A reminder that you can’t find everything on Google

This week we hear from a previous Secret Library contributor, and now Library Heritage Volunteer, Tony Harcup, with a short but fascinating – and very important! – sequel to his earlier article…

It was only after writing a Secret Libraries blogpost about the Yorkshire origins of the National Union of Journalists (https://secretlibraryleeds.net/2022/04/04/what-about-the-workers/) that I began to wonder where exactly in Leeds the union’s first annual delegate meeting had been held back in 1908. I consulted all three official histories of the NUJ, I searched the internet and I even found one or two references to that conference in the national press of the day. Disappointingly, all just gave the venue as “Leeds”.

Where to turn? I figured that local media would have been more interested in that sort of detail, so I spent a happy hour or so in the local history section of the Central Library perusing microfilm back copies of the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury, in the hope that they might have covered the national conference of a new trade union that was happening on their patch. They had.

The first National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Annual Delegate Meeting (ADM) was held on Good Friday 1908 at…the Grand Central Hotel on Briggate. It was attended by “about forty delegates, representing branches in all parts of the country”, according to the following day’s Leeds Mercury. Despite the fact that the report was headlined PRESSMEN IN CONFERENCE, the NUJ admitted women and men on an equal basis from the start.

Headline in Leeds Mercury 18 April 1908

The previous day’s Leeds Mercury added the information that union members enjoyed a reception and social gathering at the same hotel on the eve of the conference. This involved songs, recitations and a presentation to general secretary William Watts, from Manchester, of “a handsome spirit tea urn, subscribed for by members of the West Riding branch, and provided by Mr Arthur Owen, of Thornton’s Arcade, Leeds. Mr Watts expressed his thanks for such a token of good-will on the part of his Yorkshire friends, and said that his wife would appreciate the gift all the more in that it came from the journalists of her native county.”

Where else can you get such historical colour and detail, other than in local newspapers of the day?

The NUJ is still going strong locally 114 years later but the Grand Central Hotel is no longer with us. Today, there is a Leeds Civic Trust information board on the wall next to the entrance to department store House of Fraser, which now occupies the site, but it does not mention that it was the venue of the first annual delegate meeting of what became one of the largest journalists’ trades unions in the world. You read it here first.

By the very act of writing this piece and posting it online, I am of course ensuring that the answer to the question, “Whereabouts in Leeds was the first NUJ ADM held?” can now be found via Google. But there remain countless other questions, the answers to which can only be found in old local newspapers and/or in local libraries. And the moral of this story is: use ‘em or lose ‘em.

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