Opening of the Free Library, Manchester


Speech at the opening of the Free Library, Manchester (2 September 1852).


Dickens, Charles


Bibliographic Citation

Dickens, Charles. 'Speech at the opening of the Free Library, Manchester' (2 September 1852). Dickens Search. Eds. Emily Bell and Lydia Craig. Accessed [date].


Sir John Potter, my Lords, Ladies, and Gentlemen, I have been so much in the habit within the last fortnight of relying upon the words of other people, that I find it quite a novel sensation to be here dependent solely upon my own. I assure you that I feel at this moment in imminent danger of sliding into the language of my friend who addressed you last; and, from the mere force of habit, I rather miss the prompter. For this reason, and many others, I shall trouble you with a very short speech indeed in proposing the resolution with which I have the honour to be entrusted. It so fully expresses my feelings and hopes, and my convictions in association with this auspicious day, that I cannot do better than to read it to you at once:

That as in this institution special provision has been made for the working classes, by means of a free lending library, this meeting cherishes the earnest hope that the books thus made available, will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets, and the cellars of the poorest of our people.

Ladies and gentlemen, limiting what I wish to say on this subject to two very brief heads, I would beg to observe, firstly, that I have been made happy since I have been sitting here by the solution of a problem which has long perplexed me. I have seen so many references made in the newspapers, in parliamentary debates, and elsewhere, to the ‘Manchester School’, that I have long had a considerable anxiety to know what that phrase might mean, and what the ‘Manchester School’ might be. My natural curiosity on this head has not been diminished by the very contradictory accounts I have received respecting that same school; some great authorities assuring me that it was a very good one, some that it was very bad one; some that it was very broad comprehensive, some that is very narrow and limited; some that was all cant, and some that it was all cotton.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have solved this difficulty, by finding here today that the ‘Manchester School’ is a great free-school, bent on carrying instruction to the poorest hearths. It is this great free-school, inviting the humblest workman to come in and to be a student; this great free-school, most munificently endowed by voluntary subscriptions in an incredibly short space of time – starting upon its glorious career with twenty thousand volumes of books – knowing no sect, no party, no distinction – nothing but the public want and the public good. Henceforth, ladies and gentlemen, this building shall represent to me the ‘Manchester School’; and I pray to Heaven, moreover, that many great towns and cities, and many high authorities, may go to school a little in the Manchester seminary, and profit by the noble lesson that it teaches.

In the second and last place, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to observe that like my friend, Sir Edward Lytton, I exceedingly regret my inability to attend that other interesting meeting of this evening. I should have rejoiced to have seen in this place, instead of myself, and to have heard in this place, instead of my own voice, the voice of a working man in Manchester, to tell the projectors of this spirited enterprise with what feelings he and his companions regard their just and generous recognition here. I should have rejoiced to hear from such a man, in the solid and nervous language in which I have often heard such men give utterance to the feelings of their breasts, how he knows that the book stored here for his behoof will cheer him through many of the struggles and toils of his life, will raise him in his self respect, will teach him that capital and labour are not opposed, but are mutually dependent and mutually supporting – will enable him to tread down blinding prejudice, corrupt misrepresentation, and everything but the truth, into the dust.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have long been, in my sphere, a zealous advocate for the diffusion of knowledge among all classes and conditions of men; because I do believe, with all the strength of mind with which I am capable of believing anything, that the more a man knows, the more humbly, and with a more faithful spirit he comes back to the fountain of all knowledge, and takes his heart the great sacred precept, ‘On earth peace, good will toward men’. And well assured I am, that the great precept, and those other things I have hinted at as pleasant to have heard here today from a working man, will rise higher and higher above the beating of hammers, the roar of wheels, the rattle of machinery, and the rush of waters, and be the more and more clearly fell through every pulsation of this great heart, the better known and used this institution is.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have great pleasure in moving the resolution which I have already read to you.