RESEARCHING LOCAL HISTORY - A BEGINNER’S GUIDE
The Thoresby Society is dedicated to encouraging the study of the history of Leeds and its environs. Its publications are written by experts in their fields and are authoritative and well respected in academia. However, we are aware that many people who have never seriously studied local history may wish to begin to do so. This site has been specifically designed for people who have little or no experience of historical research. It should be seen as a basic introduction to sources available to any historian. The examples we have chosen to illustrate these different sources are almost all taken from local Leeds records.
When we begin to write any historical account it is worth bearing in mind the words of the historian A. J. P Taylor. He commented in his Politicians, Socialism and Historians (1980), ‘When I write history I have no loyalty except to historical truth as I see it.’
Good historians are like good detectives. They base their findings on adequate and reliable evidence. Without it they will refuse to draw conclusions. Equally, when they do have evidence they must be aware not only of its value but also its limitations. That applies to writing local history as it does to writing any other form of history.
When historians make a statement they should always give the source of their information and so verify that what they have said is at least based on reputable information. But remember, even reference books can make mistakes. Baines’s Directory of Yorkshire, published in 1822 by the owner of the Leeds Mercury, is an invaluable source of what Leeds and the West Riding was like at that time. But on page 31 we are told that the Leeds Mercury newspaper was founded in 1720. It was not. Four years after Baines published his directory a pile of old Leeds Mercurys appeared at his newspaper offices making it quite clear that the paper commenced publication in 1718.
Similarly many history books have been published which perpetuate long established myths. There is nothing wrong with publishing a myth as long as it is made clear that it is a myth. Any history of the Norman Conquest can hardly avoid mentioning the Battle of Hastings and that King Harold was killed there. However, the careful historian always points out that the story Harold was shot in the eye has long been disputed, despite the popular belief to the contrary.
Newspapers, too, cannot be totally relied upon. On 16 October 1946 The Times reported; ‘The American news service in Germany announced at 2.45am that Göring and the ten other Nazi war leaders, sentenced to death by the Allied War Crimes Tribunal, were hanged this morning in Nuremberg prison.’ But that never happened. Göring committed suicide the night before his execution!
The best historians can do is to show that at least they have tried to reach the truth. It is important to remember that though historians may ask questions there is no guarantee there is an answer.
Mathematicians know that 2 + 5 = 7, scientists know that H2O is the formula for water, but so many questions in history have no simple answer. That applies every bit as much to local history as to any other historical theme.
Local Council Reports
Wills and Testaments
Diaries and Letters
There are some basic guidelines we need to follow when engaged in research. They are in fact no more than common sense and good manners but sadly some people fail to observe them. When students begin researching it is important to remember that other students, in years to come, will want to use the same source we are using and that many sources are in a very fragile state. There are five golden rules to follow:
1 Use a pencil for making notes. There is always the danger of spilling
ink or marking a document accidentally with a ballpen.
2 Never rest anything on the document including your finger.
3 Turn the pages carefully.
4 Leave the document exactly as you found it.
5 When you do use books, microfilms, microfiches or CDs please ensure they are returned to the correct place.
Sources for evidence fall into two categories:
Primary Sources are the actual letter, the actual diary, the actual report, the actual building, the actual piece of pottery etc., which you are using for your research. Sometimes if a documentary primary source is used extensively it is published and known as a Printed Primary Source. Examples of these are the list of taxpayers in Leeds in 1596 or the diary of Ralph Thoresby.
Secondary Sources are the books and articles that historians write. East End, West End by Maurice Beresford (Leeds, 1986) is a good example.
If you do quote a source there are standard ways in which this is done.
For a book, the first time you quote it give the author, title of the book, date and the place of publication, unless it is published in London, and the page number. - J. Sprittles, Links with Bygone Leeds (Leeds, 1969), p. ??
After that you simply quote the author’s name and page number – Sprittles, p. ??
Should you be using two books by the same author use the author’s name and an abbreviated title to make it clear. Thus -
S. T. Anning, The General Infirmary at Leeds; the Second Hundred Years 1869-1965 (Edinburgh,1966) and S. T. Anning, The History of Medicine in Leeds (Leeds, 1980) would become -
Anning, Infirmary, p. ? and Anning, Medicine in Leeds, p. ?
If you quote an article from a magazine or journal, you quote the author, the name of the article, the publication, volume and date.
e.g. Michael S Potts, ‘Willliam Potts of Leeds, Clockmaker’: Publications of the Thoresby Society, 2nd series, 13 (2003)
The National Archives
This is at Kew in West London and holds UK Government records from Norman times to the present. It was formed in 2003 by bringing together the Public Record Office and the Historical Manuscripts Commission. Its National Register of Archives and the Manorial Documents Register maintain up to date information on non-Government records which deal with British history. Its useful website can be accessed at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
West Yorkshire Joint Services Archives County Record Office
For West Yorkshire these records are held at Sheepscar. The Sheepscar Archives also contains the archive material for the city of Leeds, which include papers of eminent people, school log books, church records etc., etc.. The service can be contacted on the web at http://www.archives.wyjs.org.uk; by phone on 0113 214 5814; or at West Yorkshire Joint Services Archives, Sheepscar, Leeds, LS7 3AP. It is advisable to make a prior appointment if you wish to use the archive.
Leeds Local and Family History Library
This has an excellent collection of some 180,000 items relating to the history of the city including council minutes, local history books, a wide ranging collection of maps and photographs and microfilm of local newspapers which go back to the eighteenth century. The library is based in the old Reference Library. Its website can be found through http://www.leeds.gov.uk/leisure/Pages/Local-and-family-history-service.aspx ; it can also be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com, by phone on 0113 247 8290 or at Local and Family History Library, Central Library, Calverley Street, Leeds, LS1 3AD.
The Thoresby Society
This was founded in 1889 in Leeds and is a rich source of local information. Its publications are authoritative and cover a wide range of subjects on Leeds and district. It has an extensive local history library, which in 2015 moved to the Leeds Library (see below). Details of access arrangements for members and visitors will be found here New members are welcome; more information and an application form can be accessed here
The Leeds Library
This was founded in 1768 and is the oldest subscription library in England. Opening hours are 9 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday. The library can be contacted on 0113 245 3071 or by e-mail at
firstname.lastname@example.org Researchers wishing to use the library should contact The Librarian, The Leeds Library, 18 Commercial Street, Leeds LS1 6AL with a letter of reference from an appropriate institution or a professional person.
Family Records Centre
This is invaluable for people involved in family history research. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths commenced in England and Wales in 1 July 1837. Until 1997 this information was held at St Catherine’s House. Today it is held at the Family Records Centre, 1 Myddleton Street, Islington, London, EC1R 1OW. The website is http://www.genuki.org.uk Copies of the index are held in Leeds Local and Family History Library.
Local churches, businesses, schools, colleges etc may also hold useful information and are worth approaching.
Debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords can be found in Hansard and up to the 1990s broadsheet newspapers carried detailed reports of such debates. The preamble to acts of Parliament can also be illuminating.
Acts of Parliament
* Preamble to the act authorising the building of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal
10 Geo. IIIc.114.R.A. 19th May 1770. An Act for making and maintaining a navigable Cut or Canal from Leeds Bridge, in the County of York, to North Lady’s Walk in Liverpool, in the county palatine of Lancaster and from thence to the River Mersey.
These are a valuable source for the local historian, including as they do, reports on emigration, education, public health, housing etc. etc.
* Extract of Eliza Marshall’s evidence given to the Factory Commissioners in Leeds on 26 May 1832.
5 Where did you work at first? - At Mr Marshall’s, in Water Lane.
6 Was that a flax mill? - Yes
7 How happened you to leave that mil1? - It was so dusty, it stuffed me so that I could hardly speak.
8 Where did you go next? - To Mr Warburton’s, in Meadow Lane.
A census has been held every ten years since 1801 with the exception of 1941. The information includes the names of people in the house on the night of the census, their relationship to the head of the house, their rank or profession etc. Census information demonstrates shifts in population etc. Copies of all the censuses for Yorkshire from 1841 are available in the Leeds Local and Family History Library. The 1901 national census is now available on line.
* Extract from Kirkstall census 1851 – Aaron’s Row
William SUTCLIFFE H 31 Shoemaker b. Bramley
Ann SUTCLIFFE W 28 Woollen Power Loom b. Kirkstall
James SUTCL I FFE S 8 Scholar b. Kirkstall
These can give detailed accounts of occupations, financial and social positions in the community etc.
* Extract from the Poll Tax 1379 for Ledes
Rogerus de Ledes Esquier et uxor 20s.
Johannes de Tymbill Smiyth et uxor 12d.
Symon Passlewoman Bocher et uxor 12d.
Johannes Dykman Souter et uxor 6d.
Agnes serviens Passelwoman 4d.
[bocher-butcher; souter-shoemaker, serviens-servant, et uxor - and wife]
Local Council Records
Many local government records, minutes of meetings etc. were made available in printed form, others remain recorded by hand. They give a good indication of the problems encountered in administrating a local community.
* Extract from the Leeds Police Breaches of Discipline
1886 February 18 : PC44 - Fined 2s. 6d by the Chief Constable for being absent from his beat and found coming out of a tripe shop smoking.
Local Council Reports
These are another fine source of information about life in a particular place but it should be borne in mind not every good intention proposed in some reports was always acted upon.
* Extract from a statement by J. Johnstone Jervis, Medical Officer for Leeds in 1932, on back-to-back houses in the city.
Personal and domestic washing must be done in the living-room, where as a rule there is an earthenware sink with cold water laid on.
Each school kept a logbook in which the headteacher recorded the main events that occurred, staff absences, inspectors’ reports etc etc. A good source of information regarding everyday life and special events but should be used with caution. Headteachers recorded things from their point of view at times!
* Extract from the log book of Queens’ Road Council School 3 July 1893
I find great difficulty in getting all the Assistants to separate in the yard to supervise the Play of the children. There is such a desire to stand in a group gossiping.
* Extract from the logbook of Whingate Road Council School, Leeds
June 17th 1895 - A Holiday tomorrow (l8th) on account of visi t of Shazadda Nazulla of Afghanistan to Leeds.
The Poor Law Act of 1563 appointed two people in each parish to collect money to be used for the poor. Between then and 1930 several acts were passed, one of the most famous being the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which abolished outdoor relief almost entirely. This was replaced by a system of sending people unable to support themselves to workhouses. Documentary evidence from such institutions gives us an objective view of life there rather than the subjective and emotional view presented in such books as Oliver Twist.
* Extract of Dietary for Inmates (Men) of Leeds Workhouse February 1877
Breakfast - 6oz bread, 1 pint of cocoa
Dinner – 4oz boiled beef or mutton, 2 oz bread, 8oz potatoes or veg
Supper – 6 oz bread, 1 pint of tea
Threats of invasions led to lists being drawn up of men available to fight and the weapons they possessed. Valuable for details of military information and local organisation.
* Extract from Muster Roll for Secrofte 1539
Richard Morres, a horse and a jak [coat strenthened with iron etc.] John Nicholson, a stele cap
3 - LEGAL RECORDS
The meeting of the county justices were held four times a year. They dealt with cases of murder, theft etc., and after 1531, administered the Poor Law. Often a rich source of information on crime and poverty in the area.
* Extract from Quarter Session Rolls 1598
Ordered that George Sharpe of Rothwell shall have a licence to beg within that parish.
Baptism, marriage and burial registers give good evidence of occupations in an area, causes of death and indications of population size etc. Spelling is often varied.
* Headingley Baptisms
11 February 1838 - Betty - Benjamin and Ann Wright - Delver [tiller]
4 November 1838 - Mary - Law and Hannah Mortimer - Shuttlelmaker
5 April 1840 - Henry - Sarah Ann Heild- Spinster
5 April 1840 - Ellen - Joseph and Sarah Midgley - Groom
* St John's Burials
1 January 1775 - Widow Whiteley - out of the north bar - Old age - 83
2 January 1775 - Child of Joshua Wood - Timble Bridge - Fitts - 2
23 January 1775 - John Thompson - Osmondthorpe - gout in the lung - 71
These illustrate how the churches were organised, financed and developed. They also played a part in local politics. Such records give an insight into everyday life and reveal many human traits.
* Extract from the Leeds Quaker Minute Book 26 May 1699
Alice Bainbridge should go to London by water.
These often give a good insight into the everyday life of church affairs in a community. Records of events, meetings and sometimes personal feelings can be found there.
* An obviously weary Revd Brameld writing in Wortley Church Monthly Magazine January 1897.
If another could succeed by God’s help where I have failed, may God send him and send him speedily.
Trade and Industrial Records
* Extract from the Leeds, Skyrack and Morley Savings Bank Balance Sheet 1863 - Employment of Depositors list
Males; Agents 67, Apprentices 44, Artists 18, Basket Makers 2, Boat Builders 6, Book Binders 30 …
Females; Children 1079, Cloth Trade 160, Cotton Trade 14, Dress Makers and Milliners 285 …
* Extract from the minutes of the meeting of the Leeds Chamber of Commerce 3 November 1851 when Rowland Hill arrived in Leeds to explain the penny post. A Mr Lupton commented,
I am sure I represent the unanimous feelings of this important borough when I state how much all the community is indebted to Mr Rowland Hill for the penny postage.
Records of the running of large estates like Temple Newsam provide much valuable documentary information.
* Extract from James Pascall’s bill to Lord Irwin of Temple Newsam 8 July 1745
for two Neatte Carved and Gilt tables in burnished gold with Mahogany toops, because they shant warp - £34.00s.00d.
These give a considerable insight into the way local societies have developed and demonstrate how roads, railways and canals were both constructed and run.
* Extract from a Notice to Masons, Stone-Getters and Diggers - Leeds and Liverpool Canal
To be Lett, on Wednesday the 16th Day of March, 1791, at Ten in the Forenoon, at the Black-Horse in Skipton, in the County of York. The BUILDING of ONE LOCK, ONE AQUEDUCT and TWO PUBLIC BRIDGES, in, under and over the above Canal, in the townships of Gargrave and Thorleby.
* Extract from Baines’s Directory of the West Riding 1822
COACHES; From the Bull and Mouth, William Ward, Briggate. The WAKEFIELD TRADESMAN arrives every morning at 10, returns every evening at 6.
Wills and Testaments
Up to 1883 married women, along with lunatics, and heretics, were not allowed to make a will. Wills deal with real estate and testaments deal with possessions. Wills of merchants, for example, often give a good deal of incidental economic information as well as details of everyday life.
* Extract of the testament of Margaret Midgley, widow, of Moor Grange 1557
‘ ... Also I give to the wife of Richard Midgley my son my best scarlet hat. Also I give to William Midgley my godson one of the best sheep... ’
These provide excellent information regarding the content of houses, warehouses etc., etc.
* Extract of inventory of John Pawson, Kyrkgate 1576
Inprimis one Leade. .. iiij tubbes, certain happynge game, baskettes, and all other husl ement. . .
[Firstly one vat.. .4 tubbes, certain covering of coarse yarn, baskets and other lumber. . .]
* Extract from the Temple Newsam Inventory of 1808
7th Room - Crimson Damask Bedroom; bed, chairs, chest, table
8th Room - Mr Cutt’s Room; bed, chairs, mirror, chest, table
9th Room - Sir John Ramsden’s Dressing Room; settee and chairs
10th Room - Dark Room; bed, chest of drawers, chairs, mirror
11th Room - Sir John Ramsden's Bedchamber; bed, chairs, chests, table, mirrors
12 th Room - Mrs Aston’s - bed, chairs, sofa, bureau, tables, bookcase, dressing table
Diaries and Letters
Interesting personal accounts often include the information other sources might consider of little historical value yet in fact give a valuable insight into everyday life. However, these are very subjective, expressing purely personal observations and opinions. Some are printed, most are not.
* Extract from the diary of William Constable.
January 12 1836 – Walk from Leeds to Otley. Windy weather.
Letter from Septimus in the Leeds Times 5 April 1845 on air pollution.
Sir – I have been perfectly dismayed at the apathy with which the good people of this town regard one of the most alarming and frightful nuisances in existence.
Newspapers published since 1801 are at the British Library at Colindale, London. Local newspapers are a rich source of information about events and everyday life in particular localities. Leeds is especially fortunate in that virtually all copies of two of its early newspapers are available on microfilm at the Local and Family History Library. The Leeds Mercury was founded in 1718 and continued publication until 1939. The Leeds Intelligencer was founded in 1754 is still published as the Yorkshire Post. When using newspapers it must be borne in mind that they are often politically biased and being produced at speed can contain mistakes, some unimportant, others not so!
* Extract from a report in the Leeds Intelligencer 19 November 1776.
Last Tuesday one John Knott, a labourer at Pontefract, sold his wife for half a guimea , to Robert Rider, a staymaker of the same place.
* Headline from the Lancashire Evening Post Monday April 15 1912
DISASTER to TITANIC; ALL THE PASSENGERS SAFE
Directories usually give a useful introductory description of a place
with a list of the principal inhabitants and tradesmen. These are usually
available in local reference libraries and Leeds has an extensive collection.
Some directories are available on CD-Roms for purchase by the general
public. It must be borne in mind that by listing only the principal inhabitants
etc. in directories means that a full picture of the community, size of
families, number of labourers etc cannot be determined.
* Extract from The Leeds Directory for the Year 1798
Calverts, gunmakers, Briggate
Carr, Benj. Innkeeper, Unicorn, Lower-head Row
Canne, John, taylor, Kirkgate
Camplin and Jackson, painters, Kirkgate
Carrett, William, sheriff’s officer and innkeeper, White Hart, Market Place, serjeant in the Volunteers
Calvert and Co, liquor merchant, Briggate
Published annually these contained a calendar of months, days, astronomical data and information. The most famous local almanac was the Bramley Almanac bought annually by some 10,000 people in Leeds. It was first published in 1854. It contained useful local information, personal opinions of people of the time and much was written in Yorkshire dialect.
* Extract for the Bramley Almanac, 1881
It’s hard what poor fowk mun put up wi! What insults an’ snubs they’ve to tack! What bowin’ and scrapins expected, If a chap’s a black coit on his back!
These small publications usually give an insight into a specific area of local history. They were often published privately, for example to give a wider circulation to a minister’s sermons, to put a particular political point of view or, as in this case, to record an event such as the death of Edward Baines, the editor of the Leeds Mercury, by his family. When written from a particular standpoint they should be seen not necessarily as inaccurate but possibly biased.
* Extract from A Father’s Dying Address (1848)
The last illness commenced on Monday, the 10th of July, and Mr Teale was summoned on the Tuesday.
A good source of information of everyday life, though like all adverts it should be borne in mind they are designed to present a thing in its best possible light.
* Extract from an advert from the Leeds Mercury Saturday 29 December 1838
TO THE INHABITANTS OF LEEDS AND ITS ENVIRONS.
JOHN WALLIS in announcing to the Inhabitants of Leeds and its Neighbourhood , that he has taken to the TEA AND GROCERY ESTABLISHMENT, No. 11 Lowerhead-Row, will not direct the Attention of the Public to a useless Quotation of Low Prices, or Professions not intended to be realised, but calls Attention to the Principle of fair Trading.
* Extract from an advertisement for a Marsh Lane fish and chip shop in 1881.
Excellent suppers of fried fish and chipped potatoes ( à la mode de Paris ) cooked in the best dripping.
* Extract from a poster for the Leeds Theatre September 1786
Mrs SIDDONS’ LAST NIGHT BUT TUESDAY, THEATRE, LEEDS
ON MONDAY Evening, September 4, 1786, Will be presented, a Tragedy called ISABELLA Or, THE FATAL MARRIAGE
Visual evidence is valuable for the local historian but it must always be borne in mind that the artist or photographer may have an agenda in choosing the pictures either painted or photographed. Leeds is fortunate in that a whole series of books of photographs of the city are available to the general public. The greatest asset for those seeking visual evidence of the city and its environs is the newly developed Leodis website by the Leeds Library and Information Service at http://www.leodis.net which contains some 46,465 images.
Maps are invaluable to the local history researcher. Some like the famous Ordnance Survey map of Leeds published in 1850 to a scale of five feet to the mile presents a give a fascinating picture of the Leeds of its day, even to the extent of showing the position of the pews in the churches! A selection of maps covering 1725 to 1947 is due to be published jointly by the Thoresby Society, the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Leeds Library and Information Service in late 2006.
Much valuable work has been done by local history societies in recording the memories of individuals. Again, it is important to bear in mind that memories can be faulty but such recollections do often a give an insight into a way of life that has disappeared. Occasionally such reminiscences are transcribed into printed form.
* Extract from Harry Mawson’s memories transcribed by Don Cole in Just and Ordinary Life.
For breakfast we’d have fat’n bread mainly, and perhaps a bit o’ bacon. Dad kept a pig in a sty at the top o’ the garden. Each tenant had a pig-oil, as we called it, but only dada used one.
Architectural styles can give us a rough idea when a particular building
was erected. However, care must be taken. St Bartholomew’s Church
at Armley (1872) or St Chad’s at Far Headingley (1868) were not
built in the Middle Ages any more than Armley Jail (1847) was originally
a medieval castle or Temple Mills at Holbeck was built as a result on
an invasion by the Ancient Egyptians!
However, an examination of a locality, including the names of public houses, local gravestones, the names of streets, public statues and blue plaques on buildings can offer valuable information.
* Public house on Tong Road built facing what was Cliff’s Brickworks.
* Inscription on a memorial in Beckett Street Cemetery
PRIVATE BURNETT REYNER, “LEEDS PALS”, PRESUMED KILLED FRANCE, 1st JULY 1916, AGED 23
* The site of the vicarage in medieval Leeds.
* Inscription on a statue of Queen Anne, originally placed in Moot Hall, Briggate now in the Art Gallery
Mark this elegant statue, superior even to that of St Paul’s, in London, piously consecrated to our illustrious Queen Anne, though far surpassing any representation; and erected at the sole expense of William Milner, a prudent Justice of the Peace, a faithful subject, a noble citizen, and an opulent merchant.
* Blue plaque on Leeds and Holbeck Building Society, the Headrow.
BURLEY BAR STONE; This stone, now housed inside the main entrance of the Leeds & Holbeck Building Society, marked the medieval boundary between the manorial borough or town, of Leeds and Leeds, Main Riding, the surrounding agricultural land. First recorded 1725.
The Thoresby Society’s publications offer a wide range of books and articles on Leeds and district. The following is a selection of some of the more popular books on the history of the city produced by various publishers. It should be noted that several of these are out of print but are available from libraries.
Leeds and Its Region (Leeds,1967) edited by M.Beresford and G. R. J. Jones
East End, West End (Leeds, 1988) by M. Beresford
Images of Leeds 1850-1960 (Derby,1992) by P. Brears.
The Illustrated History of Leeds (Derby, 1994) by S. Burt and K.Grady.
A History of Modern Leeds (Manchester,1980) edited by D. Fraser.
Leeds: An A to Z of Local History (Leeds, 2001) by J. Gilleghan
A Century of Leeds; Events, People and Places over the Last 100 Years ( Stroud,1999) by B.
Leeds Describ’d; Eyewitness Accounts of Leeds 1534-1905 (Derby,1993) by A.Heap and P. Brears
A History of Leeds (Chichester, 2001) by W. R.Mitchell
Leeds; the Story of a City (Ayr, 2002) by D. Thornton.
Great Leeds Stories (Ayr, 2005) by D. Thornton
Children interested in local history would find The Picture Story of the City of Leeds by David Thornton helpful.
This guide has been written by Dr.David Thornton
Other books by Dr. Thornton are :