housing surplus artefacts and archives whose overabundance has now led to their being deaccessioned from museum and gallery collections across the country.
MLS admission ticket  
MLS Admission Ticket circa 1860's
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