National Libraries Week: The ‘Old Leeds’ Exhibition of 1908

To mark National Libraries Week, Leeds Central Library is hosting an exhibition exploring the history of the Library Service in the city. Today, Librarian Antony Ramm highlights one book series on display in that exhibition, focusing on the ‘Old Leeds’ celebrations of 1908…

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In the summer of 1908, over 70,000 people visited the Leeds Art Gallery to see the ‘Old Leeds’ exhibition, a public display of nearly 2,000 individual objects exploring the history of the city in fossils, early printed books, portraits, art works, newspapers, manuscripts, photographs and maps. This exhibition was the first of its kind in Leeds and was the joint creation of the Corporation – through its Libraries & Arts Committee – the Thoresby Society, the main historical society for Leeds and the Leeds Literary and Philosophical Society.

15th December 1908. View looking up Calverley Street to junction with Great George Street. To the right is the Municipal Buildings which housed Civic Offices, Library and Art Gallery and, on the left, can be seen the Town Hall. (c) Leeds Libraries,

The exhibition was opened on July 24 by the Lord Mayor of Leeds (Sir Wilfred Hopton). Contemporary newspaper reports give a good sense of how the exhibition was received, describing it as “a large and representative collection” of Leeds antiquities, of “extreme interest” to all citizens: “The eighteen hundred exhibits which have been brought together will assuredly astonish even those well read in local history by the scope which is covered and the fullness of the representation of the city’s past.”

Not all were wholly satisfied, however – “Pennine”, a letter-writer to the Yorkshire Weekly Post, criticised the lack of specific items, including Thoresby’s “sketch of the antiquities of the West Riding for Bishop Gibson’s edition of Camden’s Britannia in 1695”. Sadly, no photographs of the galleries seem to have survived, though available in the Central Library collections are copies of the the very-detailed exhibition catalogue, which enables the reader to mentally recreate the general layout of the exhibition whole, as well as providing interesting essays on the themes explored there.

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We do not know for certain why the exhibition – as popular as it was – was produced in that particular year of 1908. Minute books for the meetings of the sub-committee tasked with administrating the exhibition state only that on December 13 it was “the opinion of this Committee [that] it is desirable to promote an exhibition of old Leeds books, pictures, etc.” A broader look into the Annual Reports from the parent Libraries and Arts committee, however, give some clues: between 1905 and 1907 the Public Libraries department received two substantial donations of ‘Old Leeds’ material from Mr W. Braithwaite and Mr. George Bell, the extent of which may have convinced the City Librarian, Thomas W. Hand, to make the suggestion of putting that material – along with other Leeds historical collections – before the Leeds public.

Whatever the initial spark, the 70,000 plus attendance clearly demonstrated a social ‘need’ met by the exhibition, most likely caused by some lingering sense of loss driven by the ever-expanding vistas of the city, and those buildings and places disappearing in the course of that ‘development’. Colonel Harding, a member of the exhibition committee, was reported at the opening ceremony as commenting:

…it seemed to him that there was value, and certainly interest, in looking backwards. In these days, however, we were so busy with the present that we had no time to look to the future, and still less time to look back to the past. Yet how interesting it was to look back and recall the beginnings of a great city. If by that Exhibition they could recall the Leeds of only, say, 250 or 300 years ago, with some amount of reality it would be very interesting. “Would it not,” he asked, “be interesting to picture the quaint streets and the quiet lives of the people who were able to exist without steam, without tramcars, without telephones, and all the complexities of modern life? I am not at all sure that in spite of these deficiencies the people of that day were not happier than we are now.”

In that same context, we could also consider Alf Mattison and Walter Meakin’s The Romance of Old Leeds, published in the same year, and similarly aiming to capture, or recreate, a version of ‘Leeds’ vanishing before the eyes of its citizens. The polymath Mattison was to be a major contributor to the 1908 exhibition, in the form of his photography, as well as his extensive knowledge of local history.

c1906. Burley Bar, the south-west corner of Albion Street and Guildford Street. A photograph by Alf Mattison. (C) Leeds Libraries,


The Libraries and Arts Committee Annual Reports state that the Central Library Reference department was actively aiming to collect local historical material as early as 1899, but it seems to have been the Braithwaite and Bell bequests in 1905-1907 that were the true starting-point for those efforts. Then, in turn, the 1908 exhibition became the spark for further such collecting, at least according to Hand’s 1920 book, A Brief Account of the Public Libraries of the City of Leeds: 1870 – 1920. The committee Annual Reports also state that another outcome of the exhibition was the opening of a “permanent display of local prints and portraits illustrative of the Leeds of the past” in the Art Gallery adjoining the Central Library.

So extensive was the collection of local material gathered by the Reference Library since 1906 that Hand claimed in the Annual Report for 1910-11 “in the future it will be found that the History of Leeds cannot again be written without reference to the many sources of information contained in this department of the Library.” That has, to a large extent, been the case – with every 20th-century written history of the city broadly following the contours laid out in the 1908 exhibition: the same people, places and events are replicated across that exhibition and those histories. Then, through that repetition and familiarity, this particular version of the Leeds story became, in time, ‘the’ story of Leeds, setting and defining the boundaries of what and who is – and is not – part of that story. That institutionalising of what we might call the ‘1908 narrative’ was only reinforced by the broad repetition of the exhibition during the city’s Tercentenary celebrations in 1926 (a Handbook for which is available in the Central Library collections).

1926, Leeds Tercentenary Celebration, Station. This was the entrance to the train station in City Square with a replica of the Old Moot Hall, complete with a statue of Queen Anne. The Moot Hall was demolished in 1825 and the Queen Anne Statue is now in the Art Gallery. (c) Leeds Libraries,

It is, of course, arguable that no alternate, serious history of Leeds would ever be possible – that the 1908 exhibition and the subsequent written histories present that particular narrative because, realistically, it foregrounds the most objectively-important aspects of the Leeds story – but it is also worth making reference to the inescapable fact that the 1,800 items selected by the ‘old Leeds’ curators were, by their own admission, a fraction of the total material offered to them after the circulation of a request for items: “if all offers [of material] had been accepted the collection would have been double its present size”. (Yorkshire Post, July 25 1908)

That is to say, those curators made selection decisions (as curators always do); those selection decisions inevitably reflected their own view of what ‘counted’ as the ‘history of Leeds’ and, conversely, what did not count toward that story; those ideas of what was – and was not – central to that history were likely driven, on some level at least, by the social background and identities of those curators – which was, in all cases, thoroughly-embedded within the fabric of the Leeds social, political and economic elite (similarly, we might also ask who the circulated request for material was sent to and, more specifically, whether the recipients were fellow members of that ‘elite’; an outcome and process that would only serve to reinforce the narrow boundaries of what was considered suitable for inclusion in the 1908 exhibition).

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Broadly speaking, the same process has underpinned Library (and Museum) collecting policies over that same period: in all cases, human beings – with particular perspectives, beliefs and motivations – consciously or unconsciously make selection decisions about what to add and not to add to their respective collections and, in doing so, they shape the broader narratives of what is within and without the narratives built on top of those collections. To be clear: this is not to downplay the importance of that collecting, or to denigrate the efforts of those librarians and curators (nor the historians whose work builds on the archives of museums and libraries), but rather only to remind us that libraries, archives and museums exist in the world and are inescapably embedded within their social, economic and political fabrics; that they reflect their contemporary networks of power and privilege, just as much as they offer a genuine ‘window into the past,’ free of value or judgement.

Please contact the Local and Family History department to view any of the books and other materials referenced here. 

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