A Brief History of Leeds Antiquarians: Part I

This week, Librarian Antony Ramm gives the first part in a brief history of Antiquarians in Leeds, as told using books, manuscripts and other treasures held at the Central Library. You can find future instalments elsewhere on this blog, as well as a research guide detailing the relevant library collections available.

Hans Sloane (1660 – 1753)
Perhaps surprisingly, we start this brief history of antiquarians in Leeds with an antiquarian not actually from Leeds, and who did not write about the town: Hans Sloane, the venerable physician, naturalist and collector of the 17th and 18th-centuries, whose 71,000 items in his personal museum formed the basis of the British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum on his death in 1753.

Sloane was a central figure in a wider circle of antiquarians and collectors in the 18th-century – a group which included Leeds’ very own Ralph Thoresby (often called ‘the father of Leeds history’ for his classic book, the 1715 Ducatus Leodiensis). Thoresby would occasionally write in his diary about visits to Sloane in London, and the latter marked their friendship with the gift of a book which was later acquired by the Central Library. You can read a little more about it elsewhere on this blog – as well as discovering another Leeds-connection to the British Library’s Sloane collection.

John Lucas (1684 – 1750)
Lucas was a Lancastrian Schoolmaster (at the Leeds Charity School) and another friend to Thoresby, as this 1722 extract from the latter’s diary demonstrates.

Lucas was, however, also an Antiquarian in his own right, who worked on a still-useful history of his home parish, Warton. While we have a reprinted copy of that volume here at the Central Library, our main Lucas treasure is the manuscript of his own diary; or Memoranda Book.

These jottings cover the period from 1712 through to 1750, and are an invaluable record of life both locally and nationally in the early-to-mid-18th-century. In particular, Lucas notes two important ‘firsts’ in Leeds social history: football being played on the frozen River Aire; and the first report of a person of African descent in the town.

Thomas Wilson (c.1702-1761)
Lucas’ successor as the Charity School Master was Thomas Wilson, probably the most under-appreciated antiquarian of Leeds’ past. Wilson was a voluminous transcriber of manuscripts, often for the collections of more wealthy, gentlemen associates – as well as an important annotator, whose marginalia illuminates a particularly special copy of Thoresby’s Ducatus Leodiensis held here at the Central Library. Information about other Wilson archives can be found in a catalogue listing all his known works to date, both in Leeds and around the world.

Wilson’s annotation of Thoresby’s description of the Red Hall (since demolished) on the Headrow. This lengthy annotation records two legends about the visit of King Charles I to that Hall.

Part II of this article will follow at a future date. 

Please contact the Local and Family History departments to arrange an appointment to see any of the books or manuscripts mentioned here.

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