William Boyne (1815-1893)
Collector, Writer, Antiquarian

William Boyne (1815-1893)As you go out of Headingley on the Otley Road towards Lawnswood, you see on your left, opposite Shaw Lane, the St Anne’s Parade of shops with the Beckett Park estate of houses behind, built in the 1930s. A century ago the scene here was very different – tall trees lined the main road, and behind them lay the secluded grounds of a large old house called ‘Woodlands’, which was demolished to make way for the Beckett Park houses. Just past the Parade, a wooded, curving driveway led into the grounds through well-tended, landscaped gardens, past an ornamental lake with islands. The house, originally called Boyne House, was built in 1849 by William Boyne, well known in his day as a collector, antiquarian and writer.

William was born in a house in St Peter’s Square, Leeds, in 1815, the son of Thomas Boyne, a prosperous tobacco and snuff manufacturer with a thriving business in town. The family moved later to elegant Queen’s Square, then in 1826 to a new house in Little Woodhouse, which Thomas called Virginia Cottage in honour of the source of his tobacco. (The house survives as part of Lyddon Hall on the Leeds University campus). When William married in 1842 he moved back to Queen’s Square, but his young wife Ann died only two years later and he was left alone. From then on he embarked on frequent long tours abroad, travelling all over Europe and North Africa, sometimes with his sister.

Although still involved in the tobacco business, his passion lay elsewhere, in studying and amassing a huge collection (over thirty thousand) of historic coins and tradesmen’s tokens – he wrote several books on the subject and won the coveted FSA (Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries). Every week he hosted meetings at Queen’s Square of a small group of keen antiquarians who shared his interests. He was an enthusiastic early member of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society and after a visit to Egypt donated various items, including a mummified crocodile, to their museum (still in the museum collection). He built up an extensive library and published a definitive bibliography of books on Yorkshire. His interest in books and local history led him to embark on a life-long project to collect all kinds of original material – pictures, manuscripts, documents – on the history of Leeds to supplement and illustrate the work of the earlier historians, Ralph Thoresby and T.D.Whitaker.

In 1849, after his father’s sudden death in Paris, he used his new wealth to move to Headingley, buying land from Lord Cardigan, the main landowner, opposite Shaw Lane. There he built Boyne House and lavished money on its furnishings and fittings, commissioning stained glass windows with heraldic panels to his own design, and filling it with his collections of books, coins, and rare objects. He bought extra land, including fields (later nursery gardens and now allotments) on the corner of St Anne’s Road, and laid out gardens of ‘an artistic beauty only known to a limited few’. But it seems he became disillusioned with life here, and felt that Headingley was being spoilt by all the new building which followed the enclosure of the Moor, threatening his seclusion. He sold the house and all its magnificent contents in 1853 and moved away, first to London, then for a time Natal in South Africa, and finally to Florence where he lived until his death in 1893, never returning to Leeds.

He left two reminders behind him which the city still possesses, part of its historical heritage. Some panels of the heraldic glass he commissioned for Boyne House are in the collection of the City Museum – you can see them in the Collectors’ Gallery (other panels belong to the Thoresby Society); and his magnificent collection of original material relating to the history of Leeds, in seven volumes, is in the Leeds Local Studies Library collection, bought for the city by a far-sighted librarian over a century ago for £170, and one of the Library’s unique treasures.

Eveleigh Bradford
September 2009