The compass, the king and the stories we tell
New University gallery brings hidden treasures into public view.Scroll
IIt must have been a strange moment for Bertram Ratcliffe when he met the king. A telegram arrived – even advising which train he should take – and he was on his way to tell stories of his First World War service to George V himself. His story was unique: he was the first British prisoner of war to escape and make it home.
Captured early in the war, Ratcliffe was sent to Ingolstadt in Bavaria after being wounded at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. His friends at home never stopped trying to help him, and one even tried unsuccessfully to send him a map of Bavaria hidden in a sardine tin. Eventually, his mother managed to smuggle a compass to him in a tin of Harrogate toffee, and when the chance arose in 1917 he made his escape all the way back to England.
The compass, sardine tin, map and invitation to Buckingham Palace survive to tell Ratcliffe’s story in the University’s Special Collections. Now, they’re on display in the University’s new Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery..
Ratcliffe’s effects are among the stand-out features of the Liddle Collection, the archive of objects, letters, manuscripts and books relating mainly to the First World War which sits in the Brotherton Library’s Special Collections. It’s one of five major collections at Leeds to be given Designated Status by Arts Council England, along with English Literature, the Leeds Russian Archive, the Romany Collection and Cookery Collection. These five key areas form the heart of the new gallery, which showcases some of the most exciting pieces from more than 200,000 printed books and hundreds of thousands of manuscript and archival items held in the Special Collections.
“Choosing what to display has been difficult,” says Dr Stella Butler, University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection. “We wanted to represent each of our five Designated Collections as well as the richness and diversity of our collections. At the same time, we’ve wrapped around this a bigger story about how we pass on our stories and our memories from generation to generation.”
Maps, sardine tin and a compass associated with Bertram Ratcliffe, 1917. On display in the Treasures Gallery.
A ‘British Library of the North’
The growth of Special Collections can be traced back to Lord Brotherton – Bertram Ratcliffe’s uncle – at whose expense the Brotherton Library was built, opening in 1936. After his death, the University received his huge collection of rare books and manuscripts, and independent funding provided by both he and his family has supported its expansion ever since.
Lord Brotherton’s ambition was to develop a “British Library of the North”, and from the earliest days his own collection had a clear connection to the region: when his niece was disappointed after they missed out on a manuscript of the Wakefield mystery plays in 1922, he bought a copy of Miscellaneous Poems (1681) by the Hull MP and poet Andrew Marvell. At the same time, he always saw the potential of his collections as a national resource and amassed them at a spectacular rate during the 1920s.
Over the years, the collections have expanded across periods and places. Now thanks to a generous private donation from the Brotherton-Ratcliffe family – relatives of Lord Brotherton and Bertram Ratcliffe – and National Lottery players through a £1.4 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Treasures Gallery allows the University to make them more open and accessible than ever before.
“We’re keen to work with our academic colleagues on our exhibitions, and we’re also keen to involve our community,” says Dr Butler. “By bringing the best of the Special Collections out of the library and practically to the front door of the University, we have the chance to bring them together and spark that conversation.”
A range of events is planned to open up the gallery to the wider community, from craft workshops to public talks and ‘Tuesday Treasure’ – a weekly lunchtime drop-in session where visitors can speak to Special Collections specialists about – and get up close to – selected objects from the collections. Alongside The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, also housed in the Parkinson Building, the Treasures Gallery will jointly host exciting special events for festivals such as Museums at Night, Light Night and many more.
From a receipt for barley carved on a 4,500-year-old Babylonian tablet – the oldest item in the Cookery Collection – to a 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, a draft manuscript in the hand of a 14-year-old Felix Mendelssohn and production files from the West Yorkshire Playhouse Archive, the gallery demonstrates some of the scale and diversity of Special Collections. But even as objects are replaced and rotated in the coming months and years, it will represent a tiny percentage of the Library’s current holdings. It’s hoped that it will encourage people to get involved and explore more of what the collections have to offer.
Telling different stories
As well as its permanent exhibitions, the Treasures Gallery will house two temporary exhibitions each year using additional material from Special Collections. Until July 30th, that means visitors will be able to catch On Conscientious Grounds: Objection and Resistance in the First World War, which focuses on those who refused to fight in the First World War.
Next month marks 100 years since conscription was introduced in Britain, aimed at swelling the dwindling ranks fighting in Flanders and beyond. On Conscientious Grounds draws on the wealth of archive and manuscript material in the Liddle Collection to examine the experiences of those who refused to take part in military service. Considering their different political, religious and ideological objections, it also reflects on how they were treated both during and after the war and the support networks that helped and encouraged them.
“We wanted to do something different as part of our Legacies of War First World War commemorations that would also showcase our resources,” explains Dr Butler. “We have extensive archives relating to the Quakers in the Special Collections, many of whom were conscientious objectors on religious grounds.
“Conscientious objectors were often seen as cowards, but they were extremely brave to question the purpose of violence and refuse to fight. Many served in non-combat roles, and others were sent to prison or suffered in other ways.”
It’s this opportunity to tell rich and diverse stories that makes the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery so exciting for the University. Showcasing just some of the Brotherton Library’s resources, it brings together the lives and experiences of people from different times and places: from the teenage Mendelssohn to Wole Soyinka, who smuggled poems written on toilet paper out of a Nigerian prison; from the escaped prisoner of war to those who refuse to fight.
As it continues to pass on Lord Brotherton’s legacy, it will help to convey those memories and experiences to future generations.
Visit the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery from Monday 1 February, open Mondays 1pm – 5pm & Tuesday-Saturday 10am – 5pm. Admission is free. For more information, see www.library.leeds.ac.uk/treasures.