Tales from Thomas Wilson: Hans Sloane, Ralph Thoresby and the British Museum

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

A new book explores the life and work of Hans Sloane, the 17th and 18th-century Antiquarian, collector and Gentleman scholar. Sloane’s collections were so extensive and unique that they formed the basis of the British Museum on his death in 1753.

While Leeds had to wait many more years for its own public museum, the town could still boast some interesting connections with the wider world of Antiquarian studies and collections in the 18th-century. Not the least important: Hans Sloane himself was friend & correspondent to Leeds’ very own Antiquarian master, Ralph Thoresby.

From Ralph Thoresby’s Diary, 1697

So close, in fact, were Sloane and Thoresby that the former gifted the Leeds man a book for his extensive library. That slim volume, on archaic coins – a subject of great interest to Thoresby – made its way into the collections at Leeds Central Library some few centuries later, where it remains to this day. Of particular note is the presence of Thoresby’s signature – a priceless link to an older and very different Leeds. A later Leeds antiquarian, Alf Mattison, wrote a short article on their relationship on the 150th-anniversary of the British Museum, the manuscript of which forms part of the Central Library’s Alf Mattison Collection.

As interesting, if slightly more tenuous, is the link between Sloane, Thoresby, the British Museum and the 18th-century Leeds Schoolmaster and Antiquarian, Thomas Wilson. Wilson, the subject of a forthcoming exhibition and talk at the Central Library, may well have known Thoresby; as a young Schoolmaster at the Leeds Charity School, Wilson worked with John Lucas, another Antiquarian and something of a friend to Thoresby.

Thoresby’s Diary, 1722

It is possible Lucas introduced Wilson to Thoresby, given their shared interest in Antiquarian matters; manuscripts, books, deeds and other ‘ancient’ documents. Either way: Wilson knew Thoresby’s work very well, especially his Ducatus Leodiensis (the first written history of Leeds), published in 1715. Another treasure held in the Leeds Central Library collections is a particularly noteworthy copy of the Ducatus: Wilson’s own, annotated in his hand, and containing copious notes updating, correcting and amending  Thoresby’s work.

Wilson also wrote an extensive manuscript entitled the Historical Register, deposited by his son, Joseph, at The Leeds Library. These two volumes set out biographical entries for a number of British Antiquarians and Scholars; there, Wilson reports that he taught – most likely outside the Charity School  – one Gowin Knight, who would later become the Principal Librarian for a collection recently bequeathed to the British people. That collection? None other than Hans Sloane’s, completing a fascinating circle of Antiquarian connections, with some surprising links to Leeds.

Wilson’s entry for Gawen (sic) Knight in his Historical Register. © The Leeds Library
A separate entry in the same Historical Register, where Wilson records that Knight was his former pupil.  © The Leeds Library

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