Letters From the Past

 

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

While researching upcoming events on the life and career of the 18th-century Leeds Schoolmaster and Antiquarian, Thomas Wilson, we were directed by the ‘manuscripts’ section of the card catalogue in our Local and Family History department toward a very-intriguing collection of letters:

The particular interest this collection held for the Wilson talk and exhibition is that the Leeds man was known to have corresponded with two individuals known as Richard Richardson: a father and son, both Botanists and Antiquarians based at Bierley Hall, near to Bradford. So – of course – the excitement generated by this card in our catalogue depended entirely on the hope that these letters were to one of those two men by that name.

We were to be disappointed – and yet, we weren’t. While the letters were quite clearly not to either of ‘our’ Richardsons – the dates did not match – they were still fascinating. Because what we found was a selection of late Eighteenth-Century letters, about thirteen in total and all in superb condition, from one Thomas Barstow of Leeds to one Richard Richardson of Chester, both men in the merchant trade then so prominent across the North. Our research into 18th-century Leeds has thrown-up no mention of these letters in the existing literature.

Notes, presumably written by a previous Librarian, are attached to each selection of the letters and provide some further details as to their contents, which includes details of everyday life in the period. One note in particular was especially interesting, describing “a curious incoherent letter”:

Intriguing! Even if the handwriting across all letters does make a proper analysis of their contents more difficult, at least for this reader (which is perhaps a small transcription project for anyone with sufficient expertise?). But, in any case, perhaps it does not matter: the presence of such features as 230-year old handwriting and original wax seals is sufficient to bring the viewer of these letters that much closer to their writers and recipients, to close the gap between then & now – even without knowing the full contents, or context, of these epistolary communications. As objects, the letters have a haunting quality that transcends the functional purpose of the words.

Little definitive could be found about Thomas Barstow, his life and career, although mention is made of a ‘gentleman’ of the same name serving as the Leeds Town Clerk from 1765 to 1792. That same Barstow lived in a fine Georgian house on Kirkgate, opposite the Parish Church, an evocative image of which can be seen below:

1900s. Kirkgate Improvement area. Premises of R.Goulden, grocer, M. and A. Dickinson and Sons, corn dealers. Next is the entrance to Barstow’s Yard which has a sign ‘Good Beds’ over the entrance. The proprietor, H. Noble also has a store next door. Sign above Nobles Stores reads Nobles Ideal Working Mens Home. A tobacconists shop is on the right. On the left of the photo are various advertising hoardings. There are several men standing on the pavement. Taken from www.leodis.net

If you wish to view the Barston-Richardson letters, or think you may be able to help us transcribe them, do please get in touch on 0113 37 87078 or via localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk. Tickets for the Thomas Wilson talk are still available, and an accompanying exhibition will run from July 3-13 in Room 700, on the 1st Floor of the Central Library.

A Snapshot of Leeds on June 3, 1917

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

Tomorrow will mark a century since a nationally significant, but oddly little-known, event in the history of Leeds: the 1917 Peace Convention at the Coliseum. This “saw 3,500 people from across Britain gather at the Leeds Coliseum (now the O2 Academy) in solidarity with the February Revolution which had overthrown the brutal Tsarist autocracy in Russia. The Convention voted to hail the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, defend civil liberties, call for an end to the First World War and vote to set up Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Britain in solidarity with the Soviets being formed in revolutionary Russia.” Present on the day, among others, were Bertrand Russell, Ramsay MacDonald, Sylvia Pankhurst, Tom Mann, Philip Snowden, Charlotte Despard, Ernest Bevin, Dora Montefiore and Willie Gallacher.

Different people, of course, took very different views of this gathering’s aims and intentions: a split which can be seen quite clearly in these contrasting reports from the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Leeds Mercury respectively. 

Of particular note, in the Post article, are the descriptions of the Convention attendees: “You looked around the sea of faces, and hardly one of them was normal…[a] collection of all the fads and frenzies and fanaticisms, all the disordered minds and discontented souls – the intellectual and spiritual wreckage of a strenuous age.” The reactions of some local Hotel owners are also worth highlighting:

But, rather than retelling any further the story of that gathering, this blog shall focus on the slightly wider – and yet also narrower – picture: a snapshot of Leeds on that same weekend, one-hundred years ago, derived from newspaper articles and advertisements. Readers interested in finding out more about the Convention itself are directed toward a recent book (copies of which are available to buy or loan in the Central Library) and a fascinating series of talks and workshops taking place tomorrow (the quote in the first paragraph of this article is taken from that event’s website).

So, Leeds on that weekend of June 3, 1917: in short, a mixture of the historically-memorable and the mundane. As well as the Peace Covfefe, Leeds – perhaps not coincidentally, in the tumult of War and its attendant social upheaval – saw a series of violent clashes between English and Jewish youths:

Not all were caught up in those twin dramas, however, with leisure –  especially consumer-goods and, in particular, tools to aid efficient home keeping – grabbing much of the focus on the Monday following June 3:

Shopping, principally for food, was another theme. Notable here was the apparent hope that the War would “teach the English housewife to cook” and also enable her to learn “the art of shopping”. Gender, and the socially-approved division of roles (into what we might call ‘girl jobs’ and ‘boy jobs’) seems a clear concern of the time (we might also think of the earlier pejorative description of some Convention attendees as “men [who] wore their hair long…[o]r wore ties as big as sashes.”)

This is made even clearer in this advert, which frames the War in the context of “strength and manly power”: “Courage, Ambition, and Energy”; in the process making assumptions about what ‘masculinity’ should mean, just as the earlier pieces made assumptions about the preferred ways of living for women (shopping, keeping a good home):

That is to say: the advert suggests a deep anxiety about gender roles – and such ideas were also causing trouble for some newspaper readers:

Even if others spotted the longer-term changes to gender taking place in society as a direct result of the War (changes which were, no doubt, the catalyst for those anxieties):

These social changes  are also clearly indicated in this piece showing the shifts in employment patterns for one Leeds business:

Despite (or, perhaps, because of) those social changes, the mundane realities and fantasies of daily life continued:

While theatre listings testify to a continued need for diversion of a different kind:

Popular entertainment can sometimes be seen as a kind of willful ignorance of what’s truly important; and the letter at the bottom of this final extract sees our author excoriating the Peace Convention on the grounds that it was an unwarranted luxury in a time of death on an unimaginable scale – expressing, at the same time, the deep and complex links between war, class and gender. For some, however, the weekend brought a poignant finality, as the top piece in this extract shows; gone, too, another connection to the older Leeds fast disappearing in the face of an increasingly modern city:

*****

Of course, not much of this will be new to anyone familiar with the general thread of the nation and Leeds during those years – but there is a certain kind of thrill or interest in juxtaposing the seemingly-unrelated major and minor aspects of a society, gaining a sense of the (partial) totality at any given moment in time and space.

In doing so, such a approach reminds us – if we need reminding – that what normally counts as ‘historical’ and ‘important’, what gets written about and remembered, what gets commemorated, is only ever part of the whole story of any given History; and, for many people, even less than that.

That’s absolutely not to say that the 1917 Peace Convention is not worthy of assessment and analysis – clearly it is – only that the daily textures of everyday life are equally of value; and that the stories, the histories, we can piece together from the flotsam and jetsam of fleeting moments are as significant as any other. And that those fleeting moments remain something of an untapped resource for telling the vital histories of everyday people living everyday lives.

Such histories remain, for the most part, packed tightly, embedded in the collections held at libraries and archives; awaiting discovery. For any willing and intrepid explorer in the past, a whole world awaits: a legion of stories to be found, shared and heard.

Visit the Local and Family History department at Leeds Central Library

New Addition to our Collections: Samuel Marsden

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

The broad outline of Samuel Marsden‘s life and works are well-known: born Farsley, 1764, Samuel emigrated to the Australian colonies in 1793 after accepting an appointment as assistant to the Chaplain of New South Wales. There he took up residence at Parramatta, where he had charge of the religious instruction of convicts. Marsden was an influential figure in the early history of New South Wales, both for his clergy work but also his role as a judge and his employment of convicts for farming.

It was in that latter agricultural station that he is best known to us today: returning to Yorkshire in 1807, Marsden brought with him 165lb of wool, which was received enthusiastically by English manufacturers cut off from their usual supply of Merino wool by conflict on the European continent. Marsden visited King George III, wearing a suit made from the Australian wool; so impressed was the monarch by this display of sartorial elegance that he presented Marsden with five Spanish sheep from the Royal flock. These sheep, transported back to Parramatta, were the ancestors of an extensive flock of fine-woolled Australian sheep.

In 1814, Marsden visited New Zealand for the first time, along with six Maori chiefs who had been staying with him. There, he delivered the first Christian sermon on New Zealand soil (fittingly, on Christmas Day); an occasion that was commemorated in 1907 with the erection of a magnificent cross on that same spot. Marsden was to make six further missionary visits to New Zealand before dying in Sydney, aged  74. A full-length biography of this pioneering individual is available from our Information and Research department.

The Local and Family History department is delighted to say that, alongside an existing folder of materials related to Marsden’s life – copies of newspaper articles and original correspondence, mainly relating to the creation of a memorial to his life in Farsley – and an 1819 edition of his New Zealand diary – we have recently added another set of materials to our collection . These were very kindly donated to us by Bob and Lorraine Marsden, of Sydney. Bob is a direct descendant of Samuel Marsden (as well as Thomas Plantangent, Edward I and William the Conqueror!) and the material he has collected for us mainly concern Samuel’s time in Australia and New Zealand.

These do much to flesh out the story of the Farsley man after he left the West Riding and are an invaluable addition to our stock. Of particular note are copies of maps showing the exact locations Marsden settled in; a detailed Marsden genealogy; a transcript of his last will and testament; and full colour photographs of the Marsden Cross in New Zealand and Marsden’s farm ‘Mamre’ in New South Wales. We cannot thank Bob and Lorraine enough for this very thoughtful bequest.

Please visit us on the 2nd Floor of the Central Library to view these new additions to our Marsden collection, or contact us on 0113 37 86982 and via localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk to find out more.

Who Led Leeds? Case Study #1: Maud Dightam

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

Many readers will be familiar with the name and the achievements of Alice Bacon, the first woman elected as an MP in Leeds. And some of our readers will doubtless be in attendance at this week’s talk by Rachel Reeves MP, author of a new biography of Alice. Alongside that talk, we’ll be offering a glimpse from our Collections into the life and work of other local individuals involved in the Labour movement during the first half of the 20th-century. That display will include extracts from one of the Central Library’s most significant Treasures: Alf Mattison’s Collection of news cuttings, journals and ephemera.

Alongside the Mattison material will be a smaller, but no less significant, section dedicated to the memory of Maud Dightam. That’s a name unlikely to be known to most readers, or even to those with an interest in local political history. Maud, however, deserves to be known by a far wider audience: as the joint-first woman elected as a Leeds City Councillor, an accolade Maud shares with the Conservative candidate, Gertrude Dennison – an achievement which, of course, makes Maud the very first woman elected as a Labour Councillor in Leeds.

That’s not the whole of Maud’s story, however. She first came to our attention after a simple, single-line, enquiry from a member of the public – Maud’s grandson, Peter, in fact – who was wanting a few news articles about her initial success for his family history album. Further correspondence with Peter led to us finding out much more about Maud, her life and her work.

Maud Rose was born in Leeds, in 1876. At some point between then and her first appearance on a Census Return, in 1881, her family had moved to Wales, where her father, George, worked as a Leather Dresser. However, by the time of the next Census, in 1891, Maud had returned to Leeds, where she was now living with her Uncle and Aunt. At some point, one of Maud’s brothers joined her in Leeds for work – and also for politics; it was this brother who first interested Maud in the theory and practice of Socialism, though those efforts only bore fruit after he left Leeds for Lancashire, leaving his collection of radical literature in the hands of his sister.

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The 1881 and 1891 Census Returns, showing Maud with her mother, father and siblings in Wales (top), and then with her Uncle and Aunt in Leeds (bottom). Images taken from Ancestry.com

Maud moved quickly and eagerly into the circles of radical Leeds life, becoming a key figure in the local political movement through her role in forming the Leeds Women’s Labour League and the East Leeds Socialist Sunday School. She was active in Suffragette circles and present during a 1913 visit of Philip Snowden to Leeds, joining “members of the Women Social and Political Union and of the Women’s Labour League in heckling Philip Snowden when he visited Leeds ‘on the grounds that the Labour Party had fallen away from its ideals in refusing to support sex equality.'” Her contacts and colleagues can be glimpsed in an autograph book kept by her daughter, Mary, entries of which contain the signatures of some well-known figures, locally and nationally.

Article from the Leeds and District Weekly Citizen (13.04.1914), showing the ten precepts of the Socialist Sunday Schools in Leeds

Article from the Leeds and District Weekly Citizen (13.04.1914), showing the ten precepts of the Socialist Sunday Schools in Leeds. Clicking on the image will provide access to a zoomable version 

Autograph of Sylvia Pankhurst, written after she stayed at Maud Dightam's house in 1916

Autograph of Sylvia Pankhurst, written in Mary’s book after she stayed at the Dightam’s house in 1916

Maud’s husband, Ernest, a draper, was no less committed in his political beliefs, glimpses of which can be found in newspaper articles reporting his presence at suffragette demonstrations just prior to the First World War.

Maud, Mary and Ernest Dightam (no date)

Maud, Mary and Ernest Dightam (c.1913)

Ernest’s politics, in fact, led him to take a position akin to that of a conscientious objector during the First World War, believing that British workers and German workers had more in common than did those people and their respective leaders. It was a war of “three kings”, he thought – the British, the German and the Russian – and a distraction from the class-based political struggles that should unite the workers of those nations. Ernest was arrested and jailed for his beliefs; in his discharge paper, seen below, we see the final verdict of the State: “An insubordinate conscientious objector.”

Extract from Ernest Dightam's entry in the British Army WW1 Pension Records: 1914-1920. Taken from Ancestry.com

Extract from Ernest Dightam’s entry in the British Army WW1 Pension Records: 1914-1920. Taken from Ancestry.com

In the 1921 council elections, just three years after woman over thirty years of age and with property qualifications got the vote, Maud chose to stand as the Labour candidate for the East Leeds ward. There, she faced opposition from an Independent Labour candidate, Walt Wood, who was able to claim the support of two MPs, Jack Jones and Will Thorne. Maud, however, could count on the support of the MP for Leeds South East: James O’Grady.

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‘Two Sound Men for the Leeds City Council,’ Yorkshire Evening Post, 25.10.1921, page 5

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‘Women Councillors,’ Leeds Mercury, 03.11.1921, page 4

It is of little doubt, however, that what happened next owed far more to Maud’s own qualities and vast experience in local politics than the support of any one individual: elected as a Councillor with a majority of more than 1,000, Maud wasted no time in setting out her priorities – “I hope to be on those committees dealing with maternity and child welfare,” she told the Leeds Mercury, adding that “I do not wish to be regarded as a women’s candidate, but purely and simply as a Labour representative.”

In doing so, Maud was able to effectively navigate a path between being narrowly defined – thus, easily dismissed – as a “women’s candidate”, while still bringing a much-needed voice from the margins into a political centre otherwise dominated by what Dennison called “the old washer-women of men of the Council.”

You can read more about Maud’s election and subsequent political career in Sylvia Jane Dunkley’s Women Magistrates, Ministers and Municipal Councillors in the West Riding of Yorkshire: 1918-1939 (1991). The context for that election is explored in Michael Meadowcroft’s excellent article ‘The Years of Political Transition, 1914-1939,’ available in A History of Modern Leeds (ed., Derek Fraser, 1980). Further Central Library material on women in Leeds can be seen in our research guide.

Maud was a tireless worker for the causes she so strongly believed in – opposing, for example, the introduction of charges for dental and medical treatment for children – and a popular public speaker, whose efforts sadly took their eventual toll. Ill for more than a year, Maud died in December, 1932. It is a measure of the high regard in which she was held that her sister-in-law, Ellen Hainsworth, wrote the following poem on Maud’s death:

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An obituary of Maud can be found on page 4 of the Yorkshire Evening Post, on the 28th of December, 1932.

The Dightam story does not end there, however. In fact, Peter – Maud’s grandson, and the original enquirer that sparked this research – has very kindly donated copies and original documents that trace the family history from Maud’s parents through to his own life story in more recent times. That group of materials – which includes school reports, autograph collections, certificates, passports, photographs, mortgage books and more – has all been collected together and added to the stock in Local and Family History as a self-contained set of archival material. This collection will prove invaluable to social historians of the future, as well as providing a concrete example of how such a valuable family archive can be put together in practice.

Maud’s story is also a practical example of how anyone can use the resources available in the Local and Family History department – newspapers, Census returns, etc – to put together an initial biography of the often-forgotten public servants of Leeds. That, in fact, is the aim of an extremely valuable new project – “Who Led Leeds?” – which we reported on recently. If you’re interested in contributing to that project and helping us to uncover more stories like Maud’s, do please get in touch.

Who Led Leeds? Public Service between the Wars

University of Leeds PhD student Pushpa Kumbhat is working on a new project with the support of Leeds Central Library’s Local and Family History department. She writes…

We are creating a collection of short biographies commemorating the lives of public servants – local leaders of Leeds who served on the Council between the First and Second World War. Such a collection would be unique in Yorkshire.

These local leaders were ordinary people, elected as councillors and mayors to serve the city of Leeds. Their voluntary service on Leeds City Council helped build the city’s economy and democracy. Yet today, they, their backgrounds and their achievements are largely forgotten. Few, if any, collections exist about the lives of these public servants. We hope to commemorate their work in public service, charting their lives and achievements in a collection of personal biographies.

The Local and Family History Library holds a wealth of information about former citizens of Leeds, in card indexes, documents, regional newspapers on microfilm and in scrapbooks – as well as on websites such as Ancestry.com. With help from interested amateur historians, we aim to collect more biographical information about people of interest using these resources, and put together their biographies.

Here are a couple of examples of local figures we’ve identified and included so far:

BERTHA QUINN

Bertha Quinn

Bertha Quinn

  • Councillor: 1929-43.
  • Born in Middlesbrough, 1873.
  • A Trade Union representative – Tailors and Garment Workers: 1915-43.
  • Received the Bene Merenti Medal in 1946.
  • A militant suffragette, she chained herself to the House of Commons and was arrested five times, being imprisoned once.
  • Died in Leeds, 1951.

DAVID BEEVERS, O.B.E.

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David Beevers

  • Councillor: 1927-57.
  • Born in Manchester, 1890.
  • One of six siblings.
  • Began work aged 11.
  • Mayor of Leeds: 1945
  • The David Beevers Day Unit at St James’s Hospital was named in honour of his work in health care.
  • Died in Leeds, 1957.

Would you like to help build this collection? Perhaps you have an ancestor from Leeds who you would like to know more about? Or maybe you’re just curious! If so, I’d love to hear from you.

I’m hoping to put together a small team of voluntary researchers to work on the project. You can do as little or as much as you’d like, from researching one past councillor to several. Once we have a few interested people, I’ll organise a little get-together to take the task forward. If you’d like to be a part of it, you can email me via: localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk