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.

Early Atlases of Britain: 1742-1818

A recent display outside the Information and Research department on the 2nd Floor of Central Library showcased some of the most interesting maps and atlases from our collections. Most dated from 1742 to 1818; these books are a valuable and fascinating part of our stock, which can be viewed on a reference basis. To consult the books please contact the department on 0113 37 87018 or via informationandresearch@leeds.gov.uk.

  • Chorographia Britannia; or a Set of Maps of all the Counties in  England and Wales [….] by Thomas Badeslade, surveyor. Printed in 1742 it was dedicated to his Royal Highness Frederick, the (then) Prince of Wales. Shelf mark: SR 912.42 BAD

  • Britannia Depicta; or Ogilby Improve’d [….]. This is a survey of all the direct and principal crossroads in England & Wales at that time. It was engraved by Eman Bowen in 1753. Shelf mark: SR 912.42 OGI

  • A Collection of Plans of the Principal Cities of the Great Britain and Ireland; [….]. The maps were drawn from ‘the most accurate surveys in particular, those taken by the late Mr Rocque, topographer to His Majesty. The monarch at the time would have been King George III. The maps were printed and sold by A Drury in 1764. Shelf mark: SR 912.42 DUR

  • Kitchen’s Post-chaise Companion through England and Wales; […..]. This Atlas claimed tocontain all the ancient and new additional roads, with every topographical detail relating thereto’. It was printed by Thomas Kitchin in 1767. A ‘post-chaise’ was a horse–drawn carriage used for transporting passengers or mail.
    Shelf mark: SR 912 ENG

  • Ellis’s English Atlas; or a Complete Chorography of England and Wales in Fifty Maps; […..]. Engraved by and under the direction of J. Ellis, it was printed for Robert Sayer in 1768.
    Shelf mark: SR 912.42 ELL

  • The British Atlas; Comprising a Complete set of County Maps of England and Wales […..]. All but two of the maps and plans were drawn by G. Cole and engraved by J. Roper under the directions of E. W. Brayley. The atlas was printed in 1810.
    Shelf mark: SR 912.42 B777

The atlases for this display revealed only a very small section of the huge collection of maps and atlases held at the Central Library. Previous articles are available, along with a research guide detailing the maps held at the Local and Family History department.

May Day and Mrs Montagu

  • We couldn’t let today pass without a look at the holiday’s traditional association with chimney sweeps – the focus of our current ‘Sweepiana’ display at Central Library. Natascha Allen-Smith and Jonathan Wright investigate…

May Day is both a religious and secular occasion, celebrated as a devotion to the Virgin Mary but also a ceremony of dance and the crowning the Queen of May. It has been used as a fabled national day of aid for chimney sweeps – historically, their one day of holiday a year. Lots of stories from the books in Leeds Libraries’ Henry Collection relate to May Day.

‘The First of May’ poem and illustration (from London Town, 1883, by Ellen Houghton, part of the Henry Collection)

‘Jack in the Green’ was a character who would be recreated by people creating garlands of flowers and greenery to wear during the May Day celebrations. The rhyme above reads: Jack-in-the-Green from door to door, capers along with his followers four. As May Day mummers are seldom seen, let us all give a copper to Jack-in-the-Green.

Competition between different working guilds meant that, over the years, these wearable decorations became larger and more elaborate until they covered the entire man. Jack in the Green became associated with sweeps forever.

Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu (artist unknown)

In the eighteenth century, Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) provided food, drink and support for chimney sweeps on May Day. She became a social reformer and represents a time of increasing interest in workers’ rights. With a focus on literature, she also led the push for female equality in education. For some years before her death, Montagu entertained sweeps every May Day in the courtyard of her house in London. ‘The Little Sons of the Brush’ would be bought sausages until they tired of eating. The Henry Collection frequently mentions her, as well as other reformers across more recent centuries.

To learn more about the history and traditions of chimney sweeps, as reflected in Leeds Libraries’ collections, visit Room 700 at Central Library, where the Sweepiana exhibition will be in place until Friday 5 May.

What the Moon Saw

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

We’ve been thinking a fair bit about chimney sweeps recently at Central Library… Not because the chimneys here need attention (it’s a long time since any of our various original fireplaces held an open fire) but because our student-curated Sweepiana exhibition is currently occupying Room 700 until 5 May 2017. Objects on display range from a real – and tiny – top hat worn by an unfortunate young sweep, to a life-size mock-up of a chimney for you to stick your head inside and shudder at the thought of having to climb. We also have, as you’d expect, a fine selection of books, mostly from the city’s Henry Collection, which focuses specifically on the subject of sweeps.

One of the most exciting things about this collection is the sheer variety it encompasses, whether it’s rare and beautifully illustrated editions of William Blake poetry (“A little black thing among the snow / Crying “’weep! ’weep!” in notes of woe!”) or medical studies of chimney sweep health in the Victorian era. For me, one surprise was the sixteen different books of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, an author I previously associated only with what I assumed to be children’s fairy tales involving little mermaids and ugly ducklings. A less familiar but fairly characteristic story of his, entitled The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweeper, explains why he’s so well represented in the Henry Collection, but there’s also another story included in some of the volumes that mentions a sweep – one that’s not as well-known, and which I think remains one of Andersen’s most unusual tales.

Fairy tale compendiums from 1905 and 1887, included in the Henry Collection

What the Moon Saw was published in 1839, making it the 21st fable from Andersen’s pen (a number that would eventually total 168). Uniquely, it is split into 33 short parts, each describing unrelated scenes witnessed by the Moon as it travels around the world, looking down at its inhabitants over the course of some fifty or so nights. Fittingly for a tale told entirely after sunset, the tone is dark, even occasionally bleak – something I didn’t immediately associate with this author, despite being mildly traumatized as a child by a story of his called The Daisy (no one, be they flora or fauna, survives that grim little piece).

In What the Moon Saw, we’re first introduced to a young artist who has moved to a garret in the city, only to find his creative passion outweighed by loneliness: “Instead of green woods and hills, I had only chimney pots on my horizon. I had not a single friend, and there was not even the face of an acquaintance to greet me.”

Andersen4

Illustration by Rex Whistler, from Fairy Tales and Legends by Hans Andersen, published by Cobden-Sanderson Ltd (1935) and part of the Henry Collection

But one familiar face does eventually appear in the sky outside his window – that of the Moon, who decides to check in on the artist each night, describing a scene for him to paint and enabling the creation of ‘a very fine picture book’. (In fact, the story was originally published under the name A Picture Book without Pictures.) The rest of the tale is not really a tale at all, but a collection of abstract impressions, some dreamlike and haunting, some almost unbearably tragic, and many concerned with death. We don’t encounter the artist again until the ‘Eighth Evening’, when the Moon can’t appear due to some unfortunate cloud issues; and – after that – never again, as the vignettes take over from the original narrative completely and What the Moon Saw drifts into what it really wanted to be all along: a multifaceted and powerful prose poem about introspection, finding one’s place in the world, and recognizing that none of this ultimately amounts to very much after your star has twinkled out.

The moon itself, of course, has long been regarded as symbolic of inner emotions. The light it shines in this pictureless picture book is full of compassion – and yet a very real sense of distance, as it can only ‘kiss’ with its rays those who evoke its sympathy. Across the many scenes the Moon recounts, we hear about a suicidal actor, a little girl whose favourite doll is stuck in a tree, the deserted cityscapes of Pompeii and Venice, the birth of new life, and many bereaved and dying characters of all kinds. Here’s one of the lighter moments – the ‘Twenty-Sixth Evening’, and another reason why the works of Andersen sit alongside the others of the Henry Collection:

“It was yesterday, in the morning twilight … in the great city no chimney was yet smoking—and it was just at the chimneys that I was looking. Suddenly a little head emerged from one of them, and then half a body, the arms resting on the rim of the chimney-pot. ‘Hurrah!’ cried a voice. It was the little chimney-sweeper, who had for the first time in his life crept through a chimney, and stuck out his head at the top. ‘Hurrah!’ this was a very different thing to creeping about in the dark narrow chimneys! the air blew so fresh, and he could look over the whole city towards the green wood. The sun was just rising. It shone round and great, just in his face, that beamed with triumph, though it was very prettily blacked with soot. ‘The whole town can see me now,’ he exclaimed, ‘and the moon can see me now, and the sun too. Hurrah!’ And he flourished his broom in triumph.”

Andersen5

Illustration by Thomas, Charles and William Robinson, from Fairy Tales from Hans Christian Andersen, published by Dent & Co. (1905) and included in the Henry Collection

To find out more about the Sweepiana exhibition and the books included, come to our free Meet the Curators event on Monday 24 April at Leeds Central Library. Book your place via Ticketsource.

Once Upon a Time in Leeds Central Library

  • by Rhian Isaac, Collections Manager, Leeds Central Library

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”  – Neil Gaiman

During Library Fest in February we delivered an array of fairy tale related events from children’s theatre performances to film screenings. Abbey House Museum is also currently displaying a Fairy Tale and Fantasy exhibition which you can visit until December 2017. The popularity of these events with people of all ages show that there is an enduring fascination with magic and fairy tales.

At Central Library we are lucky to have wonderful examples of fairy tale literature from all over the world in our collections and this post will tell you a little bit more about some of these items.

We have all heard of fairy tales, but what actually are they? They are often thought of as a type of folk tale, and were popular stories that would have been passed down by word of mouth. Fairy tales have recurring recognisable characters and motifs, such as evil stepmothers, princesses and giants and they must have some magical element or invoke a sense of wonder.   It is also a prerequisite for fairy tales to have a happy ending and the novelist Italo Calvino called them ‘consolatory fables’. Many of them offer hope from poverty, cruelty and oppression. An obvious example is the servant Cinderella winning over her prince whilst her cruel stepsisters are punished for how badly they treat her. As Marina Warner says in her book Once Upon a Time, ‘Fairy tales evoke every kind of violence, injustice, and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue’.

Hans Christian Andersen

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, part of the Henry Collection

One of the most famous fairy tale writers, Hans Christian Andersen, could have been a character in one of his own stories. Born the son of a poor cobbler and a washerwoman, he eventually worked his way up the social ladder and ingratiated himself with the nobility. He was always ashamed about his impoverished background and once he had become successful he rarely mixed with the lower classes.  His personal experience is reflected in his tales that often explore the limits of social mobility in a closed and unjust system. His tales express sympathy for the underdog and people who have been deprived chances because of their humble origins. As part of the Henry Collection of Sweepiana we have a number of beautiful editions of the tales, some of which are currently on display in Room 700.

The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm were two young German librarians whose collection of folk and fairy tales became the most famous of its kind in the Western world. They strove to collect authentic folk tales from across Germany and the first edition printed in 1812 comprised of 86 stories. By the final edition in 1857 the tales had grown to 210 and had evolved from their oral folk origins to something that suited the tastes of a more literary public. Despite their ambition to keep the tales true to their origins it was in fact Wilhelm Grimm’s interventions that make the tales what they are today.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Illustrated by Arthur Rackham

One of my favourite images is this one of Little Red Riding Hood, by Arthur Rackham in one of our Grimm’s Fairy Tale books. Anthropologists have studied over thirty five versions of Little Red Riding Hood and found variations of it all over the world. Whilst European versions tell of a little girl tricked by a wolf masquerading as her grandmother, in the Chinese version it is a tiger. In Iran the main character is changed to a boy. It was previously thought that that the tale originated in C17th France but it has been found that the variants share a common ancestor dating back over 2600 years. The tale may have been used to pass on tips for survival and spread across trading routes.

The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby

This classic story was written in 1862 by the Reverend Charles Kingsley in response to the horrors of child labour in Victorian England and the publication of the controversial Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859. Kingsley and Darwin were close friends and Darwin cited the support of Kingsley in his second edition as he felt that this would help lessen the accusations from the Church that he was trying to attack Christian beliefs. You can read more about how Kingsley incorporated the origins debate into The Water-Babies in this article by Rosalind White.

The Water-Babies, Limited Edition, Illustrated by Warwick Goble

The Water Babies fell out of favour with the public due to its prejudices against sections of society, including Jewish and Irish people. However, it was an important force in the campaign against child labour and a year after its publication parliament began a process that would ultimately lead to the 1864 Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act, which saved many children from a life of dangerous work.

The Water Babies, like the Hans Christian Andersen books, make up part of our Henry Collection and we have over twenty different editions, some of which are currently on display in Central Library as part of our Sweepiana exhibition. We have also loaned some to Abbey House for their exhibition so there are plenty of opportunities to see these wonderful books.

Japanese Fairy Tale Series

These tiny volumes are a little treasure trove of unusual tales that were produced by Tekejiro Hasegawa in the mid 1880’s. The books are printed onto crepe paper which gives them a distinctive look and feel. This use of crepe paper was incredibly popular with Western readers who thought it was exotic and liked the unique texture. Included in the series are the traditional Japanese Tales, The Little Peachling, the Tongue Cut Sparrow, and my favourite The Battle Between the Crab and the Monkey.

As C. S. Lewis said ‘Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again’ and where better to reacquaint yourselves with your old favourites than at the library. All these books and many more are available on request. Enjoy!