Ralph Thoresby and his Society

The Leeds local history society was designated the Thoresby Society on the day of its official launch, 10 July1889. On that occasion, according to the Leeds Mercury, 'a large and representative gathering of leading townspeople' assembled in the library of the Philosophical Hall. They were all interested in 'the collection and preservation of books and other objects relating to Leeds etc, the history of its inhabitants, and the preparation and publication of papers on subjects of historical and antiquarian interest'. Although the aims of the new society will have been familiar enough, the name finally chosen had been a subject for discussion, and had originally been proposed (and rejected) at an earlier public meeting. At this definitive July meeting the name 'Thoresby Society' was reinstated, on the grounds that it would do honour to 'one of the greatest worthies Leeds had known'.

Ralph Thoresby (1658 - 1725), the first historian of Leeds, published his principal book, Ducatus Leodiensis, in 1715. Despite the book's title, our area was never a dukedom, but Thoresby's fiction allowed him to extend his study well beyond the wide boundary of the borough. The subject was defined in the sub-title, which referred to the topography of Leeds and adjacent parts of the West Riding. Further historical topics would have been covered by a second volume, had Thoresby lived to complete it, but as it stands, the Ducatus throws light on many aspects of local history in combination with topography. The book gave our area its place in the long sequence of writings on British local history which had been inspired by Camden's Britannia (1586). Thoresby was the son of a cloth merchant, but trade interested him much less than historical and topographical studies. Fortunately he inherited just enough money to allow him to detach himself gradually from commerce. From his youth, business and pleasure took him on remarkably wide-ranging travels. His journeys covered the southern part of Scotland, northern England, and the midlands, and he spent considerable stretches of time in London. Throughout his life he inspected buildings and earthworks, researched pedigrees by recording funerary inscriptions, and formed his famous Museum by adding a wide variety of 'curiosities' to the coin collection he had inherited from his father. Through his studies of Roman remains he was elected to the Royal Society. He corresponded with an enormous list of fellow scholars throughout the country. Most have now been forgotten, but among them were John Ray the botanist and John Evelyn the diarist. Thoresby's Yorkshire friends included Thomas Kirk of Cookridge Hall, and their shared interest in local records is commemorated in the registers of Kirk's parish church, Adel, which record unusual demographic detail between 1685 and 1705.

Thoresby's name gave the new society at least two benefits. First, the name conveyed a certain prestige. It recalled the Surtees Society founded in Durham in 1834, and the Chetham Society (Lancashire and Cheshire) of ten years later. Both of these societies published serious historic material. For this reason the name probably appealed to the enthusiastic lawyers, clergymen and academics who composed the first Council. But more importantly, perhaps, the name was useful shorthand for the scope of the Society. It saved the need for a mouthful of a title, such as the Leeds and District Antiquarian and Historical Society. Thoresby's name gave a wide coverage in terms both of subject matter and of geography. Almost all the subjects which interested the founders of the Society had interested Thoresby. In addition to transcribing records, the founders stated their intention to investigate a vast list of topics. These subjects included: boundaries, manorial history, street names, old houses, churches, monasteries, charities, Leeds trade, Roman remains, genealogy, bibliography and folk-lore. Geographically, the scope covered by Thoresby was also sufficiently wide, extending far beyond the boundaries of the borough of Leeds, which in 1889 were those of the medieval parish. The still-rural hinterland was of great interest to many members, whether or not they lived within the borough. Thoresby's name provided an umbrella of the very highest quality. And the scope of the Society today remains remarkably unchanged.

Ann Alexander