New historical dictionary for Leeds

David Thornton.
David Thornton.
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David Thornton is a mine of information about the history of Leeds.

The YEP’s Times Past met him to talk about one of his most recent publications Leeds: A Historical Dictionary of People, Places and Events but the former headteacher is already at work on a new book which will look at the burial grounds of Leeds.

It’s fair to say he’s somewhat obsessive when it comes to history, as the shelves in his living room bare testimony, almost groaning as they are with heavy and obscure tomes on everything from Hitler and Stalin to the assassination of JFK and Rudyard Kipling.

As we chat over a cup of tea, his passion for history becomes clear.

“Did you know the first man captured during the Second World War was from Horsforth?” he says casually. “And the last British soldier to be killed in the First World War died 90 minutes before the ceasefire and he was Private George Edward Ellison from Leeds.”

“Or that the first paid-for advertising hoarding in the UK was put up in Leeds?”

These are just some of countless snippets of information the 78-year-old father of four and grandfather of four, is capable of reproducing.

Given that he is already the author of several other books, including Leeds: The Story of a City and too many pamphlets to mention, it’s understandable.

In addition to writing books, he is also an editor at the renowned Thoresby Society, a role he takes vert seriously.

“It will be the tercentenary of the publication of Thoresby’s original history of Leeds in 1015 and we are working a number of projects in order to mark that.

His historical dictionary has already been well received.

“I have wanted for a long time to produce a reference book for Leeds which people could dip in and out of. That was my intention but since it was published, I have had several people tell me they are actually reading it like a book - one person said they even took it to the beach, which was a huge compliment for me.

“There’s always things you wish you had put in and there’s always that thing of what to leave out but at the end of the day you cannot put everything in there.

“What you can do with a reference book is try to make it as accurate as possible. There will always be mistakes, the important thing is to try to correct them.

One feature of Leeds: A Historical Dictionary, which runs to almost 350 pages, is the fact almost every entry is cross-referenced, the relevant links being in italicised caps.

“That took some doing,” admits David. “But I thought it was important and it also makes it easy for people to find things in the book.

“There are entries to do with all kinds of things in the book and that’s because wherever I go I always take a note book. So, when we were going round Richmond Castle, I found information about the so-called Richmond Sixteen, who were one of the first groups of conscientious objectors during the First World War but eight of them came from Leeds, so that went in the book.

“I hope to have created a book people can read by dipping in and out of but also something which flows and reads well, I think there’s as much rhythm in prose as there is in poetry.”

David, who credits wife of 53-years June (the pair met at the Majestic Ballroom on New Year’s Eve) as being a keen-eyed critic of his pre-publication drafts, added: “These days everything is electronic but where is all that information stored? And for how long? That’s why it’s still important to keep a written history, even if it’s to preserve things like how we speak and phrases we use today, of which there are several entries in the book.”

Leeds: A Historical Dictionary of People, Places and Events (Jeremy Mills Publishing) is out now priced £17.85.

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