Visit to the Brotherton Galleries, Leeds University Library

On Monday, 21 May, a small group of FOBALs (Friends of Bradford Archives and Local Studies) and library staff were very fortunate indeed and saw the Brotherton Library at Leeds University and the archives of the Special Collections.  Wow! The library is a Grade II listed Beaux-Arts building, opened in 1936. The reading room was apparently modelled on the British Museum reading-room, in the round, but “just that little bit bigger”, our tour guide said with a twinkle in her eye. It has some Art Deco fittings including a large central light that is impressively lowered when the large surrounding windows fail to supply sufficient illumination, it’s almost Orwellian.  The actual collections are equally admirable, containing rare medieval gems, such as an illuminated medieval rolled manuscript on the history of the world in Anglo-French. Local materials include Brontë manuscripts and surprisingly, Bradford and Keighley mill records as well Independent Labour Party minutes from Bradford in 1893. Our excellent guide, Laura Wilson, Galleries, Learning and Assistant Engagement Manager (GLEAM) for the Special Collections at the Brotherton was appointed to enhance public access and promote the collections to the wider public and has already seen a great improvement in visitor figures since 2016.

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Images from Opening Souvenir Booklet,  6th  1936, from the Brigg collection (BK10), Keighley Local Studies Library.

The Library owes its outstanding library of books and manuscripts to Lord Brotherton of Wakefield (1856-1930) and subsequently his family. Edward Allen Brotherton was actually born in Manchester. He left school at 15, worked in a hardware store and also a chemical laboratory and in the evening studied chemistry at Owens College, Manchester. He obtained a post in a chemical works in Wakefield and, by 1878, had become a partner in the firm of Dyson Bros. and Brotherton,  manufacturers of ammonium sulphate and based in Wakefield.  By 1902, it had become the largest private chemical company in the country as Brotherton & Co.  Edward Brotherton was mayor of Wakefield (1902-3) and Leeds (1913-14) and sat as MP for Wakefield as a coalition Unionist, from 1902 -1910, 1918-1922. He made a number of large donations to the University of Leeds, including the funding for a new library for which he laid the foundation stone in 1930, and at which, he announced the donation of his book and manuscript collection. Brotherton’s bibliographic interests began in 1922 through his niece by marriage, Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, Yorkshire poet (1887-1967). The present collection continues to be supported by his family and consists of some 35,000 books, 400 manuscripts, 4000 deeds and 30,000 letters and it continues to grow.

The Special Collections department has undergone a major refurbishment with top of the range, interactive and illuminating display cases to showcase this wonderful collection outside the constraints of the archive search room. There is a Treasures gallery to display, for example, Shakespeare’s First Folio or the miniature story books of the Brontës and a second gallery space with 2 exhibition changes each year, exploring a range of collection themes. This also represents a  renewed commitment to the original aims of Lord Brotherton to give everyone equal access to the beauty and knowledge to be found in the study of local and national heritage collections. The collection’s greatest strength is in English literature from the 17th century to the present but there are also mediaeval manuscript books of hours, early books in maths and science, papers of the transvestite adventurer the Chevalier d’Eon and of the regicide Henry Marten, as well as the Liddle collection of first-hand accounts of WW1 and WW2 experiences and a West Riding textiles and business collection, the Quaker archive collection and Feminist Archive North. The Brotherton also holds a Russian archive collection of papers of Russian émigrés to the West, since the 1917 Revolution, and papers of British people living and working in Russia before the Revolution. The current exhibitions looks at the culture of Romany Gypsies: Rights and Romance: Representing Gypsy Lives, items on the Great War and Cooks and their Books. There is also a case displaying samples of the library’s collection of manuscripts of Branwell Brontë that includes letters, pen and ink drawings and Angrian manuscripts.

Amongst the local materials that were brought out especially for our visit was a WW1 hospital register from Becket Park war hospital that contained photographs, names of patients, their injuries and even a column in their own hand on what they would like to do to the Kaiser which made for interesting reading – amongst some rather gory suggestions, one soldier wrote that he should simply be handed over to the women of England! Interestingly, the collection of textile records includes those of Bradford and Keighley mills, we were shown records of Bankcroft Mill, Oxenhope detailing conditions at the mill. The online catalogue for special collections of the Brotherton Library is searchable and you can get a fair idea of holdings by looking under location of individual mill or business, though the catalogue is still not yet fully comprehensive. Access to archives for study is by a period of notice and appointment, with careful handling on receipt in the search room.

Last of all we had a quick look in the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery in the same building that holds regular displays from the University Art collection and is also free to access, including works by Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer and Jacob Epstein.

Although we were naturally impressed by the quality of the archives and their display and presentation to the public, we were also confident that our records held throughout Bradford libraries’ and museums’ collections and, from our particular point of view,  Keighley Local Studies Library archives, were in many ways their equal in terms of important local heritage. Keighley Library alone has its own collection of local textile mill records and local author manuscripts, including published works by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. It also has a very fine WW1 collection, the locally renowned mill owning and philanthropist Brigg family records, an early 20th century poster collection, the Lord and Lady Snowden library and the important Brontë Library. In the future it is hoped that though space for more elaborate displays is at a premium, Keighley Library will be able to provide digital access to its records to reach an even wider audience.

The visit to the Brotherton Library was a memorable one, very informative and really enjoyable and for all of us I think, one that will be repeated in the future outside work.  Our thanks must go to our colleagues who generously covered that afternoon for us, to FOBALS (Friends of Bradford Archives and Local Studies) who organised this visit and to the staff at the Brotherton, especially Laura Wilson for her lively tour and expertise.

For further details, please check out the following:

https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections

https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/contributors/universityofleeds.html

www.bradford.gov.uk/libraries/library-services-online/digital-library/ for the Oxford English Dictionary entry for Lord Brotherton, including photograph

www.thoresby.org.uk  and http://femalewarpoets.blogspot.co.uk for Dorothy Una Ratcliffe

www.bradford.gov.uk/libraries/local-and-family-history/archives-and-collections-available-in-our-libraries

www.bradford.gov.uk/arts-and-culture/museums-and-galleries/museums-and-art-galleries/

 

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