The Thoresby Society; the First Hundred Years

One Hundred Years of the Thoresby Society

G. C. F. Forster, BA, FSA, FRHistS

From the second quarter of the nineteenth century there were major advances in the encouragement of, and the provision for, historical studies of varied scope, advances which owed much to the Romantic movement and to the intellectual climate of the times. They coincided, for example, with the Tractarians’ search for the religious practices of the early Church and with the enquiries of scientists (notably geologists and biologists) into the origins of man. They were of a piece with the enthusiasm for past glories in architecture ― the Gothic Revival ― as well as for archaeological investigation of the buried or standing physical remains of the past. They reflected the vigorous concern shown by Sir Walter Scott and others for rescuing not only those remains but other evidence as well: documents, smaller artefacts, ballad-histories, traditions. Furthermore, the Victorian period was an era of growing industrial and commercial wealth which stimulated new social ambitions, generated better means of travel, prompted a keener desire for education and self-improvement, and provided increasing numbers of people with more leisure for the pursuit of intellectual concerns. In that general social climate there developed an important local dimension, the fruit of various influences: pride in industrial achievements; a sense of civic patriotism, dignity, and local identity; a competitive spirit; localism as a defence against centralisation; the wish for some feeling of continuity in the midst of rapid changes (as well as an explanation for them); nostalgia; regard for the protection of traditions and physical reminders of times gone by.

Accordingly, attitudes, fashions, opportunity, popular interest, and serious historical concerns led in the fullness of time to the establishment of societies which would publish historical records, investigate and describe the past. They were greatly assisted by the statutory provisions made in 1838 for the care of public records, the building of the Public Record Office itself begun in 1851, the foundation of the Historical Manuscripts Commission in 1869, and the great series of documents published by those two bodies. From the 1830s to the 1860s historical societies were founded in all the northern counties, notably (for Yorkshire) the Surtees Society, inaugurated in 1834 to publish manuscripts from the whole of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, and the body eventually entitled the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, established in 1863. The movement gathered pace, and during the 1880s almost fifty historical societies of various kinds were formed: one of these was the Thoresby Society, which thus belongs to a vintage period.1


The scheme for a society originated in a letter to the Press in the town in March 1889 from Colonel Edmund Wilson, who called for the formation of a local historical society in Leeds. He had chosen a propitious moment, because since 1882 there had been a hard fought campaign to save the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey from irreversible damage or misguided reconstruction, a battle the ultimate success of which owed much to the efforts and generosity of Wilson himself. The preservation of the legacy of the past was, therefore, a lively issue in the town; so too were considerations of civic pride and the competitive spirit, for a historical society had been established in Bradford in 1878. Wilson’s initiative was promptly supported by the local Press, a circular was widely distributed, and a meeting in the Philosophical Hall (which housed the museum) was arranged for 13 May. Some fifty gentlemen attended, to hear Professor Cyril Ransome propose (with the support of Dr J. E. Eddision) the formation of a local historical society, a motion which was carried; a suggestion that the new association should bear the name of Ralph Thoresby was turned down in favour of ‘Leeds Historical and Antiquarian Society’; an annual subscription of 5s. was agreed, and a rules committee was appointed to draw up a constitution. At a further meeting the rules were adopted, the momentous decision was taken to abandon the original title in favour of the ‘Thoresby Society’, and the subscription was raised to 10s. 6d., an increase disputed by some on the grounds that, as an educational institution, the society should not deter the recruitment of less prosperous members. It also agreed that membership should be open to ladies, at least three of whom joined at once. A sign of a wider enthusiasm was the total of twenty-six candidates for the twelve places on the first council; Col. Wilson was elected president, Professor Ransome became the first honorary secretary, Mr John Stansfeld the first honorary treasurer, and the Revd Charles Hargrove became the librarian. During the remainder of 1889, more members joined; by the end of the year there were 172 subscribers, including twenty-four life members.

The founders included many of the most prominent figures in Victorian Leeds. Edmund Wilson, the first president, was a solicitor with offices in the Red Hall and a leading member of the Conversation Club who was also ― or would become ― a colonel in the Volunteer Service, president of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, and a town councillor. Amongst senior members of the Yorkshire College were Nathan Bodington, the principal, Cyril Ransome (professor of modern literature and history ― and father of Arthur), L. C. Miall (professor of biology and FRS). Well-known medical supporters were J. E. Eddison and J. B. Hellier; leading figures in the Church included the vicar of Leeds, E. S. Talbot, the minister of Mill Hill chapel, Charles Hargrove, the incumbents of Headingley and Adel, and other local clergy including J. H. D.Matthews from the grammar school. Talbot Baines and T. Wemyss Reid were influential members of the Press, and several of the best known industrial and commercial family names appear in the list of early members: Fowler, Kitson, Lupton, Nussey. That influential membership clearly helped the society to prosper during its crucial early years, but much depended on the skill of the president, officers and council: Colonel Wilson was president for fifteen years; by 1893, G. D.Lumb (with a legal background) and Lt.-Col. Edwin Kitson Clark (a distinguished engineer) had become honorary secretaries, embarking on a lifetime of service to the society in various capacities.2 Along with local connections, the enduring loyalty of such men was a source of strength to the Thoresby Society; it was a fitting response to the charge given at the inaugural meeting by the first honorary treasurer, John Stansfeld: ‘What we want in the society is workers, not ornamentals.’


The society’s five objectives were clearly set down in the first constitution, adopted in July 1889: to collect and preserve books, manuscripts and other materials relating to the town and neighbourhood (my italics); to transcribe and publish local records; to prepare views and plans of historic buildings; to prepare and publish papers of historical, antiquarian, and biographical interest; to prepare a history of Leeds and take any action conducive to that end. To facilitate those activities, the officers and council soon accomplished the essential administrative tasks. They opened a bank account at once, bought a cash book, and sent a circular to would-be members asking for subscriptions; a seal, minute book, and register for members were obtained. They opened discussions with the Law Institution (later Society) and the corporation about the possible use of rooms, and they sent an advertisement for the society to the Press ― and to an American library periodical, an interestingly far-sighted action.
Mindful too of the society’s raison d’etre, they approached the authorities of the parish church for permission to transcribe the registers, and they pressed the corporation to undertake the necessary repairs to Kirkstall Abbey; twenty years later they sent a similar exhortation to the rector of Adel over the state of the church’s Norman portal.

In pursuit of the society’s objectives, Professor Ransome had drawn up an elaborate working scheme, with organised sections for research in a variety of subjects: local topography and buildings; churches; Kirkstall Abbey; manorial history; charities; genealogy; houses; industries; folk lore; archaeological sites; bibliography; the formation of a library; the transcription of documents. Some sections began work but within a few years it was apparent that in general this scheme was moribund, because it was too ambitious. Nevertheless, enthusiasts in at least three of the sections had achievements to their credit: a collection of photographic plates of Leeds sites was begun; the acquisition of local books and documents had started; and members had ventured on the task of transcribing important historical manuscripts. From the outset, publications were intended, and plans made during the society’s first year resulted in the appearance in print of the earlier registers of Leeds Parish Church, the registers of Adel up to 1812, Calverley charters, and two miscellanies of shorter documents and notes. In all, seven volumes were published during the first decade; E. Kitson Clark and G. D. Lumb were prominent amongst the editors and contributors.

Other early activities included occasional lectures and ― apparently more important ― excursions. For those, a committee was established in 1890, working on the strict understanding that excursions would be self-supporting. Fittingly, the first outdoor meeting was held at Kirkstall Abbey and was addressed by J. T. Micklethwaite, the scholarly architect in charge of the restoration; later excursions travelled out of town. During the 1890s, however, there was a heavy emphasis on the collection of books and other publications; Thoresby’s own copy of his Ducatus Leodiensis was purchased in 1893; and exchanges of publications were arranged with other societies pursuing similar interests in different parts of the country. Books, pictures and antiquarian objects belonging to the society or to individual members were displayed in 1894 at a conversazione (with music), the undoubted success of which raised the difficult question of a permanent home for the society. It had first used the Law Institute for meetings, then the Philosophical Hall, then a room at the Public Library, but a better prospect appeared in 1896. In that year the Thoresby and Yorkshire Archaeological Societies jointly secured a lease of the old Medical School at 10 Park Street to provide headquarters for both organisations: it was a major step forward, giving the society a centre for its growing collections and a base for its expanding activities.

The acquisition of its own home provided a boost to the society. Within five years the council felt able to join with the YAS in buying the whole of the premises for £3000 and accepting from its partner a loan towards the purchase price, a debt repaid within twenty years. The library for the use of members was steadily built up by purchase, gift and bequest; a book fund was established in 1903; the following year the society mounted a public exhibition of photographs of Leeds and prints of Kirkstall Abbey. To facilitate greater and more comfortable use of headquarters electric lighting was installed there in 1909. Excursions flourished: the society’s officers could justifiably claim that no visits had been repeated until after the sixty-third excursion. The publications multiplied and broadened in range. Between 1891 and 1916, twenty-three volumes were published; in addition to those already mentioned they included the grammar school admission books, West Riding wills, a history of Barwick-in-Elmet, registers of Methley and of Leeds chapelries, studies of West Riding place-names (by Professor F. W. Moorman), letters addressed to Ralph Thoresby, four miscellanies, the coucher book of Kirkstall Abbey, and its architectural history analysed by two nationally-known experts on historic buildings, W. H. St John Hope and John Bilson. Work done for all branches of the society’s activities was entirely voluntary, expenses were low, and with an annual income averaging some £250 the society was solvent, thanks in the main to increasing membership: 172 in 1889; 254 in 1894; 322 in 1900; 397 by 1912. Moreover, that membership included some of the most distinguished editors of manuscripts, and antiquarians of the day: W. P. Baildon, William Brown, J. W. Clay, W. T. Lancaster, Francis Collins, John Bilson, C. T. Clay (later Sir Charles Clay, FBA), G. D. Lumb, and E. Kitson Clark, who together with the historians Professors J. H. Clapham and A. J. Grant, formed a truly scholarly galaxy.

After twenty-five years of achievement, the onset of war in 1914 inevitably gave rise to difficulties and constraints for the society. The president, Archdeacon H. J. Hall, and Colonel Kitson Clark were called away for duty elsewhere, and there were casualties amongst the members. Perforce, the excursion programme came to a halt, and the total of members fell back to a little over 300. The publications continued but there were delays in completion; on the other hand, some reduction in expenditure led to an improved bank balance. In Leeds, as elsewhere, business as usual was attempted whenever possible. The society’s annual general meetings continued and were held in the Town Hall. The officers and council conducted much of their normal business: in 1917, for example, they bought a fireproof safe for the storage of manuscripts and accepted a gift from Dr Eddision of portable steps for use in the library. In a very different display of confidence, with an eye to the future, the president made two interesting suggestions at the AGMs in 1917 and 1918 respectively: first, he suggested that Leeds should have a genuinely local museum; on the second occasion he proposed that the society should organise public lectures for schoolchildren, in the hope of developing their interest in the past. Unfortunately, perhaps, neither proposal bore fruit.


After the war the Thoresby Society returned to normal as quickly as possible, and the inter-war years, despite difficulties, proved to be largely a period of consolidation, even accomplishment, rather than repose. From 1920, when Miss Emily Hargrave became librarian, the library expanded by gift and purchase and was more heavily used; in 1921 it benefited by a generous bequest from W. T. Lancaster, a retired bank manager and a distinguished editor of manuscripts. Four years later, the society and the YAS were tempted by a favourable offer to sell their joint property and part company. With its share of the proceeds, the society invested £2000, and for £900 it was able to purchase 16 Queen Square, the former home of William Boyne, a tobacco and snuff manufacturer, a sometime member, a notable antiquary, numismatist, and bibliographer. The library was a significant beneficiary of the new headquarters. There was more space for the collections; the shelving was re-arranged; the catalogue was updated and borrowing simplified.

There were other important developments. In 1929, a regular series of lectures was inaugurated: Percy Robinson, an architect, spoke about the city’s historic buildings; there were other lectures on customs and costumes, heraldry, and the diary of a Bramley scribbling miller. As the attendance, ranging from twenty-five to seventy, was deemed satisfactory the lecture series was continued during the 1930s but by no means all the chosen topics were connected with the Leeds district. Another venture began in 1930-31 with the launch of a Roman research committee, linked with the Yorkshire Archaeological Society; inspired, no doubt, by Col. Kitson Clark and led by his daughter, Mary (later Mrs Derwas Chitty, and a vice-president), it was the society’s first official project in archaeology and undertook the search for the Roman camp at Adel, but slow and uncertain progress was subsequently reported. The society’s excursions, however, flourished during the 1930s, benefiting from the expert knowledge and lecturing skill of Professor A. Hamilton Thompson, FBA (president 1934-39), an authority on the history and architecture of castles, monasteries and churches. He had already made an invaluable contribution to the publications with his substantial monograph on the history and buildings of Bolton Priory, one of several important single items issued between the wars, despite delays (and unhampered by the rise in costs which by the early 1930s reached £150 - £200 per volume); these included documents relating to the woollen industry (1780-1820), more local wills, extracts from eighteenth-century Leeds newspapers and, above all, the first court book of Leeds corporation, 1662-1705. All these publications, as well as more miscellanies with their mixture of short documents and brief historical notes on an astonishing variety of subjects, met ― if belatedly ― the exhortation of the Lord Mayor, Charles Lupton, in 1916 to publish ‘something less dull and statistical’ than previously. Nevertheless, the society continued to publish its series of parochial and chapelry registers, of whose historical value Mr Lupton seems to have had an imperfect appreciation. In all, although the pace of publication had slowed somewhat since its earlier years, the society had issued thirty-eight very useful volumes by 1938, including the first part of a new miscellany, a total which reflected considerable credit on its various (and numerous) contributors and editors, especially the indefatigable G. D. Lumb.3

By the time of its golden jubilee (1889-1939), the society had, therefore, much to celebrate but there were two threatening clouds on the horizon. Despite the continuity of publication, the undoubted popularity of the excursions, and the attractions of the lecture programme, the number of members fell from almost 400 in the 1920s to only 284 in 1938. It is not easy to be sure of an explanation for the decline but several factors might have adversely affected recruitment: economic difficulties; easier travel by public transport or car; the attractions of other leisure time amenities, notably the cinema and the wireless. Besides, difficulties over membership paled into insignificance in face of the international crisis and the approach of war. Consequently, the planned jubilee celebration ― in the form of an ‘At Home and Reception’ in the Brotherton Library, arranged for the 29 September 1939 ― had to be cancelled, but a ‘jubilee review’, written to mark the occasion by another of the society’s stalwarts, W. B. Crump, was distributed to members. Significantly, and wisely, that paper ended with a call for more younger members and for new avenues of research in local history.


No major initiatives were likely to be possible in wartime conditions but although the society’s activities were ― inevitably ― seriously affected during the war years from 1939 to 1945 they were not totally disrupted. Some individuals were able to continue private work on potential publications. Lectures were held on Saturday afternoons to avoid the restrictions of the blackout. From 1942, tea was provided at the lectures, an innovation which apparently met with cordial approval, although the officers found that wartime shortages made it difficult to buy crockery. Only local excursions could be organised, a constraint which had the advantage of stirring up interest in nearby places otherwise easily overlooked. To protect the collections, fire fighting equipment was obtained, and air raid precautions were observed, but fortunately the library sustained no damage in the aerial attacks on the city. Initially, use of the library was much diminished but members’ visits increased markedly from 1942; by then the new card catalogue had been completed, and more shelving obtained, to permit some re-organisation of the collection. Finally, the need for recording and conservation stimulated other worthwhile activities: Mr J. Sprittles ( a future president) began his inventory of church plate belonging to the parish church and the chapelries of the historic parish of Leeds; volunteers undertook a survey of all the parochial records in the deanery and a record of monumental inscriptions in the oldest churches; other members checked and amended the National Buildings Record’s list of historic buildings in the city. By thus concentrating on what could be undertaken even amidst wartime stringencies, and enjoying the continuing services of devoted office holders, the society was able to preserve some momentum and thereby attain a modest but steady growth in membership, which rose from 259 in 1940 to 298 in 1945.4


In common with numerous other organisations, the Thoresby Society experienced during the post-war years a period of both continuity and change. It was quick off the mark with publicity for its work; a new leaflet setting out the rules was made available; electric radiators were installed at the headquarters for the comfort of members using the library; a catalogue of manuscripts was completed; more elaborate excursions were organised; the lectures attracted larger audiences and were moved to a bigger meeting-room adjacent to the headquarters. The early emphasis on recruitment paid off: the total of members rose to 345 in 1946 and reached 452 in 1949. In the latter year, the society celebrated its diamond jubilee in proper style: a special lecture; a dinner; a service in Leeds Parish Church; an exhibition in the Art Gallery; and the publication of the first in a series of monographs, a study of the Regency architect, Thomas Taylor.

These celebrations provided the opportunity for a review of the society’s achievements and its future plans. In the light of increased expenditure (to about £400 p.a.) and the possibility of resuming regular publications (with their attendant costs), it was agreed in 1950 to raise the annual subscription from 10s.6d. to 15s., the first increase since 1889. That fee remained fixed for a decade, but thereafter inflation took its toll, and expenditure rose inexorably, from roughly £500 by 1960 to £1900 by 1970 and £4600 in 1981. Fortunately, the society’s funds remained in surplus because it attracted a steady stream of new members: the total exceeded 500 in 1971 for the first time and reached 528 in 1986. Nevertheless, after 1960 the council deemed it prudent to secure repeated increases in the subscription rate: £1 1s. (1961); £1 10s. (1965); £2.50 (1974); £4 (1978); £6 (1982), rising to £10 before the end of the 1980s. Apart from general administrative expenditure and the ever rising cost of publication, the extra funds were required to meet the expense of the society’s headquarters, adversely affected by changed circumstances.

From 1962, Queen Square faced the threat of demolition and re-development at an unspecified date. In order to resolve the uncertainty the council decided that it must begin the search for new premises, no easy task in the context of the time. Various possibilities were pursued without success, including an imaginative scheme to house several learned societies in a building within the precincts of the university, a project for which the necessary financial backing was not forthcoming. With its headquarters under ‘planning blight’, the society’s position looked serious for some time, and the city council offered no help. Fortunately, and coincidentally, the Yorkshire Archaeological Society decided to move from Park Place, and through the good sense of the officers involved the two societies collaborated in the search for a building to house both organisations. Ultimately the choice fell on Claremont, a listed building of some distinction, where the society became a tenant of the YAS in September 1968. The removal of the library, furniture , and other effects from Queen Square to its rented rooms in Claremont was smoothly accomplished by a team of volunteers with little or no dislocation of the society’s activities, which had continued on an undiminished scale during the years of uncertainty. The move to the new headquarters was an important development, although the loss of the society’s independent base was regretted, and the financial (and other) obligations of tenancy had to be met. 5

The new circumstances, on balance, probably gave encouragement to an already thriving society, which also benefited from the rapidly growing interest in serious local history all over the country, a most welcome aspect of the times. With the growth in membership, the library was more heavily used, and the lecture programme attracted larger audiences, though there was some falling-off in support for excursions by coach, probably because of the cost, and the expansion of car ownership. From 1974, there was an annual members’ evening, held near Christmas; with short talks and seasonal refreshments it immediately became a popular event.

The revived publications programme after the war continued the series of miscellanies as well as the extracts from local newspapers, but there were important innovations too, with a wider range of subjects as the society was able to profit from the expanding scale of historical research, amateur and professional alike. The nature of the miscellanies changed, to comprise a small number of longer, more substantial articles instead of a multiplicity of short notes. To complement earlier work, studies of the excavations at Kirkstall Abbey and Pontefract Priory appeared, as well as an edition of the Kirkstall chronicles and a general account of the abbey’s history. Two fundamentally important volumes of primary sources were published, presenting records of the manor and borough of Leeds from 1066 to 1662 (issued, let it be said, with no financial assistance from the corporation).

A greater emphasis on monographs produced other important publications, among them a descriptive catalogue of local maps and plans, an account of a Victorian social reformer, works on Georgian public buildings and on Victorian church life, and Professor Maurice Beresford’s magnificent study of the city’s topography, East End, West End. Attempts to encourage sales to the public by converting offprints to booklets had mixed results, but a wallet of maps with annotations proved popular. More generally, it should be recorded that the standard and prestige of the publications have enabled the society to secure funds from national grant-giving foundations.


The Thoresby Society can record a hundred years of notable achievements. In its library it has a splendid collection of books and other materials, printed and unprinted. It has served the community by providing exhibitions, lending items from its collections, and presenting public lectures. The impressively varied contents of its publications amount to an indispensable ‘library of Leeds’. Members have enjoyed the educational and social pleasures of imaginatively organised excursions ― 432 of them by the centenary year. The lectures have been for the members a source of intellectual stimulus, interest, mutual assistance, and a sense of fellowship with others holding common interests.
In short, at its centenary the Thoresby Society can fairly claim to have fulfilled the hopes expressed in the first annual report by its founders and become a ‘permanent and valuable addition to the institutions of the Borough of Leeds’.


  1     For illuminating accounts of these aspects of the development of historical studies, see: Charles Dellheim, The Face of the Past (Cambridge, 1982); Philippa Levine, The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquarians, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838-1886 (Cambridge, 1986); Stuart Piggott, Ruins in a Landscape (Edinburgh, 1976), chap. IX.
  2     Details of many of the leading office holders will be found in the obituaries mentioned in the Indexes listed in the note on sources at the end of this article.
  3      Mr Lumb died in August 1939, shortly after completing another piece of work.
  4     It should be noted that successive presidents died in office during the war, Colonel Kitson Clark in April 1943 and Professor A. S. Turberville in May 1945.
  5      The society was able to sell Queen Square in 1986.

Notes on Sources

The main sources for this lecture are the unpublished minutes of the society’s council, and the Annual Reports prepared for the annual general meetings; they are in the society’s library. Detailed lists of the contents of the society’s publications will be found in: Jubilee Index to the Publications of the Thoresby Society 1889-1939 (1941); Index to the Publications of the Thoresby Society, volumes XXXVII-LI, 1939-68 (1968); Index to the Publications of the Thoresby Society: Publications issued from 1969-2004 (2006).


This article first appeared in the Centenary Edition, 1989 Miscellany, Publications of the Thoresby Society, LXIV (Leeds, 2008)