David Atkinson – The making of a Local Historian

With over 7000 images held on the Leodis website, the David Atkinson Archive is a beautifully curated collection of images from the Morley area of Leeds.  Today Clive McManus, local historian, tells us a bit about the man behind the collection.

David Atkinson

David Keith Atkinson was a Morley man through and through, living and working there all his life but his boundaries were far wider than that and he had serious interest in history, geography, most kinds of music, literature and sport, particularly cricket. He was born on 7th April 1936, the only child of George and Martha. His parents were working class folk whose family could not afford expensive secondary education and they left school at 14 years old. Crucially, however, they belonged to the Morley Friends Adult School which embraced Quaker philosophy and encouraged self-education, artistic performance and debates on matters of general interest.

Morley Friend’s Adult School c.1902 – David Atkinson Archive on Leodis.net

George worked in a local textile mill for the whole of his employed life but he was extremely active outside of this, producing and performing in the frequent dramatic entertainments organised by the Friends. He also began to collect and beautifully annotate details on life at the mill and in Morley. I am sure that David learned a great deal from this in his early years and, later, he made a photographic record of his father’s workplace and colleagues.

Prospect Mills, Victoria Road – Morning breaktime for workers 1965 – David Atkinson Archive on Leodis.net

Unfortunately, he was also dogged by ill health – spondylitis – for the vast majority of his life and this meant that he had a lot of time in hospital, missing school. In the days when the 11+ selective system ruled, this did affect his chances and this talented boy needed special permission to go from Peel Street Primary School to Morley Grammar School. There he was popular but unable to take part in school sports and dramas as he would have wished. But he was put on the royal road to learning and gained a State Scholarship to Leeds University in 1953.

Morley Grammar School c.1965 – David Atkinson Archive on Leodis.net

He graduated with a BA in History and Geography and I recall him telling me about the studies he did under Professor Maurice Beresford. On graduation he became the History and Geography teacher at the new Woodkirk Secondary School where his lessons are still remembered for their craft and attention to local detail. By this time, he had developed an interest in photography and he kept a record of the school and its activities. He also developed and printed his own work. Sadly, his health declined and he took early retirement in 1980. Despite this he was always very active in his studies.

Woodkirk Secondary School, West Ardsley 1972, David Atkinson Archive on Leodis.net

Up until the late 70s he had been able to get around town relatively easily. He visited the local library and copied many of the artefacts kept there with the permission of the librarians. This included the Scatcherd and Thackray archives. He also started to photograph local places of interest such as Churches, Mills and, of course, the Town Hall. With his reputation building up he got special privileges to record certain events involving the Mayor and councillors.

He and his father began to give lectures about the History of Morley and these were extremely popular. They were quite a pair! George was an extrovert who did most of the talking but David who was much quieter could be firm and he wasn’t above adding a correction if it was needed. As a result of this work, they and others formed the Morley Local History Society in 1966 and they kept it flourishing as long as they were both able. It continues to this day.

George wrote a series of over 50 local heritage articles in the Morley Advertiser newspaper and I’m sure David helped him a lot with this. George’s many achievements were recognised with the award of a MBE in 1980 which delighted David and his friends.

David wrote his own pictorial history of the Borough of Morley in 1974 after it had become a part of Leeds. This book can still be obtained and it remains highly regarded for its accuracy and structure. Later he and I wrote a history of the Town Hall.

David Atkinson’s pictorial history of the Borough of Morley

By the late 90s he had converted many of his photo collections to the new CD format. He was a methodical worker and made extensive written notes of his archive. He did struggle with the relatively new computer technology but could see how it would help the organisation of such collections. He and I had some long and friendly discussions on this and he arranged his work so that I was able to transcribe it into a computer database. He also annotated the photos in his vast number of albums and this has made it easier for Leeds Libraries to put the information on Leodis besides enabling Morley Community Archives to set up digitised catalogues of them.

His health deteriorated seriously around this time after an unfortunate accident and he then needed special care. Outside of hospital, he remained in his house all this time and I don’t think he wanted to leave it because it had become almost like a small museum where he could continue to follow his interest. He died there on 6-May 2004 and Gildersome Methodist Church was packed for his funeral. It took us two days to pack up all his archive into various boxes and these were then stored in Morley Town Hall with special permission.

We, his old friends, were able to work on the contents and Leeds Libraries were so impressed with this that a David Atkinson Room was set up in Morley Library in December 2006. His archive is kept there and Morley Community Archives has been given permission to look after it. David created many exhibitions during over the years and we are able to use the posters to display topics of interest such as a recent view of the textile industry at the Groundwork Trust which received much interest. David was a decent, kind and generous man, who was ever-willing to share his knowledge. It was his wish that local people should benefit from his work and I’m sure he would be extremely gratified that it has been made available world-wide on Leodis.

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