Ralph Thoresby by Chris Nickson

 Crime author, Chris Nickson writes about Leeds historian, Ralph Thoresby, in the first of a series of Leeds history articles for the Big Bookend.

Chris NicksonOne thing about the writing life: you never know what’s going to happen. Until December, for instance, I wrote short monthly pieces on Leeds history for the Beyond Guardian Leeds site. That, sadly, has gone the way of all flesh. And now the kind folk at Leeds Big Bookend have asked me to continue those pieces for them. And so, a new beginning…

It’s perhaps apt to start out with something about Ralph Thoresby. After all, he was the first real historian and literary figure of Leeds. The sad part is that his biggest memorials in the city are a school named for him, a blue plaque at the site of his house on Kirkgate, and the marble that covered his grave in Leeds Minster.

Born in 1658, he arrived just before the return of the monarchy to England. Back then Leeds was still a small town, with probably fewer than 6,000 people. His father was a merchant, and after an education at Leeds Grammar School, Thoresby was intended to follow in his footsteps. He spent time learning the business in London then in Holland, then took over when his father died in 1679.

But Ralph Thoresby inherited more than a merchant business from John Thoresby. His father had been an antiquarian, with a large collection of items, and throughout his life Ralph avidly added to it.

However, he wasn’t cut out for the merchant life. His business ventures weren’t successful. In fact, most of them lost money (like his plan for a rapeseed oil mill in Sheepscar). But neither that nor the fact that he was a religious non-Conformist, which limited his business options, stopped him from having a happy existence and marriage (in 1685 to Anna Sykes, whose father was officially Lord of the Manor of Leeds).

By 1704 he’d abandoned business. He had a little money and he was known across England as an eminent antiquarian. But, in the Age of Enlightenment, he was very much a man of his time, and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. All aspects of the world, from science to history fascinated him. He’d been forced to add on to his house to hold all the objects in his museum. He wrote to eminent men and visited them. On several occasions he walked to York (25 miles) to dine with the Archbishop and home the next day. His curiosity was boundless.

Although insatiable in wanting to learn more, he remained a Leeds man through and through, though, and celebrated it with the 1715 publication of Ducatus Leodiensis; or the Topography of the Ancient and Populous Town and Parish of Leedes and parts adjacent in the West Riding of the County of York. It’s his great contribution, the seminal work on Leeds and still vital reading, the product of a learned, enquiring mind. These days the only way to afford a copy is on CD-Rom, and it’s worth every penny. He published two other books in his lifetime, one on his museum, the other a history of the church in Leeds.

But he’ll also long be remembered for his diaries. He’d begun keeping them when young and continued until his death. It might not be Pepys, but they’re full of insights into life in Leeds at the time.

Following a pair of strokes, Thoresby died in 1725 and was buried in the choir of the Parish Church. Sadly, by 1764 what remained of his museum was sold off. All that we have left of the first great man of Leeds now is his words.

For more information about Ralph Thoresby click here.

Chris Nickson is the author of the Richard Nottingham crime novels, set in Leeds in the 1730s, as well as Gods of Gold (published August 2014), which takes place during the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890.

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