Exploring Lost Expeditions in the Collections at Leeds Central Library: A Multi-Sensory Storytelling Experience



  • by Antony Ramm, Rhian Isaac and Ross Horsley, Central Library

Thousands of people visited Leeds Central Library during this year’s Light Night celebrations and over two hundred of those experienced our interactive exhibition – or, as we thought of it: a multi-sensory storytelling experience – dedicated to four stories of loss and obsession in 19th and 20th-century exploration, all based around books available in our collections. For anyone who missed this very well-received event, here’s a chance to experience it through words and images:



Our intrepid ‘passengers’ started their journey in our boarding area. Here they were welcomed by our wonderful volunteer, Graham Smith, who encouraged each visitor to complete a mocked-up ‘boarding pass’ that reserved them a place on the next expedition. Then, once ‘aboard’, our groups were tasked with finding three intriguing books hidden in and among the card catalogue and the shelves of the collections in the Local and Family History department.

These books – which foreshadowed the later themes of the installation – were: volume 41 of the National Geographic journal, which outlined a surprisingly visual method of counting, as used by the Mayans; an account of some weird and wonderful Arctic iceberg ‘sculptures’; and the explorer Richard Burton’s translation of a 1753 document found in the Brazilian National Library, which tells of the (re)discovery of a mysterious lost city, deep in the Amazonian jungle; a city not seen again after that initial expedition and which launched a thousand fevered searches for its location across the ensuing centuries.


Once each group had been shown the contents of those three books – and browsed a curated selection from our wider exploration collection – we journeyed on to the first lost expedition…



Percy Fawcett: The Lost City of Z


In this alcove we told the story of the famed British Explorer, Percy Fawcett, who went missing – along with his son Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmell, while searching for what Percy called the ‘Lost City of Z’. This ‘Z’ was the same city as described in the 1753 manuscript translated by Burton, and Fawcett believed it to have been the capital of an ancient American civilisation. Our installation was designed to invoke the poignant after-story of Percy’s wife, Nina. Alone and penniless in her grief, Nina turned increasingly to Spiritualism and the occult, employing a series of psychics and mediums to make contact with her missing husband and son. Nina’s desk is surrounded by images of maps and journal/newspaper articles detailing Percy’s disappearance and subsequent theories as to his whereabouts, while a presentation giving further background details played on the computer screen.

Books used to tell this story were Exploration Fawcett, a volume of Percy’s writings edited in the 1950s by his other son, Brian; and David Grann’s The Lost City of Z. Nina’s interest in the more extreme fringes of 19th and early 20th-century esoteric thought were represented by titles such as Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. Articles from the Geographic Journal, detailing Percy’s journey and disappearance were also present.

John Lloyd Stephens & Frederick Catherwood: Capturing Mayan Ruins


From a story about explorers who disappeared looking for a lost city, to the tale of two who found one: in the second alcove, visitors were told the story of two men – John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood – who played a major role in launching the field of Mayan archaeology. Stephens, an American explorer, diplomat and writer; and Catherwood, a British artist, journeyed to Mexico in the early 1840s to record their impressions of Mayan ruins, even while those structures literally crumbled all around them. So determined were Stephens and Catherwood to permanently record what they saw that even the onset of malaria couldn’t stop their work: Catherwood continuing to sketch while protected by a mosquito net. Their achievements were recorded in their book Travels in Central America (two reference copies of which are available at the Central Library), a bestseller in its day and called “perhaps the greatest travel book ever written” by Edgar Allan Poe.


Our display included an easel featuring a facsimile of a Catherwood sketch, a copy of Fabio Bourbon’s The Lost City of the Mayas: The Life, Art and Discoveries of Frederick Catherwood – and a working microscope, together with a slide containing a real mosquito; a feature which evoked simultaneous feelings of fascination and revulsion in most visitors…

Lady Jane Franklin and the Search for Sir John Franklin


From the tropically-warm to the freezing-cold: our third alcove told the story of Lady Jane Franklin and her efforts to find out what happened to her husband, the explorer Sir John Franklin. In 1845, Sir John had captained two ships – the Erebus and the Terror – to the Arctic, in an attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Sadly, his expedition vanished, with no word as to its whereabouts. Lady Jane – a fascinating figure in her own right, something of an outlier in 19th-century gender politics – raised sufficient money and support (from, among others, the US government and the British Navy) to fund numerous searches. One of those searches, by a man named John Rae, brought back evidence – leaked to The Times – that Franklin and his crew had all perished and that, shockingly, some had resorted to cannibalism in their final days. Feeling this to be an inhumane slur on her husband’s reputation, Lady Jane sent another expedition to (successfully) uncover contrary evidence; she then hired Charles Dickens to write an article refuting all the claims made against Sir John.

The Franklin story was told through a series of items intended to represent Lady Jane’s dressing room. These included an audio recording of a book based on Lady Jane’s life, a Victorian-era dress, a globe, a framed picture of her husband and copies of various letters sent and received by Lady Jane. Books and other material from our collections included accounts of Arctic exploration by expeditions sent to locate Sir John and, most interestingly, a map dating from 1849: addressed “to Lady Jane”, this shows the route of one such attempt to find her husband.


George De Long, Gordon Bennett and the Fate of the USS Jeanette


The ill-fated Franklin expedition attracted huge amounts of public attention in the mid-to-late 19th-century; and there wasn’t the same interest in any one Arctic exploration until thirty-three years later, when the USS Jeanette suffered a similar fate to that unfortunate earlier group. Setting sail in 1879, with the primary aim of finding the theorised Open Polar Sea (a variant on the earlier Northwest Passage) – and the secondary aim of finding Franklin’s ships – the USS Jeanette expedition was funded by James Gordon Bennett, the media tycoon who had sent Henry Stanley to “find” Dr Livingstone (who wasn’t actually lost) and, in doing so, had realised the value of creating, not just reporting, news.

Sadly, the Jeannette found itself trapped in crushing pack ice fairly early in its proposed route and the crew found themselves marooned a thousand miles north of Siberia with only the barest supplies and a seemingly impossible trek across the endless ice. Eventually, the party were separated by stormy weather during a crossing to the Siberian mainland; one group were rescued by the Evenks, a local people, but were unable to communicate the location of their colleagues. De Long and his party attempted to reach the nearest settlement but, faced with dwindling rations and the daily struggle with frostbite, sadly perished before a rescue expedition could reach them. However, De Long was a meticulous keeper of records and journals; these were later discovered and provided a wealth of information to scientists and other explorers about the climate and geography of the Arctic.


To represent the De Long story we created an impression of De Long’s cabin in the Local and Family History safe, with suitably atmospheric sound-effects of ice-breaking and dogs howling. A projector displayed images of De Long and his crew, while various props combined to add to the Arctic and nautical imagery and theme. All of this was based on books available at the Central Library, including De Long’s posthumously-published account of his epic journey.

Concluding Remarks

We concluded our exploration by commenting on the heroism and bravery of those on these expeditions; and the manner in which their sacrifice brought positive, but usually unforeseen, benefits to the wider human tribe.

These stories were all told, or inspired, by books held in the Central Library collections; these are but a fraction of the total accounts of exploration available in the library service, however – and we finished by encouraging our listeners to take a deeper look at (to read more of) further stories of mystery and obsession contained within those pages…

Bibliography (all the books can be found at Central Library. Search our catalogue for more details)


  • J.C. Beaglehole. The Life of Captain James Cook (1974)
  • Richard Burton. Explorations of the Highlands of Brazil (1869: 2 volumes)
  • Charles Darwin. Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by HMS Beagle (1840)
  • Elisha Kent Kane. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin (1857)
  • A. Kippis. A Narrative of the Voyages Round the World Performed by Captain James Cook (1883)
  • Anthony Murray-Oliver ed., Captain Cook’s Artists in the Pacific: 1769-1779 (1969)
  • National Geographic Magazine, Vol. XLI, 1922
  • A. Grenfell Price ed., The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific: As Told By Selections of His Own Journals, 1768-1779 (1969)
  • Henry Stanley. How I Found Livingstone: Travels, Adventures and Discoveries in Central Africa (1872)

Percy Fawcett

John Lloyd Stephens

  • Fabio Bourbon. The Lost Cities of the Mayas: The Life, Art and Discoveries of Frederick Catherwood (1999)
  • John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843; illustrated with 120 engravings)
  • John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1852)

Sir John Franklin

  • John Brown. The North-West Passage and the Plans for the Search for Sir John Franklin (1858)
  • Illustrated London News, Vol.6, 1845
  • Sir Francis Leopold McClintock. A Narrative of the Discovery of the Fate of Sir John Franklin and His Companions (1859)
  • Sir John Richardson et al., The Last of the Arctic Voyages; Being a Narrative of the Expedition in H.M.S. Assistance, Under the Command of Admiral Sir Edward Belcher In Search of Sir John Franklin, During the Years 1852-53-54 (1855)
  • Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Challenger During the Years 1873-76, Zoology, Vol. IV (1882)

George De Long

For more on accounts of Arctic exploration held at Central Library, see this research guide.


Stories, Songs and Proclamations

By Karen Downham, Local & Family History Library

This week in the blog we will be looking at Broadsides, and exploring some of those in the Local & Family History Collection.

A broadside, in its simplest definition, is a sheet of paper printed only on one side. They were often posters announcing events, proclamations, and advertisements, sometimes with a song, rhyme, or news.


They may sometimes have had woodcut illustrations, but were mostly textual, and were printed to be read unfolded or posted in public places, although they could also be cut in half lengthways, making a ‘broadslip’, or folded to make  something called a ‘chapbook’.

For early, primitive printing presses, it was easiest and cheapest to print a single sheet of paper, and these could be sold for as little as a penny. They were designed to be a temporary document for a particular purpose, and intended to be thrown away after use. These broadsides were one of the most common forms of printed material in Britain & Ireland.

Huge numbers of broadsides were produced in England & Ireland, particularly with the mechanisation of the printing industry at the start of the 19th century, and many were sold by travelling chapmen (traders or itinerant pedlars) or balladeers in the streets and at fairs. The balladeers would sing the songs printed on their broadsides, hoping to attract customers.

In the times before newspapers, and before the internet and 24 hour news channels, the public had to look to street literature to find out what was happening.  For some 300 years, the broadsides were the most popular form of street literature – in a way the tabloid newspapers of their day. They were sometimes pinned up on walls in houses and ale-houses.  In later years they were used for political agitation, and also for scaffold speeches.  Broadside were often sold at public executions, and would feature a crude image of the crime or criminal, an account of the crime and trial, and sometimes a confession of guilt. There was often some sort of verse warning others not to follow the same course  and suffer the same fate!

By the middle of the 19th century the broadside began to be taken over by the cheap newspapers and by sensational novels known as ‘penny dreadfuls’, and by 1850 the penny used to buy a broadside ballad could buy part of a novel, or a cheap newspaper or magazine.

Examples of collections of Broadsides are those held by the National Library of Scotland and by the Bodleian Library in Oxford

In the collections here at Local & Family History we have a small amount of broadside material, the main item being the collection of Leeds Printed Broadsides, collected by the Leeds song collector, historian & author Frank Kidson. They contain a selection of sheets, printed in Leeds, and covering items of local and national interest, and are held in a volume fully indexed by title and first line. There are news reports, poems, and songs, some of which are still well known today. A selection of them have been highlighted here:


A New Song on the Queen’s Visit To Leeds, describes the visit of Queen Victoria to Leeds on 7th September 1858 to open the new Leeds Town Hall. The competition to win the commission to design & build the Town Hall was won by Hull architect Cuthbert Broderick.


“A New Song on the Leeds Election; Vote For Barran” concerns the Leeds North by-election on 29th July 1902, caused by the sitting MP William Jackson  being elevated to the peerage.  Jackson had held the seat since 1885. The candidates were Sir Arthur Lawson, businessman and President of Leeds Conservative Association, and Rowland Hirst Barran, prominent in a local clothing manufacturing firm, and son of Sir John Barran, former MP for Leeds. Barran won the by-election, turning a Tory majority of 2,517 to a Liberal majority of 758. He held the seat until 1918 when he stood down from Parliament.


The broadside titled Terrible Accident at Bradford is bringing news of the Newlands Mill Disaster on 28th December 1882, when a chimney of one of the large factories owned by the late Sir Henry William Ripley, fell without any warning, killing and injuring many. In total 54 workpeople were killed, 26 of them being below the age of 16, and the youngest only 8 years old.


Another disaster broadcast by broadside, but further afield this time, was the Abergele Rail Disaster, on the coast of North Wales, and at the time the worst railway disaster in Britain. On the 20th August 1868, The Irish Mail train, bound for Holyhead, and also pulling passenger carriages, crashed into runaway goods wagons carrying wooden barrels of paraffin oil, and derailed the engine, tended and guard’s van. The resulting  fire from some of the barrels breaking up in the collision prevented any attempts to rescue people in the carriages and added further to the death toll.


Death of the Prince Imperial – Prince Louis Napoleon was killed in the Anglo-Zulu War, on 1st June 1879. After taking charge of a scouting party, without full escort or lookouts, the Prince was charged and fired at by a group of Zulus. He was trampled beneath his horse, and suffered eighteen wounds from assegais (Zulu spears), one of which burst his eye. His death caused something of an international sensation with a variety of rumours abounding as to the cause of his death.


The Soldiers Prayer Book is a song concerning a soldier playing cards in church, and popularised in Country and Popular music in the 1940s. It first became a hit in the U.S. with the recording The Deck of Cards by T.Texas Tyler. The story is in fact much older than that, the earliest known reference being in a book belonging to Mary Bacon, a British farmer’s wife in 1762, and later recorded in a the 19th century British publication The Soldier’s Almanack, Bible and Prayer Book.

The two broadsides below contain two songs which are well known today – Oh Susannah, and The Wild Rover. The song sheets show how the broadsides may have been folded lengthways down the middle, to make a Chapbook with a different song on each side.

broadside-image-7             broadside-image-8

 We also hold copies of Broadsides printed at Jacobs printers of Halifax, in a book of notes from Bankfield Museum, Halifax, in the chapter War Ballads and Broadsides of Previous Wars, 1779 – 1795. A few examples are shown below.

address-to-pitt      against-address

The two proclamations show support for, and feeling against, William Pitt the Younger, during the period of constitutional crisis when King George III was suffering a temporary but incapacitating mental disorder , requiring Parliament to appoint a regent to rule in his place.


The third broadside here would seem to be announcing a meeting concerned with raising a local fund to help families affected by war.


Linking in with this topic, the Leeds-based Commoners Choir will be performing in Leeds Central Library on Sunday 13th November in an event titled “Literacy, Books and the Print Revolution”. There will be a free concert and exhibition with a hand-printed souvenir for all who attend. More details and ticket booking are available on  the Leeds Inspired website.



  • Roth, Henry Ling, 1855-1925. . – Bankfield museum notes ;, second series, no. 1-11 . – Halifax : Bankfield Museum, 1912
  • Kidson, Frank – Leeds Printed Broadsides – collection of Leeds Street Literature
  • Henderson, William, writer on ballads . – Victorian street ballads : a selection of popular ballads sold in the street . – London : Country Life, 1937



Illuminating the Rich History of “Light Night” in Leeds

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

No doubt most readers of our blog will be spending this evening enjoying one of the many wonderful art events happening around the city centre as part of the annual Light Night celebrations. And most readers will probably already be aware of how those celebrations started – in 2005, as part of the launch of the region-wide Illuminate Cultural Festival, itself based on the French model of the Nuit Blanche: an annual all-night or night-time arts festival. Twelve-years later – showing every sign of continual and vibrant growth – Light Night remains a highlight of Leeds’ cultural year.

But what few visitors to those spectacular displays of ‘light’ in a myriad of weird and wonderful locations and forms will know, is that Leeds has something of a long history when it comes to such things. These ‘Illuminations’, as they were known, were social events involving the whole town and held to celebrate major occasions such as British victory in war. As David Thornton writes in his superb reference work Leeds: A Historical Dictionary (2015) –

At a given time in the evening set by the Mayor, the windows of all the houses in the town would be lit with candles and shops would present illuminated displays…[C]rowds,, who were used to darkened streets with little illumination, wandered around the town enjoying the glittering spectacle.

– which certainly sounds familiar! We wanted to find out more about these intriguing (mainly 19th-century) events – so, using the free access enjoyed by all users of the Leeds Library Service to the British Library’s 19th-century Newspapers Online, we did a quick search of the Leeds Mercury to discover more.

The first Illumination we found occurred in 1820 and was in celebration of the government’s withdrawal of the extremely controversial Pains and Penalties Bill. This is how the Mercury reported the events in Leeds and Hunslet:



And here is how the Mercury reported on the spectacular array of illuminations on September 18, 1855, to celebrate the ending of the Crimean War (in part, at least – the full article can be read via the aforementioned 19th-century Newspapers Online resource):

illuminations-1855-2 illuminations-1855-3

illuminations-1855-4 illuminations-1855-5illuminations-1855-6

So, while you’re enjoying tonight’s wonderful selection of displays, just remember that you’re part of a rich tradition stretching back over 200-years. Remember also that, as always, the Central Library is playing host to its usual weird and wonderful installations and exhibitions; all themed around the ‘elements’ and our collections. We look forward to welcoming you this evening!

To get in the ‘light’ mood, why not read last year’s Light Night article, on Joseph Priestley and his writings on the subject? There’s also a research guide highlighting some of the most interesting light-based books from around the Central Library’s specialist departments.