Reading Around the Histories of Leeds

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

In a nutshell, historiography is the history of history” – and because everything has a history (both objectively and subjectively), everything also has a history of those histories: that is, a historiography.

Leeds is no different. In fact, in some ways, Leeds is more blessed than many other English urban locales by the breadth and depth of its historiography; equally, in other ways, it is less well-served (and those distinctions are themselves a kind of historiographical analysis). “More blessed” because, for example, in the work of Ralph Thoresby we have one of the earliest provincial histories; “less well-served” because, as is becoming increasingly clear, we lack a properly modern and comprehensive account of Leeds’ social diversity, especially across the key periods of the 19th and 20th-centuries.

Such thoughts sparked one of our most recent ventures in the Local and Family History library: a discussion group based around readings in some of the key writings on Leeds’ past. This book group with a difference – the difference being that attendees select a theme at the end of the session; the Librarian then finds suitable material from the selections available in the department to cover that subject, all to be read in time for the next meeting one month away – started during our recent programme of Library Fest events, and has continued into the first quarter of 2017.

The first session, back in February, saw us gaining a thorough grounding in the general histories of Leeds, from the aforementioned Thoresby through Edmund Bogg on pre-Norman Conquest Leeds, Edward Parsons on the Medieval period, Percy Robinson on Kirkstall Abbey and Adel Church, J.S. Fletcher on the 17th-century, Steven Burt & Kevin Grady on the Georgian period, W.R. Mitchell on the Industrial Revolution, David Thornton on Victorian Leeds and, finally, Michael Meadowcroft’s chapter on aspects of 20th-century local government in the post-World War I city, which can be found in A History of Modern Leeds (1980; ed., Derek Fraser).

For that first meeting, our intrepid readers were asked to contribute their thoughts on the extracts and authors they had encountered (many for the first time). Here is one such response to the material:

Of course, such reading only scratched the surface of the voluminous histories of Leeds – the many hundreds of articles in the Publications of the Thoresby Society, the monographs on specific aspects of the 18th and 19th-centuries – in particular, Maurice Beresford on urbanisation, R.G. Wilson on merchants in the 1700s and both E.P. Hennock and Derek Fraser on aspects of Victorian local politics – and several biographies of key figures, among them Thoresby himself.

So – we pressed on, boats against the current of the present, borne back ceaselessly into the rich seams of Leeds’ past: most recently, 19th-century architecture and, for May’s meeting, we’ll have become experts (of a kind) in the fascinating history of Leeds during the Middle-Ages.

After that – who knows? The group is, after all, restricted only by the interests of the people attending, and the quantity of material that has been written on any particular field. So – if you’re interested in taking part in these sessions, do please get in touch via or on 0113 37 86982.

Illuminating the Rich History of “Light Night” in Leeds

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

No doubt most readers of our blog will be spending this evening enjoying one of the many wonderful art events happening around the city centre as part of the annual Light Night celebrations. And most readers will probably already be aware of how those celebrations started – in 2005, as part of the launch of the region-wide Illuminate Cultural Festival, itself based on the French model of the Nuit Blanche: an annual all-night or night-time arts festival. Twelve-years later – showing every sign of continual and vibrant growth – Light Night remains a highlight of Leeds’ cultural year.

But what few visitors to those spectacular displays of ‘light’ in a myriad of weird and wonderful locations and forms will know, is that Leeds has something of a long history when it comes to such things. These ‘Illuminations’, as they were known, were social events involving the whole town and held to celebrate major occasions such as British victory in war. As David Thornton writes in his superb reference work Leeds: A Historical Dictionary (2015) –

At a given time in the evening set by the Mayor, the windows of all the houses in the town would be lit with candles and shops would present illuminated displays…[C]rowds,, who were used to darkened streets with little illumination, wandered around the town enjoying the glittering spectacle.

– which certainly sounds familiar! We wanted to find out more about these intriguing (mainly 19th-century) events – so, using the free access enjoyed by all users of the Leeds Library Service to the British Library’s 19th-century Newspapers Online, we did a quick search of the Leeds Mercury to discover more.

The first Illumination we found occurred in 1820 and was in celebration of the government’s withdrawal of the extremely controversial Pains and Penalties Bill. This is how the Mercury reported the events in Leeds and Hunslet:



And here is how the Mercury reported on the spectacular array of illuminations on September 18, 1855, to celebrate the ending of the Crimean War (in part, at least – the full article can be read via the aforementioned 19th-century Newspapers Online resource):

illuminations-1855-2 illuminations-1855-3

illuminations-1855-4 illuminations-1855-5illuminations-1855-6

So, while you’re enjoying tonight’s wonderful selection of displays, just remember that you’re part of a rich tradition stretching back over 200-years. Remember also that, as always, the Central Library is playing host to its usual weird and wonderful installations and exhibitions; all themed around the ‘elements’ and our collections. We look forward to welcoming you this evening!

To get in the ‘light’ mood, why not read last year’s Light Night article, on Joseph Priestley and his writings on the subject? There’s also a research guide highlighting some of the most interesting light-based books from around the Central Library’s specialist departments. 

Alf Mattison: A Hidden Figure

  • by Rhian Isaac, Leeds Central Library

I was inspired to take a closer look at our Alf Mattison Collection after I heard Professor Malcolm Chase from the University of Leeds deliver a talk a few weeks ago to a busy room about this fascinating but somewhat shadowy figure. This was a man who despite his active involvement in the socialist movement from its very beginning in this country remained a background figure in politics. He was close friends with some of the most influential Socialists of the time yet he expressed no desire to pursue a political career himself. It was his personal experiences of the hardships of industrial working class life in Leeds that led him to act against class discrimination and it is through his collection, in the Brotherton Library and in our own, that we have access to an invaluable record of socialism in Leeds.

His collection of socialist literature includes a large number of books, ephemera and pamphlets and many of these can be found in the Brotherton Library. He was also a prolific compiler of newspaper cuttings and had a staggering intake of five daily, eleven weekly and four monthly papers. His compilations of newspaper cuttings vary in subject matter and these are a couple of examples found in Mattison’s ‘Old Leeds Chronicles’ in Leeds Libraries’ collections.



As well as a collector of socialist literature Mattison was also a keen and well respected local historian, holding office on the Thoresby Society Council from 1908 until his death in 1944. He was regarded as a particular expert on the history of theatre in Leeds and we have his manuscripts on topics such as ‘The First Leeds Theatre’, Tate Wilkinson’s early pantomimes’ and ‘Famous actors appearing at the Leeds Theatre’. Mattison frequently contributed articles to The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Weekly Citizen but Leeds Central Library also hold a treasure trove of handwritten unpublished material – 76 folders to be exact – that are available to explore.

unpublished articles

It is perhaps the diaries of Alf Mattison that excited me the most when I discovered the 16 volumes on a shelf in our strong room. He always intended these to be read and he carefully considered where they might be housed best. He believed that they would be more accessible to a wider audience if they were kept in the public library and In keeping with his wishes, his wife Florence gave them to us after his death.

The journals are full of stories of famous Leeds figures and visits made to Leeds by notable people, such as, Winston Churchill and Sir Walter Scott. Perhaps one of the most important sections is the one that covers the Second World War. Mattison made many diary entries about significant events but also about how his daily life had been affected by changes to rationing and frequent air raids as he realised that this would be important to future readers. His record provides a unique and personal insight into life in Leeds during the war.


His wife Florence or ‘Florrie’ as she was known is also an interesting character, having been expelled from the Labour Party at the age of 76 for being too radical. But she perhaps is deserving of her own blog post!

If you would like to look at some of the items from the Mattison collection please come and see us at Leeds Central Library or walk up the hill to the Brotherton, where you can also now visit their wonderful new Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.

Ralph Thoresby and the Ducatus Leodiensis: A Curated Display

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


There are still five days to enjoy the fantastic series of events we’re holding for our 2016 Library Fest. Among that panoply is a display celebrating the life and works of Ralph Thoresby – in particular, the 300th-anniversary of his Ducatus Leodiensis. That book – often referred to as “the first written history of Leeds” was actually published in 1715, but we thought it appropriate to leave our celebrations until 2016 as, in a fitting alignment of the literary firmament, this year also marks the 200th-anniversary of the second edition of Thoresby’s masterpiece. That version, edited by the vicar, topographer and antiquarian, Thomas Dunham Whitaker, can be seen, alongside Thoresby’s 1715 original, in a display case outside our Information and Research department on the 2nd Floor of the Central Library. Also on show with those two editions of the Ducatus is Whitaker’s own Loidis and Elmete, a further history of Leeds and the surrounding area that picks up where Thoresby left off and which was also published in 1816.


Moving into our Local and Family History department, viewers can browse a further set of materials. Part way between a museum exhibition and a curated browsing collection, this selection is designed to contextualize Thoresby’s work within his life. The materials can be read in any order, but you are encouraged to start in the bottom right corner of the table and work from right to left.


Finally, visitors are invited to peruse the glass cabinet seen in the above photograph. This contains the jewel in our Thoresby collection – the annotated Ducatus Leodiensis. This is an edition of the 1715 version that was owned by the local antiquary and schoolmaster, Thomas Wilson. Wilson added many fascinating amendments, corrections and revisions to Thoresby’s text – most of which were incorporated into Whitaker’s 1816 second edition. This is a rare opportunity to see one of the rarest items in our collection.

Alongside the annotated Ducatus can be seen a book that was part of Thoresby’s own library – and which contains a note and signature by the “Father of Leeds History” himself. Further special collections items of relevance to Thoresby and the Ducatus can also be seen in that glass cabinet.

The display is available to view until Monday the 22nd of February. Contact us on 01132 476016 for details of our opening times, or click here. Readers can also browse a full guide to our Thoresby collection by clicking here.