Looking forward through Yorkshire’s past with archive’s new home


A unique collection of manuscripts, archives and books relating to Yorkshire’s history has a new home at the University of Leeds.

The Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society Collection (YAHS), probably the largest single resource for research on Yorkshire’s past outside the British Library, has been entrusted to the University’s Special Collections on long-term loan.

With items dating from the 12th century among its 45,000-plus works, the collection reflects the society’s dedication to the study of Yorkshire’s archaeology, history and society over more than 150 years. 

The archive, a catalogue of which is being made available online, fills more than a third of a mile (550m) of University of Leeds library shelves. Its highlights include the document that signalled the end of the Battle of Waterloo, in the Duke of Leeds Collection, and letters patent of Queen Elizabeth I, adorned with a delicately drawn and brightly coloured portrait of the monarch and with the Queen’s seal still attached by silver cords.

Special collections3Heraldry: Detail from a 17th century volume of arms belonging to the Horsley family of York

Other items of international importance include the Wakefield Court Rolls, which were included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Memory of the World register in 2011. The 670 rolls provide records of society and industry in the West Riding from 1274 to 1925. 

University Librarian Dr Stella Butler said: “This is an important moment for both organisations, representing a strong partnership which will safeguard historical material of international importance.

“It is an impressive collection of manuscript and printed material built up by the Society over more than 150 years and it has a broad appeal to researchers in many areas of history, providing a rich and varied resource for local, family, architectural, economic, social, religious and landscape history.

“We are honoured to be custodians of it on behalf of the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society.”

Dr Gill Cookson is the society's President, and also an Honorary Research Fellow in the University’s School of History.

The partnership with Leeds University Library promises to bring our collections to wider notice around the world.

Dr Gill Cookson, YAHS President

She added: “Academic researchers and anyone interested in Yorkshire history will now be able to explore the society’s archive in the University Library Special Collections reading room. The YAHS library will be shelved in a special Yorkshire section at the Brotherton Library.”

YAHS continues to build its collections. A new set of documents bought at auction last February complements one of the jewels of the YAHS archive, the original George Walker images published in 1814 as The Costume of Yorkshire. 

Joanne Fitton, Head of the University’s Special Collections, said: “The collections provide a fantastic unique resource that is accessible to students and academics in the University and we welcome the new opportunities this brings for teaching and research.

“The Special Collections reading room is open to all members of the public and the resources of the YAHS will encourage more people to visit our service for the first time.”

Special Collections2

A 1683 book of medicinal and culinary recipes by Margaret Savile containing “An excellent recipe to get a good husband”

The archive contains major family and estate documents, original records of all kinds and secondary manuscript material such as antiquarian notes, heraldry, pedigrees, transcripts and copies of documents, drafts, notes and reports. 

It is being released to the public in stages, with the first items now available to view. These include the Wakefield Court Rolls, the diverse Bradfer-Lawrence Collection, and the Ralph Thoresby Collection of correspondence from the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The society began to acquire books and manuscripts for its members to consult in the 1860s. Today it continues to promote the study of Yorkshire’s past through talks, excursions and publications. The collection has been relocated from the society’s base at nearby Claremont, in Clarendon Road.

• A catalogue of the contents has just gone online at library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-yorkshire-archaeological-society. Details about how to visit Special Collections and view items is available here. Please note that 24 hours advance notice is required to access YAHS material.

A sample of items from 150 years of collecting

  • A register of deaths of prisoners in York Castle which records the execution of notorious highwayman Dick Turpin in 1739 
  • Heraldry: Detail from a 17th century volume of arms belonging to the Horsley family of York, herald painters
  • Outstanding early maps, including ones of Silsden and Brunthwaite (c.1612) and Knaresborough (1629)
  • Rare and intricate drawings by pioneering naturalist Dr Martin Lister (1639-1712), credited as the first arachnologist and conchologist, specialising in spiders and molluscs, respectively 
  • An 1828 letter from Charles Carroll, the last surviving signatory of the American Declaration of Independence, to his grand-daughter Marianne Caton, sister-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, and to Francis Osbourne, 7th Duke of Leeds 
  • The vast Duke of Leeds collection also includes the Battle of Waterloo surrender papers and a letter from Wellington to Carroll setting out the need for a special relationship between Britain and the USA
  • The 15th century Fountains Abbey stock book, recording animals kept on the abbey’s granges (farms) on Malham moor and elsewhere
  • A 1683 book of medicinal and culinary recipes by Margaret Savile containing “An excellent recipe to get a good husband” 
  • George Walker’s famous 39 watercolours of local scenes and people which were published in 1814 as The Costume of Yorkshire 
  • Many records of manorial courts, including those of Skelton, in North Yorkshire, with bizarre offences from the 1770s including a £1 fine for “throwing a seal calf into the town street”.

Further information

For interviews, photography or further information, contact Gareth Dant, University of Leeds Media Relations Manager, on 0113 343 3996 or email g.j.dant@leeds.ac.uk

Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society

The Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society (known until 2016 as the Yorkshire Archaeological Society) has promoted the study of Yorkshire’s past since 1863, when it was created as the Huddersfield Archaeological and Topographical Association. It widened its geographical spread to encompass the whole of Yorkshire in 1870 and moved its headquarters to Leeds in 1896. www.yas.org.uk

Special Collections

The University’s Special Collections have more than 200,000 rare books and hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and archives. Ours is the only library to have five of its Special Collections awarded Designated Status – recognised as collections of outstanding international importance – by the Arts Council. library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections