Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Wilson Manuscripts

In December 1774, Joseph Wilson gave four quarto volumes to the Leeds Library. They were described in the library minutes as 'curious ms. volumes of nobility and gentry'. In fact these volumes had been compiled by Joseph Wilson's father, Thomas, and consisted of pedigrees relating to the West, North and East Ridings of Yorkshire (the West Riding has two volumes).

The following year, Joseph Wilson gave another volume, that of Lancashire pedigrees. These were consulted by Edward Baines, the printer of the Leeds Mercury, when he was compiling his History, directory and gazetteer of the County Palatine of Lancaster, 2v., 1824 and the author included a list of the county pedigrees to be found in the Wilson volume.

Title-page of the volume on
the North Riding
The library members were so pleased with these gifts that they excused the donor from any payment of subscription for the rest of his life.
Thomas Wilson (d. 1760) had been master of the St John's charity school in Leeds having succeeded John Lucas after his death in 1750. When Wilson was not teaching, he spent a considerable amount of his time copying from the manuscript collections of others. It is known that he drew substantially on the collections of John Hopkinson of Lofthouse but it is less likely that he used those of Ralph Thoresby (d. 1725), the author of Ducatus Leodiensis (London 1715), as was suggested by Thomas Dunham Whitaker in his own history of Leeds, Loidis and Elmete (Leeds 1816).
Whitaker had drawn upon the Wilson pedigree volumes when he was compiling Loidis and Elmete and was subsequently unkind to both the library and the compiler of pedigrees. The library he dismissed for dulling the senses and giving opportunities to dangerous individuals like Joseph Priestley to shape the reading of others. He saw scholars as the proper users of books and something of this attitude is to be found in his description of Thomas Wilson:

"Wilson, a native of Wragby, was a man not easy to be described: though dull, he was indefatigably and usefully laborious in gleaning after his master, [Ralph] Thoresby; but, like other men of inferior education, who by pertinacious industry have attained to considerable knowledge, he was sullen, disappointed, and envious ...."
The collection today known as the Wilson Manuscripts in fact consists of more than the volumes of Yorkshire and Lancashire pedigrees. There are also the following:
  • Chartularium Melense or a collection of papal bulls, archiepiscopal, royal and private benefactions to the Cistercian-abbey of Melsa or Meaux in Holderness, in the East-Riding of the county of York, ex bibliotheca Thorntonianae, anno domini 1746, per Thomas Wilson
A note at the front explains that the chartulary is from a manuscript probably compiled by Stephen Grene, a monk of Meaux Abbey, in about 1500: the manuscript was copied by Francis Smales, Rector of Preston in Holderness, whose paper were purchased by Richard Thornton and Ralph Thoresby, both of Leeds, in 1648. Wilson acquired it along with some other papers and all the remaining copies of Ducatus Leodiensis. A library label at the front of the book dates its receipt as 5 October 1778.
  • Liber judiciarius, or Dooms-day-book for the county of York
There is nothing to associate this volume with Thomas Wilson other than the style of the title page: the handwriting has similarities but the attempt to imitate an eleventh-century hand means that is not easily comparable with the other manuscript volumes.
  • The English, Scotch and Irish historical register, containing the lives and writings of antient British and Irish, and the Islandic bards, and modern historians, natural, ecclesiastical, civil and military, collected by Thomas Wilson, SSA, London, in two volumes
A manuscript note at the front of volume one  states: "There are many mistakes in these two volumes which the author intended to correct but death prevented - JW." "JW" is presumably Joseph Wilson and it would appear these volumes were compiled towards the end of Thomas Wilson's life.

It is known where these additional volumes came from though it is very likely that they too were given by Wilson's son. Other Wilson MSS may be found in Leeds Public Library and at Leeds Grammar School.

A printed volume in the Leeds Library collection is the large paper copy of Ralph Thoresby's Ducatus Leodiensis, London: 1715 with manuscript annotation by John Lucas (Wilson's predecessor at the charity school), Thomas Wilson himself and the 'memorable' George Bayley who sadly does not seem to have been remembered. This item will receive its own posting.

One significant user of the Wilson Manuscripts must be mentioned. In 1779, the biographer of Dr Johnson, James Boswell, had occasion to visit Leeds and the library where he examined the Wilson Manuscripts. He recorded: "In Leeds, where one would not expect it, there is a very good public library, where strangers are treated with great civility, of which I for one retain a grateful sense."

Further reading:

Beckwith, Frank, The Leeds Library 1768-1968, with a new preface by Dennis Cox, Leeds 1994

Taylor, R.V., Supplement to the Biographia Leodiensis; or, biographical sketches of the worthies of Leeds and neighbourhood, from the Norman Conquest to the present time, London 1867, pp 584-585 [John Lucas] and pp 587-589 [Thomas Wilson]

Whitaker, Thomas Dunham, Loidis and Elmete, Leeds 1816

Geoffrey Forster
12 September 2012

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