On John Lucas, 18th-Century Leeds and Foot-ball

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

With the football European Championships now well underway, this seemed like a perfect time to draw attention to one of the lesser-known treasures of our collection: the handwritten manuscript of John Lucas’ Memoranda Book.


Born in 1684, Lucas was primarily known as a schoolmaster in his own time: in 1712 he was a master at the Leeds Grammar School but, by 1726, had taken over St. John’s Charity School, the so-called ‘Blue Coat School’ (after the jackets provided to pupils). But Lucas is best known to us today – if he is known at all – as a local historian and a diarist (of sorts). His major work was his History of Warton Parish (in Lancashire, where he was born), which he worked on for a period of more than thirty years. Lucas dedicated that book to Ralph Thoresby, whose coin collection he helped to catalogue. The elder antiquarian appears to have been something of a mentor to a man developing his own keen interest in the past.

It is Lucas’ diary, however, which is of most interest to historians of Leeds; although it is not a diary in the sense we would understand that term today – and we do not even know why he kept it. Lucas gives little of himself away in his work – no personal observations or remarks, nothing about his work (either scholastic or academic) and little of his domestic life. Rather, his diary is more properly understood as, literally, a ‘memoranda’: that is, a memory aid – a collection of jottings that could be referred to at some future date.

Many of those notes relate to happenings in Lucas’ immediate locality. One such event occurs on the 16th and 17th of December when Lucas records that “a frost began which continues very severe (with abundance of snow)” for over a month. It was during this long period of climactic extreme that Lucas records seeing “hundreds of men playing at football upon the river.” This is the first recorded mention of the sport being played in Leeds.

The section of the Memoranda featuring Lucas’ description of football being played on the river

The Memoranda is primarily of use because it provides that kind of everyday detail about a period still somewhat neglected in the historiography of Leeds: the early 18th-century. Specifically, the most detailed sections of Lucas’ writing covers the years 1712-1716; a period just prior to the first publication of the Leeds Mercury in 1718 and for which there is partially a gap in Ralph Thoresby’s own diary (from 1714-1719).

We are honoured to hold this important document of Leeds and its history here at the Central Library. It was presented to us in 1932 by Alderman Perceval T. Leigh, a dentist, after a long period when its whereabouts were unknown following its author’s death in 1750. You can view the manuscript by visiting our Local and Family History department (note that two forms of identification will be required, one of which must feature your current address). A transcription of the sections relevant to Leeds can be found in Publications of the Thoresby Society, Volume 16, Second Series (2006). Edited by Jonathan Oates, that version also includes a superb introduction to Lucas’ life and works (from which much of this article has been derived).

Lucas himself was buried in St John’s churchyard, along with his son, Richard, and Richard’s family. His memorial reads “Vita labore perfunctus huc accesssit” (‘A Life of Labour Performed, He Came Here’), but we much prefer Lucas’ own chosen wording: the poetically-biographic “Me genuit Carnford; docuit Warton, altuique/Leeds celebris pannis; hic lapis ossa tegit“:-

Carnforth begat me, Warton Instructed Me,
Elevated in Leeds, Famous for its Cloth,
This Stone Covers His Remains

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