Leeds nostalgia: Ralph Thoresby’s 300th anniversary

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A significant anniversary passed - albeit without much fanfare -this week in the history of Leeds. For, it is 300 years (July 30, 1714 being the exact date) since Ralph Thoresby, one of the city’s most famous sons, penned the foreword to his most significant work Ducatus Leodiensis, a book which changed the way Leeds was viewed by the outside world and by Loiners themselves.

The book also offers insight into what ate 17th and early 18th century Leeds was like.

One person who knows this more than most is Dr Kevin Grady, director of Leeds Civic Trust and co-author with Steven Burt of The Illustrated History of Leeds. He described Thoresby’s book as ‘monumental’.

“It took over twenty years to get the book published,” enthuses Dr Grady. “He started researching the book in the 1690s but it was an era in which each printing plate and engraving had to be made individually - it was tremendously laborious. There were many setbacks. Printers and publishers were unreliable; it was sometimes months between one set of pages and another being printed. Some were destroyed in a fire.”

The son of merchant John Thoresby, he was born into a respected family and followed his father and grandfather into the family woollen cloth merchant business. His father’s love of coin collecting eventually became his own - during his lifetime he amassed one of the finest collections of pre-Norman coins in the country and was regarded as a national expert, which led to him being made a Fellow of the Royal Society in London.

Dr Grady went on: “He was influential, he sat on the Corporation, he was well connected. When, for example, plans came to light Wakefield had built a cloth hall with the intention of supplanting Leeds, it was Thoresby who went with the Mayor to see Lord Irwin at Temple Newsam to ask for some land in Kirkgate on which to build Leeds’ own White Cloth Hall to counter the threat from Wakefield.

“His writing and publishing of the Ducatus Leodiensis, was a huge achievement considering all the research required and the obstacles to be overcome. The book is a topographical survey of the town of Leeds and its environs complemented by engravings of buildings and maps and prospects and panoramas of the town. It contains family trees of prominent people. Ducatus Leodiensis combined with the information in his diaries which cover the period 1677-1724 means we know more about Leeds from 1658-1725 than perhaps any other provincial town in the country.”

Thoresby also gave us detailed descriptions of the town especially of Briggate and its market, which he described as one of the most vibrant in the country.

Some of the locations he describes, are remarkably different from how they are today. The Calls for example, is described by Thoresby as a delightful, rural riverside walk, with grand houses of wealthy merchants set in large gardens.

Thoresby wrote: “From the Church to the Bridge is the Foot Pathway thro’ the Fields, by certain Gardens, particularly, Alderman Cookson’s who has lately erected here a very pleasant seat with Terras Walks etc.”

Thoresby suggested the name ‘The Calls’ is derived from the Latin ‘callis’, which means ‘a beaten path’. But Dr Grady believes that it more likely derives from the wooden piles driven into the river bank to prevent it from being washed away in floods.

Whatever the derivation, Thoresby offers us an insight into a city which has changed beyond recognition - would he recognise it today? Certainly, parts of it. Although the house in which he grew up is gone - torn down in 1878 - the building to the right of it (shown in the picture below) is still standing.

Thoresby’s house was timber-framed but he was one of the first people in Leeds to erect a brick chimney at his house, which at the time had a pleasant garden to the rear. When his collection of antiquities outgrew his home, he had built a museum at the foot of the garden and here housed hundreds of manuscripts, books coins, natural history specimens and historical artefacts and many other curious objects. There are still some sketches which show how part of his house looked on the inside.

Dr Grady added: “It was a very great pity that after his death much of his collection was left to go to rack and ruin, indeed a close contemporary wrote that much of it had been “cast upon a dung heap”. Still, we owe Ralph Thoresby an enormous debt of gratitude. Today Thoresby’s legacy is continued by the work of the Thoresby Society - the Leeds Historical Society - which in Clarendon Road has a wonderful library and archive about the history of Leeds and produces first-rate annual publications and lectures telling the story of Leeds.”

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