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24 September 2014

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You are in: Manchester > History > History features > The secret millionaire

Enriqueta Rylands

The secret millionaire

John Rylands library is in fact a labour of love – built as a memorial to him by his widow Enriqueta. She's been slightly overshadowed by his fame, but a new exhibition there hopes to lift the lid on a very private woman.

Enriqueta Rylands

- born Cuba in 1843, the daughter of an English merchant based in Havana.
- brought up in London and Liverpool after her parents died
- came to Manchester aged 20, to be a companion to John Rylands' 2nd wife Martha
- Martha died in 1875 and she and John married John 8 months later
- built the library after John Rylands died in 1888
- 1899 the library opened and she was handed the key to the city of Manchester
- died, 1908 in Torquay

Enriqueta Rylands was remarkable for her time. Her obituary in the Manchester Evening News describes her as a “lady of considerable culture” and notes that “every detail of the library came under her personal supervision”. She dedicated twenty years - and some of the two million pounds she inherited from her husband - working on the project.

The building benefited from her great love of books, architecture and art and when it opened to the public in 1899, it was truly a library to rival those of Oxford and Cambridge. Manchester thanked her for this great gift with the keys to the city. She was the first woman ever to receive such an honour.

Despite Enriqueta's fame and achievements, not much is known about her private life, as she asked for her personal correspondence to be destroyed when she died. Luckily, her public correspondence about the library remains. Elizabeth Gow is the Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives at John Rylands library, and she's sifted through everything from wills and solicitor's letters to Elizabeth's business letters, to build up a picture of Enriqueta's personality. 

John Rylands

John Rylands

“I think we've always accepted that she was very determined and even a bit controlling. She was a very religious woman – she took the Bible seriously, in fact I think she took everything seriously. She was a very good negotiator because she was passionate about people and about doing the right thing. But I think she was actually extremely kind - and that she engaged on a personal level with everyone she met”

This kindness can be seen Enriqueta's philanthropic work. She often gave money to charity – including five thousand pounds to the Manchester and Wood street mission. She didn't shout about it - in fact, as Elizabeth explains, she kept her generosity under wraps:

“there was an anecdote I'd read in one of her obituaries that was about her going to Dorset disguised as Mrs Farmer, to visit poor ministers there. She then anonymously gave them whatever it was they really needed. In particular there was one minister who couldn't afford to get married until his house was furnished. I found a few pages in the beginning of an account book – just a few notes on the lives of the ministers. It was proof of this wonderful story”

key to the city of Manchester

The key to the city of Manchester.

but why did she feel the need for so much secrecy?

“At various points in her life she was overwhelmed with begging letters and I think she felt responsible to answer every one of them. She found that very difficult so this secrecy was a way of managing that.”

Apparently it was quite common for Victorian ladies to have their personal correspondence destroyed after their death, but Elizabeth feels there may have been something more to it -

“In Enriqueta's earlier wills she didn't have that clause, it came in after 1900. She had a troubled relationship with her adopted daughter Maria – and also the fact that she was only thirty two when she became the third wife of a seventy four year old millionaire might have influenced her relationship with the press.”

The historic reading room at John Rylands library

The historic reading room at the library

“She did make special provisions to keep the correspondence about the library to be saved though. I think she wanted to be remembered for her work rather than her personal life. But the fact that she also called the library after her husband might have backfired because she hasn't been remembered for anything”

In Enriqueta's lifetime too, she was overshadowed by her husband. Newspaper reports about the library's opening dedicate many more column inches to him than to her. Women weren't exactly at the forefront of public life at that time, which is why Elizabeth wonders whether the dedication of the library to John was a way of allowing Enriqueta to exercise her fierce intellect and strong personality,

staircase at John Ryland's Library

staircase at John Ryland's Library

“We need to be careful about the memorial side. In Victorian terms it was purely something that she did for her husband. But I'm not sure we can say that nowadays - because she obviously did it for herself. In a way selling this as a memorial to her husband enabled it to be this vast spectacular thing which otherwise she wouldn't have been able to do. She obviously loved and respected John Rylands and wanted his name to go down in history, but you don't want assume that he was the whole story”

The exhibition may well help redress that balance.

“Enriqueta Rylands: Who do you think she was?” is on at the Christie Gallery at John Rylands library until May 5 2008.

All images are reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, the John Rylands University Library, The University of Manchester

last updated: 26/03/2008 at 10:58
created: 26/03/2008

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