Alf Mattison: A Hidden Figure

  • by Rhian Isaac, Leeds Central Library

I was inspired to take a closer look at our Alf Mattison Collection after I heard Professor Malcolm Chase from the University of Leeds deliver a talk a few weeks ago to a busy room about this fascinating but somewhat shadowy figure. This was a man who despite his active involvement in the socialist movement from its very beginning in this country remained a background figure in politics. He was close friends with some of the most influential Socialists of the time yet he expressed no desire to pursue a political career himself. It was his personal experiences of the hardships of industrial working class life in Leeds that led him to act against class discrimination and it is through his collection, in the Brotherton Library and in our own, that we have access to an invaluable record of socialism in Leeds.

His collection of socialist literature includes a large number of books, ephemera and pamphlets and many of these can be found in the Brotherton Library. He was also a prolific compiler of newspaper cuttings and had a staggering intake of five daily, eleven weekly and four monthly papers. His compilations of newspaper cuttings vary in subject matter and these are a couple of examples found in Mattison’s ‘Old Leeds Chronicles’ in Leeds Libraries’ collections.



As well as a collector of socialist literature Mattison was also a keen and well respected local historian, holding office on the Thoresby Society Council from 1908 until his death in 1944. He was regarded as a particular expert on the history of theatre in Leeds and we have his manuscripts on topics such as ‘The First Leeds Theatre’, Tate Wilkinson’s early pantomimes’ and ‘Famous actors appearing at the Leeds Theatre’. Mattison frequently contributed articles to The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Weekly Citizen but Leeds Central Library also hold a treasure trove of handwritten unpublished material – 76 folders to be exact – that are available to explore.

unpublished articles

It is perhaps the diaries of Alf Mattison that excited me the most when I discovered the 16 volumes on a shelf in our strong room. He always intended these to be read and he carefully considered where they might be housed best. He believed that they would be more accessible to a wider audience if they were kept in the public library and In keeping with his wishes, his wife Florence gave them to us after his death.

The journals are full of stories of famous Leeds figures and visits made to Leeds by notable people, such as, Winston Churchill and Sir Walter Scott. Perhaps one of the most important sections is the one that covers the Second World War. Mattison made many diary entries about significant events but also about how his daily life had been affected by changes to rationing and frequent air raids as he realised that this would be important to future readers. His record provides a unique and personal insight into life in Leeds during the war.


His wife Florence or ‘Florrie’ as she was known is also an interesting character, having been expelled from the Labour Party at the age of 76 for being too radical. But she perhaps is deserving of her own blog post!

If you would like to look at some of the items from the Mattison collection please come and see us at Leeds Central Library or walk up the hill to the Brotherton, where you can also now visit their wonderful new Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.

From Bread to Ghosts: Speed-dating Library Treasures

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

Our amazing series of Library Fest events finished over the weekend and we hope you managed to attend a few! One that we particularly enjoyed took place last Thursday night, when we invited some adventurous and open-minded members of the public to “speed date” some of our favourite library treasures.

Working pretty much as you might expect (or not! this was the first time we’d ever run an event like this and even we weren’t sure exactly what might happen…) – eight Librarians (including representatives from the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds) sat at eight tables with eight members of the public. Each Librarian then spoke – passionately! – about their individually-selected item for three minutes, before a beautiful old-fashioned bell was ding-donged and each of our guests moved on to the next table, to be lovingly introduced to a new library treasure.

The event was a great success and we hope to run it again soon. In the meantime, why not have a look at the photographs and text below, which will give you some flavour of the wonderful array of items we presented for perusal?

“The Bread Arch”

bread arch

Helen from our Local and Family History department presented this item. She describes it as: “This is one of our collection of prints showing the bread archway that was built to welcome the Duke and Duchess of York, who were visiting Leeds to open the new Medical school and Library at the Yorkshire college (later to become the  University of Leeds). Built on Commercial street out of 1500 loaves baked by W. Morris over an iron and wooden frame, the arch was only in place for the day of the visit. The bread was distributed to the poor the next day along with soup and tea!”

Selections from our Playbills collection


Introduced by Sally from Local and Family History, who says of this ‘colourful’ set of items: “City Varieties Playbills from 1954 to 1962, showcasing the height of entertainment at the time – Vaudeville and strip shows! In these ‘raunchy’ playbills, women are depicted scantily clad with stage names such as ‘Miss Fluffles’. These performers would be the main entertainment for the evening, above a range of singers, dancers and comedians.”

Comic Guide to the Leeds City Art Gallery

leeds city art gallery

Vickie from our Art Library spoke about this fascinating little book of cartoons. She says: “‘Comic Guide to the Leeds City Art Gallery’ was published in 1893 in aid of the Poor Children’s Summer Holiday Fund, which was set up to take disadvantaged inner-city kids to the seaside for a few weeks. The guide itself is by a Fred Reynolds, who was probably a local caricaturist/illustrator. The main reason I like it is that Reynolds has taken art and painting, traditionally high-brow culture, and made it into something to poke fun at, which in turn makes it more accessible and communicative with a younger or unfamiliar audience.”

Universal Fortune Teller & Bonaparte’s Book of Fate / Mother Shipton’s Wheel of Fate & Wheel of Fortune / Zadkiels Universal Dream Book


The enigmatically-absent Lisa, from our Central Library, introduced this selection of weird and wonderful materials. You can read more about them on a previous blog post.

The Lady’s Dressing-Room


This book was introduced by Rhian from the Central Library, who says: “The Lady’s Dressing Room is a Victorian advice manual that instructs women on what they should wear and gives various tips on beautification from how to remove your freckles, to taking care of your hair and how to fasten your stockings correctly. It even advises on the art of growing old gracefully. Etiquette and advice manuals provide a fantastic insight in to Victorian society where the middle classes were expanding but had a terrible anxiety about how they were supposed to look and behave. The Lady’s Dressing Room is particularly interesting as it shows what was expected of women during this time. My favourite line is ‘The husband should always find the wife fresh, beautiful, sweet as a flower; but he should believe her to be so adorned by Nature, like the lilies of the field’. So a lady must always look her best but never show that she has tried too hard!”

Brotherton scroll


Laura and Rhiannon joined us from the Brotherton Library with an absolutely amazing treasure from their collections: a facsimile of the Genealogical History Roll that is on display in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery at the University of Leeds. Laura says of this wonderful piece: “The real item was made in Paris between 1461 and 1483. This manuscript chronicle, written in Anglo-Norman French, uses illustrations and family trees to describe the history of the world. It begins with the Biblical creation story and ends with the history of Louis XI, King of France. It is almost 18 metres long and made of 39 large pieces of parchment pasted together.”

Ghost Stories & Weird Experiences; Life After Death &c

2016-02-19 10.13.47

This spooky scrapbook was introduced by Ross from our Local and Family History department. He says: “The biggest mystery about Ghost Stories & Weird Experiences; Life After Death &c is who compiled it, but we’re equally unsure how it ended up in the library. I like to think someone discovered it in an attic and was too scared either to keep or destroy it. It’s a scrapbook of supernaturally-themed newspaper cuttings running from the 1920s to the 1940s, beginning with quaint tales of polite hauntings in stately homes, but gradually darkening and becoming more eccentric in its interests until (after a particularly gruesome tale of voodoo) it suddenly stops. In appropriately creepy fashion, the final pages of the book are blank…”

The Creation of the American Republic – Gordon S. Wood

american republic wood

Finally, Antony, also from the Local and Family History department, talked about this book. He says “This is a fairly obscure, heavy-weight piece of academic scholarship. Published in 1968, it’s hardly a ‘treasure’ in the sense the earlier items are. However, I selected it because I think it represents a part of the Library collections that are a treasure – and that is the 40,000 loanable books in our stacks. The vast majority of those books were published up to the 1990s and almost all of them are classics or key texts in their fields. This set of books allows anyone – with just a library card! – to gain a degree-level understanding of almost any subject they can think of. Your public library service at its finest.”

There you have it – a wonderfully-diverse set of items! Remember: all of these items (and many, many, more) are available to view during the Central Library opening hours. Contact us to find out more.

Ralph Thoresby and the Ducatus Leodiensis: A Curated Display

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library


There are still five days to enjoy the fantastic series of events we’re holding for our 2016 Library Fest. Among that panoply is a display celebrating the life and works of Ralph Thoresby – in particular, the 300th-anniversary of his Ducatus Leodiensis. That book – often referred to as “the first written history of Leeds” was actually published in 1715, but we thought it appropriate to leave our celebrations until 2016 as, in a fitting alignment of the literary firmament, this year also marks the 200th-anniversary of the second edition of Thoresby’s masterpiece. That version, edited by the vicar, topographer and antiquarian, Thomas Dunham Whitaker, can be seen, alongside Thoresby’s 1715 original, in a display case outside our Information and Research department on the 2nd Floor of the Central Library. Also on show with those two editions of the Ducatus is Whitaker’s own Loidis and Elmete, a further history of Leeds and the surrounding area that picks up where Thoresby left off and which was also published in 1816.


Moving into our Local and Family History department, viewers can browse a further set of materials. Part way between a museum exhibition and a curated browsing collection, this selection is designed to contextualize Thoresby’s work within his life. The materials can be read in any order, but you are encouraged to start in the bottom right corner of the table and work from right to left.


Finally, visitors are invited to peruse the glass cabinet seen in the above photograph. This contains the jewel in our Thoresby collection – the annotated Ducatus Leodiensis. This is an edition of the 1715 version that was owned by the local antiquary and schoolmaster, Thomas Wilson. Wilson added many fascinating amendments, corrections and revisions to Thoresby’s text – most of which were incorporated into Whitaker’s 1816 second edition. This is a rare opportunity to see one of the rarest items in our collection.

Alongside the annotated Ducatus can be seen a book that was part of Thoresby’s own library – and which contains a note and signature by the “Father of Leeds History” himself. Further special collections items of relevance to Thoresby and the Ducatus can also be seen in that glass cabinet.

The display is available to view until Monday the 22nd of February. Contact us on 01132 476016 for details of our opening times, or click here. Readers can also browse a full guide to our Thoresby collection by clicking here.

Library Fest 2016 is here…

…and we’re veryvery excited about it! There is a wide range of events taking place, with something of interest to everyone. A fuller list of events can be found here, but those we thought might be of particular interest to readers of this blog are listed below:

  • Ducatus Leodiensis, Local and Family History, 2nd Floor, Central Library. Celebrate the anniversary of Ralph Thoresby’s Ducatus Leodiensis through a curated display of library treasures. Free drop-in event, all week
  • Inventing the Future, Foyer, Central Library. A display of patents – some outrageous, some important, all of them innovative – from the 19th-century to the present day. Plus – take part in the “inventors and inventions” quiz! Free drop-in event, all week
  • Treasures of the Library – on Tour! Otley Library. Philip Wilde will deliver his succesful talk about some of the oldest and rarest items in the special collections at Leeds Central Library, including a 15th-century illuminated manuscript, a 16th-century Atlas a probable Kirkstall Abbey Missal. Monday 15th February, 6-7.30pm: to book, call Enquiry Express on 0113 247 6016
  • Collections Up Close, Wetherby Library. Join us for a “show and tell” exploring some of our oldest and most fascinating archive materials. Tuesday 16th February, 10.30-11.30am: to book a free place, call Wetherby Library on 01937 583144
  • Prints, Playbills and Maps Showcase, Room 700, 1st Floor, Central Library. A visual celebration of the strange and wonderful history of Leeds. Join Librarians from our Local and Family History Library to explore the city’s forgotten past. Tuesday 16th February, 4.30-6.45pm: free drop-in event
  • Treasures of the Library, The Portal, 2nd Floor, Central Library. Another chance to hear Philip Wilde’s fascinating guide to some of the rarest items in our special collections. Tuesday 16th February, 5.30-7pm: to book, please phone Enquiry Express on 0113 247 6016
  • Speed Date our Library Treasures, Victoria Pub, Leeds. We’ve dusted off our most unique and underrated items and sent them down to the pub to charm some open-minded strangers! (in the company of our Librarian gooseberries). Thursday 18th February, 7-8pm and 8-9pm: to book, please visit 
  • Treasures of the Library, The Portal, 3rd Floor Meeting Room, Central Library. Your final chance to hear Philip Wilde’s popular talk. Saturday 20th February, 2-3.30pm: to book, please phone Enquiry Express on 0113 247 6016

We hope to see you at some – or all! – of these events.

Secrets of The Palm 2: The Future Foretold

  • Leeds Libraries Heritage Volunteer Tony Scaife follows up his previous post with another delve into the pages of The Palm, the old Central High School magazine of the 1920s.

Prompted by the city of Leeds’ Tercentenary in July 1926, two articles written by schoolboys for The Palm seem almost prophetic, dealing as they do with such modern-sounding topics as community television, a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, and a measure to reduce air pollution. But, as we shall see, The Palm always remained rooted firmly in the ethos of its day.

The first pupil, JCG, writes of an imagined Leeds one hundred years in the future, where viewers of a television-like screen listen to an address on the “future overlapping of Leeds, Bradford, York, Manchester and other big towns”. Leeds’ role in both film and television development is often overlooked but, within one year of JCG’s article appearing, John Logie Baird was demonstrating Noctovision television broadcasting (using the infrared spectrum) at Leeds University, on the road to developing public television a few years later. Perhaps, in 1926, JCG had also heard of the ‘Sultan of Leeds’ Sir Charles Wilson (then an MP, leader of the City Council and luminary of the Tercentenary celebrations) and his modern-sounding ambition for a Northern Powerhouse stretching from the Pennines to the North Sea (Thornton, 2002, p.176).


JCG’s story concludes with visions of elevated roads, a multi-level city and “great winged monsters … travelling at thousands of miles an hour” – standard images one might think in a world where cinema and comics like Adventure, Rover and Wizard were beginning to feature heavily in the cultural diet of secondary school boys (Chapman, 2011, pp.29-34). Indeed, at this time, “story papers and comics were the most popular reading matter amongst juveniles” (ibid.) but, for our next contributor, there is a darker tone to his article, perhaps reflecting a greater sensitivity to the social problems and tensions of his time.

EM starts, conventionally enough for the genre, when he writes of a Stranger who “visited Leeds in order to see the celebration of the Quartuscentenary” [sic]. The Stranger finds a “fine city” where fire has destroyed the “older streets and edifices … but much finer buildings have been erected”. During his stay, the Stranger is enamoured enough of the invention to climb the 300 hundred feet to the top of the city’s “smoke absorbing tower … This noble structure is a fine example of modern engineering. It stands in a vast open space”.

At first sight, air quality seems strange concern for a boy, then about 13 or 14, whose contemporaries were envisaging big-screen televisions and “winged monsters”. But from firsthand experience he must have known how “pollution from mills, factories and the chimneys of every home blackened the buildings and hung like a pall over the city with fog frequently bringing it to a standstill” (Thornton, 2002, p.187). Certainly Peter Lapish’s painting of Boar Lane around 1945 clearly captures the smog still prevalent twenty years later:

c1945. Painting by Yorkshire artist, Pete Lapish, showing a view of Boar Lane. The artist intended to capture the atmosphere of dense, choking 'smog', typical at that time, which was created by the cold, fog and smoke pollution. To achieve this he has used a semi-pointilistic technique in his painting. Some images by Pete Lapish are available to purchase as postcards or greetings cards from Leeds Visitor Centre - see our 'useful links' page.

Image taken from the Leodis website

Thus, air pollution was contributing significantly to “the chief causes of death in Leeds … heart disease, bronchitis, pneumonia, phthisis [TB]” according to the Leeds Official Tercentenary Handbook of 1926 (p.155). EM’s focus on air quality remains an issue today and a version of his imaginary “smoke absorbing tower” is now a reality in Rotterdam. Public health matters, though, were only one of the many topics covered in the handbook. Streets across the city centre were decorated, as for instance the junction of Bond Street and Albion Street:

1926 photo from Leodis

1926 photo from Leodis

There is a full listing of Tercentenary events from 7 to 17 July 1926 (pp.79-85). Reading the programme, one may think it lacks any sense of the family-friendly, community engagement style we have come to expect. Judge for yourself, since any citizen tired of viewing the apparently endless civic processions could avail themselves of a “special shopping day” on Monday 10 July (still nothing changes apparently!) or visit the electricity works, the gas works, Knostrop sewage works, or the Headingley waterworks. The handbook is truly a mine of fascinating detail and immense civic pride. Every department of the Council has the opportunity to extol its virtues from “the 350 men and 150 horses and carts [contriving] to keep the streets clean” (p.160) to the Finance Department, Town Planners and, we’re pleased to see, proper recognition of the “pre-eminence of Leeds libraries” (p.183).

But the high-minded EM appears not to be distracted by thoughts of civic processions and visits to sewage works – or even the torchlight parade, military tattoo in Roundhay Park or local BBC radio station broadcasting plays specially written for Leeds. (Perhaps, though, he heard the band concerts in every civic park on those nights?) Instead, the last half of his article has the pilgrim-like Stranger atop his smoke absorbing tower, watching “as the setting sun rested on the highest towers only” and, with adolescent angst, contemplating how “every aeon must end” and “perhaps this very night the world will vanish into the nebulous substance”.

c1990s Image shows the sun setting, highlighting the dome of Leeds Town Hall.

1990s image from Leodis, showing the dome of Leeds Town Hall.

Maybe there were reasons for a sensitive EM’s ‘end of times’ feeling. Memories of the Great War were still fresh, and it would be another year before Central High School unveiled its own war memorial (see The Palm, December 1927, p.11). In addition, the General Strike of 1926, seen then by some as the start of a Communist revolution, had just ended. While the picketing had been largely peaceful, there had been a serious riot in Duncan Street (Thornton, 2002, pp.195-196).

EM almost certainly heard Dr Baillie’s “Talk on Citizenship” when, as Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds, Baillie awarded certificates at the end of the summer term of 1926. Midway through his address, Baillie observed “there can be no greater ambition for any boys proceeding from a school like this than to live for his city”. A similar noble sentiment at a prizegiving would not be out of place today, but surely not Ballie’s following phrase: “and die for his country”.

EM was probably too young to have much direct memory of the Great War but, of the teaching staff probably listening to Dr Baillie, at least three had returned from war service, whilst two pre-war teachers had been killed. In fact, over thirty of the pre-war teachers had seen military service (Jenkins, 1985, p.101). For those for whom it had been a recent and very real possibility, one does wonder how they reacted on hearing the words “and die for his country”.

We shall never fully know they felt for, as LP Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. So, for example, The Palm of this time only ever signed articles with initials. Thus the hunt goes on to hopefully put full names to JCG and EM as they progress through school. In the meantime The Palm itself, together with all the other resources of the Local and Family History Library and wider library service, will always help us peer into this foreign country.

Baillie, JB (1926), “Talk on Citizenship” in The Palm 7(3), Dec 1926, p.6 (Shelf mark: L 373 P18).
Chapman, James (2011) British Comics: A Cultural History, Reaktion Books (Art Library 741.5).
Hartley, LP (1958) The Go-between, Penguin Books, p.1.
EM (1926) “What a stranger said who visited Leeds in 2026” in The Palm 7(2), July 1926, p.21 (L 373 P18).
Jenkins, EW (1985) A Magnificent Pile: A Centenary History of Central High School, City of Leeds School (L 373 JEN).
JCG (1926) “Leeds in one hundred years from now” in The Palm 7(2) July 1926, p.17 (L 373 P18).
Leeds Tercentenary Official Handbook 1926 (L 942.819 LEE).
Thornton, David (2002) Leeds: The Story of a City, Fort Publishing (L 942.819 THO).