Notes from the Library (No. 5, December 2012)

thoresbys house

Plate 1: Water-colour of the junction of Kirkgate and Vicar Lane, c. 1850, with Thoresby’s house.

In the Thoresby Society Library there is a small collection of material relating to the house in Kirkgate that Ralph Thoresby inherited from his father, John Thoresby, in 1679, and where he lived for the rest of his life. Earliest of these is a plan of the property (on tracing paper; not reproduced here) with an accompanying key, which is said to have been copied from one made by a Mr Wilson at ‘about the date of R. Thoresby’s will’ – that is, sometime around 1724; though the copy the Society possesses was made on 19 November 1889. ‘Mr Wilson’ is almost certainly Thoresby’s nephew, Richard Wilson, who was involved in the selling of the house.

The Society also possesses two carved wooden date boards and a short section of half-balusters from the house, at present on loan to the City Museum.

date board

Plate 2: The date board for 1653 taken by R.W. Moore from a gable at the back of the house, facing Vicar Lane. According to the label, the date relates to alterations to the Library.

The best-known items in the collection are the water-colour of about 1850 (Plate 1) and the four pencil sketches done by W.A. Hobson in February 1878, a month or less before the house was demolished (Plates 3-5 and Plate 7 on inserted sheet). The last of the items, ‘Memorandums respecting Ralph Thoresby’ (printed in full on the inserted sheet), is a very brief life of Thoresby followed by a longer description of his house, probably made at about the same time as the sketches, or soon after.

In 1878, Thoresby’s house was owned by Major Richard William Moore, ‘Major’ because of his involvement with the Leeds Engineer Volunteers. Moore was one of Chantrell’s assistants in the building of the new Parish Church and he later set up his own architectural practice. He designed and built 3-5 Woodhouse Square (now Swarthmore), and having married the daughter of the gentleman who had bought No. 3, he moved in and lived there until his death in 1891. He was involved in the discovery of the Leeds Anglo-Saxon cross when the old Parish Church was being demolished, and involved also in its restoration to Leeds from its temporary position as a garden ornament at Chantrell’s house in Rottingdean, near Brighton. (Moore’s watercolour of the cross is in the Society’s library.) It was from him that the two wooden date boards and the balusters came into the Society’s possession.

In his book on the history of the Parish Church (published in 1877), Moore offers to show anyone interested around the house. We do not know how many people took up his offer, but fortunately, at the very last minute, Hobson did so, and left us unique glimpses of the house just before its demolition.

Sketches by W.A. Hobson. February 1878

drawing room

Plate 3: ‘Thoresby’s Drawing Room’, showing the groined ceiling and the early eighteenth-century fireplace; and ‘Old Chimney Stack , erected in 1678 – the first in Leeds’.

thoresby back view in yard

Plate 4: ‘Back View in Yard’ showing the mullioned and transomed windows on the ground and first floors.of what is clearly a timber-framed (or ‘post and pan’) house.

thoresbys house interior

Plate 5: Four interior views of Thoresby’s house: 1.’ Stairs to Observatory’; 2. ‘Thoresby Study’; 3. ‘post & pan work to Drawing Room’; 4. ‘old Dormer Window of Study

The Hobson sketches are the best evidence we have for the inside of the building, but they were clearly made, as is so often the case, with the threat of demolition hanging over them and consequently do not show the building to its best advantage. Nevertheless we can see the groined ceiling and the fireplace in the drawing room, the wooden construction of the walls and the internal stairs (brief and simple though they are), which give a hint of the house as it once was.

The plan (not reproduced here) seems to offer a clear idea of the ground plan of the buildings and the garden, but it is difficult to tie in with the Samuel Buck sketch of the garden and the surrounding buildings (British Library Lansdowne MS 914), which was informatively redrawn by Peter Brears in Journal of the History of Collections, 1989. The position of the well is clearly marked, however, and the garden at the back of the property alongside Piper or Pepper Alley, which runs off Vicar Lane. These are both named; otherwise the areas are marked with letters which relate to a key, but again more work is needed on interpretation.

The ‘Memorandums’ appear to have been compiled after the demolition of the house and from a variety of sources, including the unknown writer’s own observations (not perhaps always reliable) and R.W. Moore’s history of the Parish Church. Another of the sources would appear to be ‘this journal’ that is referred to. In the middle of the fifth page of the ‘Memorandums’ is the pencil note ‘These papers recd from Stephens, Feb 23/91’. H. Morse Stephens was, at that time, the secretary of the Thoresby Society and Librarian of the Leeds Library, and it seems very likely that this note refers to him. If so, it could be that one of the sources, perhaps the ‘journal’, was in the Leeds Library – possibly one of the Wilson manuscripts that R.V. Taylor lists in the Supplement to his Biographia Leodiensis (p. 589)..

One further relevant document exists in the Society’s Library: a letter from T.P. Teale to William Gott (dated 21 Nov 1851) referring to a sketch, ‘enclosed’, of Thoresby’s house. Unfortunately the sketch is no longer enclosed, but it could well be the water-colour (Plate 1). According to the letter, Teale’s father lived in the house at some time and Teale is specific about which house is Thoresby’s: ‘the low square-topped brick building …the fourth above Vicar Lane.’ (i.e. No.18 in Plate 7).

2015 will be the tercentenary of the publication of the Ducatus Leodiensis, written in the study of this house. Even putting all these pieces of evidence together, and including the sketch by Samuel Buck it is not possible to reconstruct fully the inside and outside appearance of Thoresby’s house. Nevertheless they do create a feeling of it, and also give a sense of how those people who were first concerned with Leeds antiquities viewed this tumble-down relic – just enough to record, not quite enough to preserve. Does this somehow sound familiar?

© Peter Meredith and the Thoresby Society

distant view of Thoresbys house

Plate 6: A rather more distant view of Thoresby’s house, marked 14; detail from Samuel Buck’s East View of Leeds, 1720.


Memorandums respecting Ralph Thoresby, and description of his House.

(Thoresby Society MS Box IV, item 33)

thoresbys house

Plate 7: Ralph Thoresby’s House as identified in 1878. The house on the left has ‘Fourness 17’ above the window, the two in the middle are ’18 Wormald’ and ‘Cooke [18a]’, and the right-hand shop is ‘Peniston 19’.

‘He was born in Kirkgate in the house belonging to his father, John Thoresby, which was situate on the north side of the street then called Kirk Gate on the 16th. day of August 1658, & where he died on the 16th. October 1725, aged 67. He was a member of the Leeds’ Corporation, was a learned antiquarian and a noted historian. He wrote the history of Leeds called “Ducatus Leodiensis”, published in 1715 (folio), and a celebrated diary in which he describes his house, museum, &c. There is an interesting monument to his memory in the Parish Church – for further particulars of which, see Moore’s History of the Parish Church of Leeds, published in 1877. On it is recorded that in addition to his being a historian & antiquarian “he was a good & humble Christian. He was educated a non-conformist, but in the wisdom of his maturer years was guided to seek the Church. Within her fold he attended with salutary diligence the ordinances of our holy faith. Hence he was able to dispense the benefits of a respected example & to receive the blessings of that pure & undefiled religion which led him to visit the fatherless & widow in their affliction & to keep himself unspotted from the world”.

The deeds of the property date back as far as William & Mary, which with others are in possession of Major Moore, one of the present owners thereof .

On a beam behind the property is or was a date, worked out of the solid oak, of 1508,1 C.C. time of Hen. VII, which is still preserved. He lived during & through the troublesome times of the Charles’s & Oliver Cromwell – see an account in his Journal. There is every reason to believe that the house to the front was 2 stories high with high gabled attics. The 1st. floor projected some 2 feet or more over the basement, had a handsome door on the west side. The dining room to the front had two large mullioned, transomed bay windows. There was also a large entrance hall & another good-sized room to the left thereof; the kitchen & other offices extending backwards to the north. On the 1st. floor was a splendid drawing-room with a handsome groined ceiling springing from columns in the angles. It had 2 handsome mullioned windows over the lower ones & it had therein an antique fireplace, grate, Dutch tiles &c. The library was over the back sitting or breakfast room. There was a small but very snug room in the western gable which he used as his study and in which he wrote the “History of Leeds”. It was connected with his observatory, from which he could see, westward, across Briggate as far as Kirkstall Abbey, along the meanderings of the River Aire, and the country between, & beyond, Bramley, Acorn Hill, Idle &c. His museum was behind & over the kitchens, stables, &c, & from the gable end of which, looking north, Sheepscar, Roundhay, Gipton woods could be seen. It was a “post & pan” building supported by massive angle posts, & had a very massive oak roof. There was a large garden leading out into “Pepper Alley” & into Vicar Lane. There was a splendid spring of spa water therein – much thought of it, along with other similar springs. It has now disappeared. There are one or two yet in existence & known as the “Holbeck Spa Water”, & which is at the present time carried far & near by the Holbeck Spa Water cart.

The house nearest to Vicar Lane was the one most recently occupied by Ralph Thoresby – now rebuilt & occupied by Lipton & Co., provision dealers &c. No. 18.2 The other house, now in the occupation of Fourness & Son, chemists, was occupied by Thoresby Senior. It is a ‘post & pan’ building & has a good old black oak staircase therein, has a bold overhanging eaves & a massive oak roof. It had projecting windows in front, mullioned & transomed, also at the back thereof – part yet remains.

Thoresby made his will 4th. day of October 1724 duly attested by Thos. Allanson, Christopher Hebblethwaite & John Lucas in the 11th. year of good George the First. The probate thereof is in good preservation, a copy of which appears in another portion of this journal.3 At this period, this portion of Kirkgate & Vicar Lane was the best part of the town. Vicar Lane took its name from the Vicar’s house, & surrounding gardens being therein, it still retained the name of Vicar’s Croft. There were numerous wood-framed buildings therein & around. In the immediate neighbourhood, nearly opposite Thoresby’s house, stood the Infirmary. It is still to be seen up the court. It is now occupied as cottages & warehouses. The prison was also on the same side; & under the archway, which carried the steps to the upper portion, stood the “stocks”. The public bakehouse was on the opposite side, now the site of the “Golden Cock” public house. There was the old Rotation Office and ancient Arian Chapel, & other quaint old buildings. Many of the old ‘post & pan’ buildings remain between Briggate & the Golden Cock archway, but have sham fronts to modernise them. Crossing Briggate, you see a good specimen in the House & Shop, also the “Bay Horse Inn” (2 doors from Commercial St.) with the date 1511 thereupon. Until recently there were several others, in Briggate & elsewhere, notably the Fleece Inn, the “Angel”, Col. Loyd’s house, Crosby Hall in Lower-head Row, & many on both sides of Upperhead Row – also in Marsh Lane, Meadow Lane, Water Lane, Swinegate.

In the ancient views of Leeds taken from Beeston Hill, also from Knowsthorpe, there are only 2 churches shown, viz. the Parish Church, & St. John’s, & Thoresby’s house is shown as having a lofty observatory on the roof.’

1 This is odd since the house was built by Thoresby’s grandfather, c.1608.

2 It is not clear from the document which house is being referred to as ‘No.18’, but ‘Fourness’ is clearly the occupier of No. 17 in the drawing.

3 It is uncertain what the writer is referring to. Possibly one of Thomas Wilson’s many writings.