History of the Library

History of the Library

The Library was established by the will of Dr Daniel Williams, the leading London nonconformist minister of his day, who died in January 1716. He left instructions for his trustees to house his collection as a public library and to make it available to nonconformist ministers, tutors and students in the City of London. However the opening of the Library in Red Cross Street, Cripplegate, in 1730 was largely due to the selfless efforts of his trustees who contributed and raised the necessary funds to build and equip a separate library building.

The collections were greatly enlarged over the years with many important gifts of books, manuscripts and portraits, so that Williams’s original benefaction of about 7600 books forms only a small part of the modern library which extends far beyond puritanism to cover Biblical subjects, church history, Byzantium and much more. The Library remained in Red Cross Street until 1865, when the Metropolitan Railway Company bought the library premises. The Library removed temporarily to No.8, Queen Square, and in 1873 to a new building in Grafton Street. In 1889 the Trustees acquired University Hall in Gordon Square, London, where the Library opened in 1890. The Library is still administered by an independent Trust, and receives no government or outside funding.

Dr Williams's Library, Gordon Square

The present library building was designed by Thomas Leverton Donaldson, Professor of Architecture at University College, London, following an architectural competition, and built in 1848-49 as University Hall to mark the passing of the Dissenters' Chapels Act in 1844. The premises were shared by Manchester New College from 1853, which acquired the lease in 1882. Upon the removal of the College (now Harris Manchester College) to Oxford in 1889, the building was acquired from its trustees by Dr. Williams's Trust.

A brief history of the library was prepared in 1917 to commemorate the bicentenary of the Trust and a new history of the Trust has now been published by Boydell. It has been written by Dr Williams's Research Fellow, Dr Alan Argent. Some copies are available at the library at a discounted price.