The Federer Collection of Victorian literature: A rare treasure at Bradford Libraries

By Simon Ross Valentine

Dr Valentine showing the Federer Collection card index

Bradford Library – celebrating its 150th anniversary this year – has several book Collections of national importance.

One of these, the Federer Collection, consisting of 8,000 books and pamphlets, purchased by the city library on the death of the owner Charles Antoine Federer in 1908, provides a fascinating window into Victorian Bradford.

Federer, born in Switzerland in 1837, on coming to England twenty years later, worked as a teacher in Derbyshire, and East Yorkshire, then at Low Moor, Bradford.

Having a passion for languages, and being fluent in Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Danish and Dutch, Federer later gained employment as a lecturer at the Bradford Mechanic’s Institute and the Technical College.

Federer had an interest in all aspects of Yorkshire life. With Thomas Empsall, J. Norton Dickons and other local worthies, he founded the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society, later becoming President and editor of its journal, the “Bradford Antiquary”. He was also active in the Yorkshire Dialect Society, the Brontë Society and as editor of the Yorkshire Magazine.

Formerly a Roman Catholic, Federer converted to Methodism and became a member of the White Abbey Wesleyan Chapel.

Charles Antoine Federer 1837-1908

Federer‘s vast library now forms the Federer Collection of Yorkshire Ephemera, kept in the Local Studies Library on the ground floor of the Margaret Macmillan Tower, Princes Way.
The Colllection covers a multitude of subjects. Unsurprisingly, Federer being a Nonconformist, many items relate to Christian theology and the Bible.

As a Methodist he took a scholarly interest in the history of his denomination collecting early biographies of John and Charles Wesley; and the Lives of many ministers and Lay Preachers. These included not only Wesleyan Methodism but also material on Primitive Methodism; the Wesleyan Reform Church and Protestant Methodism.
Federer, ecumenical in attitude, also collected material on Anglicanism as well as various Nonconformist Churches such as the Baptists, Moravians, the Quakers (Society of Friends), Congregationalists, Unitarians and lesser-known groups such as the Swedenborgians; Southcottians and the British-Israelites.

Official tourist guide, c. 1868

Many items in the Collection are non-religious covering the political, economic, social, legal and municipal aspects of Victorian Bradford. Of particular interest are the Reports of Bradford’s Chief Constable’s in the 1880s and Yearbooks of the Bradford Trade and Labour Council. Various leaflets refer to Chartism and the Independent Labour Party (founded in Bradford in the 1890s).

As a Nonconformist Federer had an interest in matters such as the anti-gambling league; the Temperance movement; Church rates, dis-establishment of the Anglican Church and state education.

The Collection contains Reports on the National Census 1851 and the local religious Census undertaken by the Bradford Observer in 1881 “with press & pulpit comments”.

 Other books and leaflets cover local topography, geology, fossils, archaeology, astronomy, dialects as well as poetry and literature.

Certain items relate to Patrick Brontë and his famous literary daughters such as Abraham Holroyd’s “’Currer Bell’ and her sisters”, 1855, and Reports of the Brontë Society & Museum, 1896.

A Temperance tract 1874

The Collection has beautifully illustrated Guide Books to places such as Whitby and Scarborough; Bolton Abbey, Cleckheaton, and Castleford. Railway enthusiasts can enjoy looking at Crowther’s Penny Railway Guide, 1875.

Various books focus on Titus Salt and Saltaire. There are several papers relating to Edward Baines, proprietor of the Leeds Mercury and William Byles, owner of the Bradford Observer.

Federer, possibly a keen sportsman himself, collected publications on Amateur Athletics; Angling, Archery and cricket. A very rare item in the Collection is the Yorkshire Owl Cricket Annual, illustrated cricketer’s guide, of 1896.

The Federer Collection has much material on medicine such as Reports on the local Fever Hospital; Bradford Children’s Hospital and the Hospital for the Blind. Invaluable primary sources include the 1904 Report on Diphtheria in Bradford and the 1849 Report on Cholera in the West Riding.
Educational material includes not only grammar and other text books, but also class lists relating to Bradford Grammar School; Burnsall Grammar School; Ackworth School, and minutes of the Bradford School Board.

Several items are quirky and controversial such as the temperance tract titled “A lecture on a pint of ale: what it is and what it’s not, what it’s worth and what it costs” and a leaflet on “Capital punishment: Hangman’s thoughts above the gallows”.

The Collection contains rare periodicals such as the Babbler, or Weekly Literary & Scientific Intelligencer; the Bradford Chronicle of the 1850s & ‘60s; the British Spiritual Telegraph, 1859; and the Eastbrook Herald, 1889 to1894.

Building on the work previously done by Bob Duckett, a former senior Bradford librarian, I am in the process of putting the catalogue online making the Collection known, and accessible, worldwide. So far about 40% of the Collection is catalogued and can be viewed on the library website.

Enquiries are welcome. If you see something of interest in the online catalogue please ring the library and book an appointment to see the item chosen.

Alternatively, an appointment can be made to look at the card index at Local Studies and request any item of interest. Many of the pamphlets have been microfilmed. Please remember however that items from the Federer Collection are reference only and cannot be borrowed.

As part of the anniversary celebrations, a series of lunchtime lectures will be given at Local Studies in June. In one of these lectures I will talk on Charles Federer and his amazing Collection.

For more information about the Federer Collection or any of the other library Collections of books, photographs and maps of “bygone Bradford”, please contact Local Studies on 01274 433688; or email

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