Read More: Little Chunks of History

  • by Ross Horsley and Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

This is an entry in our Read More series. These are ‘long-form’ articles, where staff offer a curated and detailed look at areas of our book collections, usually based around a specific theme or subject. These posts aim to guide the interested reader through to those books that offer a more in-depth look at a topic, or which are classics in their field.

Come to Leeds Central Library looking for information about fossils, and we might suggest you check out our staircases as well as a few books!

This way for fossils

This way for fossils. Library staircase from the ground floor.

There are 103 steps to the top floor of the library, assuming you come in via the Calverley Street entrance. The first nine of these are actually outside, and take you up to a disused, sunken portcullis just before the main glass doors. Hop over this and three further steps will bring you into our impressive atrium and, if you do decide to climb all the way to the top, you’re looking at 94 more. But don’t worry – our fossil-hunt only requires you to go about halfway.

The library has two large public staircases, reflecting the original design of the building as multi-purpose municipal offices. As a long-ago visitor to what was essentially the Victorian One-Stop Centre, you would’ve entered from Calverley Street and probably continued straight ahead to pay your utility bills in the room that’s now the main lending library. That means the staircase to your left is essentially the main staircase. However, we’re going to take the other set of steps – the one that begins in the area near the lift and Tiled Hall Cafe, and which would have originally led up to the lending and reference libraries, and served visitors using the Headrow entrance.

Our destination is the landing outside what’s now the Art Library on the first floor. Here you’ll find yourself face-to-face with two of the building’s stone guardians – a snarly dog questioning your intentions in climbing any further, and a comparatively serene-looking lion languishing on the handrail of the steps you’ve just ascended. (For a closer look at these characters and their friends, see our blog post Beware the Heraldic Beasts.)

Stony faced stares

Stony faced stares. Heraldic beasts outside the Art Library.

Behind the lion, embedded in the smooth stone handrail leading down, you can make out some strange, whitish flecks. These are the most noticeable of our library fossils! Their presence tells us that the stone here isn’t marble (the extreme conditions required to form that type of rock would destroy any fossils within it) but more likely polished limestone. The fossils themselves are possibly plant-based or some kind of crustacean – look carefully and you’ll notice tubes and blade-like structures.

Now turn to look at the brownish-red column that stands betwixt the heraldic beasts. This is made entirely of 380 million-year-old Devonian coral reef… In fact, you could say it’s one giant fossil!

We hope you’ll find that impressive but, if you still haven’t had your fill of petrified prehistoric pieces, carry on up the second set of stairs to the Information and Research department on the library’s second floor, where you can peruse an assortment of interesting books on the subject.

Many of these are specialist monographs published by the international Paleontological Society; more interestingly perhaps is the work of those natural scientists involved in the evolutionary debates of the 18th and 19th-centuries, arguments that revolved around differing interpretations of fossilised remains.

While the study of fossils can be traced to Antiquity and authorities such as the Grecian philosopher Theophrastus – specifically his History of Stones, of which the library holds a 1774 edition – as a modern science palaeontology has its roots in George Cuvier’s 18th-century development of comparative anatomy. Cuvier’s key work is – Le Règne Animal (The Animal Kingdom) and an English-language extract from his writings can be found in Oliver Goldsmith’s lavishly-illustrated 6-volume A History of the Earth and Animated Nature.

Cuvier developed the then-revolutionary belief that some species identifiable through the fossil record were distinct groups that had, at some point in the Earth’s distant past, become extinct. This was in contrast to the prevailing view of other authorities such as the Comte de Buffon, who believed that “fossils found in Europe of animals such as the woolly mammoth were remains of animals still living in the tropics, which had shifted out of Europe as the earth became cooler.” Buffon’s writings can be sampled in our copy of his Natural History: General and Particular.

Front piece to our 1812 copy of Buffon’s Natural History

Front piece to our 1812 copy of Buffon’s Natural History

Cuvier’s extinction thesis came to be known as “catastrophism” – the idea that singular events of immense magnitude were responsible for the mass extinction of species. This theory led to William Buckland, an English theologian, geologist and paleontologist, writing his classic 1824 work Reliquiæ Diluvianæ, or, Observations on the Organic Remains Attesting the Action of a Universal Deluge – a first edition of which is available to read in the library- on precisely that theme; the relationship of fossil remains to an event of, quite literally, Biblical proportions: the Great Flood.

Illustration from Buckland’s Reliquiæ showing a “Section of the cave in the Dream lead mine near Wirksworth, Derbyshire, 1822

Illustration from Buckland’s Reliquiæ showing a “Section of the cave in the Dream lead mine near Wirksworth, Derbyshire, 1822

Buckland was sufficiently respected within the burgeoning Natural History community that he was awarded the honour of a dedication in Gideon Algernon Mantell’s A Pictorial Atlas of Fossil Remains, a volume containing 74 colour illustrations from fossil remains.

Illustration from Mantell’s Atlas of “the bones of the right foot of the Moa, or extinct colossal Ostrich-like bird of New Zealand

Illustration from Mantell’s Atlas of “the bones of the right foot of the Moa, or extinct colossal Ostrich-like bird of New Zealand

And yet other observers of the fossil record, such as Charles Lyell, reacted against Buckland’s writings preferring the theory of “uniformitarianism”. This belief, explored in works such as Lyell’s The Principles of Geology – extracts from which can be read in the 1911 volume The Student’s Lyell – held that life on earth was shaped by long-term forces, rather than the one-off “shock” events described by Cuvier and Buckland.

Lyell, in turn, was a close friend of the young Charles Darwin, who integrated some of Lyell’s work into his own observations of geology and the fossil record – as seen in his Geological Observations (1876) – which led directly to On the Origin of Species. Ironically, Lyell himself did not hold fully to those theories – even though his The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863) shows the clear influence of Darwin’s views.

All the books mentioned here are available to view in the Information and Research Library, with some available for loan. Contact the department on 01132478282 or at to find out more.



In Fairyland

If you visit Leeds College of Art’s exhibition space in their Blenheim Walk site before 26th February, you will find a supernatural celebration dating back almost a century.

Based around the Cottingley Fairies series – photographs taken by two young girls near Leeds in 1917 in which they interact with ‘fairies’ – In Fairyland invites the viewer to explore multidisciplinary works in tribute and celebration of the mystic world of fairies and fairytales, by artist Tessa Farmer.

Visitors are greeted into the space by onlooking stuffed birds, and attention shifts to a cabinet in the corner, which features the 1915 copy of Princess Mary’s Gift Book, a popular children’s book from which the girls supposedly copied the images of dancers accompanying Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘A Spell for a Fairy’ for their famous photographs.

Farmer uses the dancers in her own work, intertwining them with her own vision of fairies, as miniature figures which are compiled from organic matter including wasp and butterfly remains. The difference between the two is striking – Farmer’s fairies are as macabre as the Cottingley fairies are sugar-sweet, and it is perhaps this combination which allows the exhibition to provide a fitting tribute to the fairytales of the early 20th century, which so often tread the line between dreamlike and nightmarish.

Here in the library, we’ve been inspired by In Fairyland to delve into our collection, to discover more about fairytales from around the time the original photographs were taken – and nothing captures the Victorian fascination with the strange and fantastic better than Andrew Lang’s colourful series of Fairy Books.

Lang’s first book in the series – the 1889 Blue Fairy Book – features familiar tales such as Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, told in flowery tones. The other volumes tell lesser-known, but equally as enchanting tales of whimsy collected from around the globe, featuring mermaids, fairies, creatures and monsters, with intricate full-page illustrations of each tale.

Illustration from Andrew Lang's 1889 Blue Fairy Book

Illustration from Andrew Lang’s 1889 Blue Fairy Book

The collection consists of 5 volumes – blue, green, red, yellow and pink – and provides the reader with a fascinating glimpse into fairy and folk tales of the time. If readers consider that authenticity of the Cottingley Fairies series was widely unproven for a number of decades by photography experts – something which seems almost comical from the hindsight of the 21st century – it becomes apparent that society at the time was perhaps less cynical of the existence of the otherworldly.

In our Local Studies library, we have a book from one man who was very public in his belief of the Cottingley Fairies. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1922 ‘The Coming of the Fairies’ discusses the possibility of fairies, with theories on their nature and existence, including a chapter in which he visits the Cottingley Glen site with the girls and describes the strange and beautiful creatures they encounter there. Depictions of water nymphs and flower fairies with dreamy, pastel auras once again tie-in with the imagery on display at Leeds College of Art, particularly the large wall-mounted images reminiscent of traditional hand-tinted photography of the 20th century.

The Coming of the Fairies

The Coming of the Fairies

Farmer’s play on the supernatural by creating creatures and situations from gathered materials plays a fitting tribute to the power of imagination that is unlocked with fairytales, and her army of wasps and bees is echoed in the story of ‘Drakestail’ in the 1890 Red Fairy Book.

Illustration from the 1890 Red Fairy Book

Illustration from the 1890 Red Fairy Book

And as to whether fairies really exist or not, Lang provides us a suitably curious answer –

‘[I] never saw any [my]self, but know several people who have – and heard their music – in the Highlands. For these reasons, [I]think that there are certainly fairies, but they never do any harm; and, in England, they have been frightened away by smoke and schoolmasters.’

In Fairyland is on display until 26th February at Leeds College of Art, Blenheim Walk.

All books mentioned are available to read in the library, full reading list below:

  • Arthur Conan Doyle – Coming of the Fairies (Local and Family History Library Y COT 398)
  • Joe Cooper – The Case of the Cottingley Fairies (Local and Family History Library Y COT 398)
  • Edward L. Gardner – Fairies: A Book of Real Fairies (Local and Family History Library Y COT 398)
  • Andrew Lang – The Blue Fairy Book, Red Fairy Book, Green Fairy Book, Yellow Fairy Book, Pink Fairy Book (Information and Research Library 398.4 LAN)
  • Alfred Noyes – The Elfin Artist & Other Poems (Information and Research Library 821 NOY)

A Curiosity of Heraldry

Investigating our holdings of heraldry for our display case, we came across perhaps a unique collection, “Engravings of Arms Miscellaneous” bound, no author or date, although the material within maybe dates it c1790.

The display case which can be found at the Information and Research library, with selected heraldry themed books from our special collections.

The display case which can be found at the Information and Research library, with selected heraldry themed books from our special collections.

Engravings of Arms Miscellaneous

,An interesting and curious book which for all intents and purposes is a scrap book collection of heraldry/coat of arms ephemera of civic, ecclesiastical, noble families and gentry from the UK and Europe which is richly illustrated with colour and black and white drawings. One section forms the main focus of the display: Weapons/coat of arms of cities and aristocratic families in the powerful republic of Holland by Jacobus Robyn 1696.



With over 800 beautifully painted coloured crests, these pages open out to approximate w:120cm x h:50cm,. People highlighted on the pages include: Maria Stuart, Mary II of England, 1689 and Wilhem Hendrick , William III of England, Sovereign Prince of Orange, 1650.

Coat of Arms, Maria Stuart, Mary II of England, 1689

Coat of Arms, Maria Stuart, Mary II of England, 1689

A selection of plates showing quarterings, which is a method used in heraldry to display alliances made through marriage.

A selection of plates

A selection of plates

The image above includes plates for 15th Baroness Ferrers of Chartley, 1764; the crest of The right honourable Francis Osborne  of Kiveton in the County of York; a new and correct collection of arms and crests by Philip Bryan; elements of heraldry and arms of the bishops English and Irish; seals of several counties of England and wales and the monument of Edward Stafford earl of Wiltshire 1499.

A further plate shows the South prospect of the ruins of Sandal Castle and Town of Wakefield 1722, drawn by Samuel Buck. The text at the bottom states ‘This castle near Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire was built by John Plantagenet Earl of Warren and Surrey in the reign of King Edward the 2nd, near which was a battle fought between the families of York and Lancaster on the 31st day of Dec AD 1460 in the reign of King Henry the 6th where Richard Duke of York (then the owner) and his son Edward Earl of Rutland were slain. In memory of which King Edward the 4th (son of the duke of York) built a beautiful chapel now standing on Wakefield bridge but much defaced the castle was demolished after the Grand Rebellion in the year 1648′.

South Prospect of the Ruins of Sandal Castle and Town of Wakefield

South Prospect of the Ruins of Sandal Castle and Town of Wakefield

 Heraldic manuscript, c1625

Manuscript containing over 1200 hand-drawn and coloured illustrations of coats of arms. They represent 600 years of history, from the reign of William I, (1027-1087) to the reign of Charles I (1600-1649).

Example of a Coat of Arms

Example of a Coat of Arms

There are many further resources on heraldry in the Information and Research Library, all listed on our catalogue ). For more details please contact us.

Tel :0113 2478282 e-mail:


A Day at the Races

Did you know that Leeds had its very own race ground in Stourton Park back in the 1820’s? It didn’t last long and faced criticism throughout its life span for encouraging gambling and immoral behaviour. It was situated opposite the former Skelton Grange Power Station on the south side of the River Aire and was also known as Haigh Park Race Ground.

There had been horse races in Leeds prior to this course opening and Chapeltown Moor hosted two mile long races in the time of noted historian Ralph Thoresby. However, this would be Leeds’ first permanent race course.

The race course was planned in the autumn of 1823 and by October it was staked out and the line of the course chosen. Workmen felled trees and levelled the ground, formed the course within posts and railings with the first race to be run the next spring. The Leeds Mercury reported that an ‘eminent character upon the turf has consented to become a steward of the first races’ (25 October 1823).

A colour map shows the proposed race ground which included a ferry crossing to the ground over the River Aire. It was surveyed by Charles Fowler, the future clerk of the races, in 1823, and shows the grandstand, paddocks and winning line.

Race ground map

Race ground map

Race cards were produced for each race meet and the Local and Family History Library have a collection of these cards dating from the opening in 1824 through to 1832. In the opening year there were several different lists of runners produced that caused great confusion for the gambling public attending the races. As a ‘mark of distinction’ the official race cards had a map of the race course printed on the reverse to dissuade rogue printers and were labelled ‘Todd’s Correct Card’.

Todd's Correct card

Todd’s Correct card

Over the years the races attracted a variety of people, both gentlemen and the lower classes. The Leeds Mercury (1 July 1826) acknowledged that the racing has been ‘pretty good’ but ‘we can testify to the enormous influx of pick-pockets, gamblers, and prostitutes; who have infested our streets during the week, diffusing moral contamination wherever they approach.’ It asked the noblemen and gentlemen of the area to reflect seriously before sending horses to race in Leeds next year’s meeting.

As well as horse racing the race course was also used for other kinds of private gambling. The Leeds Mercury (11 November 1826) reports that Captain Polhill of the First Dragoon Guards, who were stationed at Leeds Barracks, ‘undertook for a considerable wager to ride 95 miles in five successive hours on Haigh Park Race Course. The Captain started at nine o’clock, and accomplished his arduous task in four hours and 39 minutes, being 21 minutes less than the time allowed’.

Race Ground 1827 card

Race Ground 1827 card

Foot races also took place as well as wrestling in an attempt to diversify the appeal of the race course.

However, by the beginning of the 1830’s the race course was waning. The Leeds Mercury of 28 August 1830 reports on the races being indifferently attended, not exceeding five thousand people, not more than fifty gentlemen and not one lady. Growing dissatisfaction with the people it attracted as well as its position outside the city centre may have contributed to its demise. The land was sold and Leeds residents had to once again travel out of the city to attend horse races.