Letters From the Past

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

While researching upcoming events on the life and career of the 18th-century Leeds Schoolmaster and Antiquarian, Thomas Wilson, we were directed by the ‘manuscripts’ section of the card catalogue in our Local and Family History department toward a very-intriguing collection of letters:

The particular interest this collection held for the Wilson talk and exhibition is that the Leeds man was known to have corresponded with two individuals known as Richard Richardson: a father and son, both Botanists and Antiquarians based at Bierley Hall, near to Bradford. So – of course – the excitement generated by this card in our catalogue depended entirely on the hope that these letters were to one of those two men by that name.

We were to be disappointed – and yet, we weren’t. While the letters were quite clearly not to either of ‘our’ Richardsons – the dates did not match – they were still fascinating. Because what we found was a selection of late Eighteenth-Century letters, about thirteen in total and all in superb condition, from one Thomas Barstow of Leeds to one Richard Richardson of Chester, both men in the merchant trade then so prominent across the North. Our research into 18th-century Leeds has thrown-up no mention of these letters in the existing literature.

Notes, presumably written by a previous Librarian, are attached to each selection of the letters and provide some further details as to their contents, which includes details of everyday life in the period. One note in particular was especially interesting, describing “a curious incoherent letter”:

Intriguing! Even if the handwriting across all letters does make a proper analysis of their contents more difficult, at least for this reader (which is perhaps a small transcription project for anyone with sufficient expertise?). But, in any case, perhaps it does not matter: the presence of such features as 230-year old handwriting and original wax seals is sufficient to bring the viewer of these letters that much closer to their writers and recipients, to close the gap between then & now – even without knowing the full contents, or context, of these epistolary communications. As objects, the letters have a haunting quality that transcends the functional purpose of the words.

Little definitive could be found about Thomas Barstow, his life and career, although mention is made of a ‘gentleman’ of the same name serving as the Leeds Town Clerk from 1765 to 1792. That same Barstow lived in a fine Georgian house on Kirkgate, opposite the Parish Church, an evocative image of which can be seen below:

1900s. Kirkgate Improvement area. Premises of R.Goulden, grocer, M. and A. Dickinson and Sons, corn dealers. Next is the entrance to Barstow’s Yard which has a sign ‘Good Beds’ over the entrance. The proprietor, H. Noble also has a store next door. Sign above Nobles Stores reads Nobles Ideal Working Mens Home. A tobacconists shop is on the right. On the left of the photo are various advertising hoardings. There are several men standing on the pavement. Taken from www.leodis.net

If you wish to view the Barston-Richardson letters, or think you may be able to help us transcribe them, do please get in touch on 0113 37 87078 or via localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk.

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