An Introduction to the Brotherton Collection, Leeds University Library, and its Literary Manuscripts of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Chris Sheppard, Head of Special Collections,
Brotherton Library, University of Leeds


The resources forming the basis of 'Literary Manuscripts' are held in Leeds University Library's Brotherton Collection, which has its origins in the private library assembled by Lord Brotherton of Wakefield (1856-1930). This is a brief account of these origins and of the way in which the manuscript collection has been developed since its beginnings.

Edward Allen Brotherton, later Lord Brotherton, was born near Manchester, left school at fifteen and started working in the chemical industry, crossing the Pennines to settle in Yorkshire in the late 1870s. He founded Brotherton & Co in Wakefield, which was to become the largest private chemical manufacturing company in Britain by the 1920s. He was prominent in public service – a Member of Parliament, Mayor of Wakefield and later Lord Mayor of Leeds – but more from a sense of duty than from personal ambition. Beyond his industrial achievements, he had greater influence on his times through numerous philanthropic acts in Yorkshire and massive financial contributions to support the First World War effort.

Brotherton came to book and manuscript collecting by accident. In 1922, when the Towneley manuscript of the Wakefield mystery plays was offered for sale at Sotheby's, he was approached by the city of Wakefield for assistance with acquiring it as a local treasure. He agreed to do so with the encouragement of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, the wife of his nephew and main business associate Charles Ratcliffe; she was like a cherished daughter to Brotherton, whose own wife had died in childbirth together with their child some 40 years before, and he was eager to support DUR's literary and cultural interests. Brotherton duly sought to buy the manuscript, but his efforts were frustrated more by inexperience of the sale rooms than by any lack of commitment.

As a consolation for DUR and perhaps for himself, Brotherton offered to buy her any book from Quaritch and, for its Yorkshire connection, Marvell's Miscellaneous poems, 1681, was the choice. The purchase brought such mutual pleasure that others, chiefly literary, promptly followed and collecting was under way. One may see a happy consistency between this initial acquisition and the manuscripts that form the basis of the present resource. Soon a private librarian was appointed to add professional expertise to DUR's enthusiasm and Brotherton's indulgent spending power; by 1926 a Library had been added to Brotherton's substantial house in Leeds to contain the blossoming collection.

While Brotherton's collection was growing in the mid-1920s, the University of Leeds was planning its own expansion. Founded in 1904, it had made its way successfully through the war years and was aspiring to transcend its beginnings in a local, practical science-based college by becoming a truly national, and international, university. The development of new buildings, above all a major library, was regarded as essential, with benefaction the potential means of realising ambitions. For the library, a first approach to Brotherton - a celebrated book collector, enormously wealthy, proven in generosity to local causes – was inevitable and he magnificently responded, offering to fund the entire library project.

When Lord Brotherton laid the foundation stone of the Brotherton Library on 24 June 1930, he made it known that his own books and manuscripts, to be called the Brotherton Collection, would be given to the University following his death. The gift came sooner than anticipated as Brotherton died just four months later, never to see the completion of the spectacular building in 1936. Before then it became known that a third, related benefaction was to be made – a substantial financial endowment to ensure the future development of the Collection when in the University's care. Brotherton was determined that the Collection should not be frozen at the time of its presentation to the University, but should be a living entity with the means to change and grow without relying on the mainstream funding of the institution. Donors of other splendid collections to UK academic libraries have very rarely been so far-sighted.

The preoccupations of the Second World War period delayed serious consideration of how the endowment income should be spent until the later 1940s. Lord Brotherton's own collecting had been wide-ranging as he rapidly sought to establish a comprehensive private library embracing numerous sub-collections of different kinds, often acquired en-bloc: thus most of his superb collection of illuminated medieval manuscript books of hours was purchased from a single dealer's catalogue, his music collection largely came complete from a Sheffield collector, his pamphlets on the history of socialism had been assembled by a local political opponent, and so on. Once established, many of these considerable sub-collections would remain almost unchanged. Virtually the only section of Brotherton's original collection that he and his associates created item by item (supported by a few group purchases) and continually developed was that for English literature. Here DUR's enthusiastic literary interests and preferences ensured that collecting proceeded on a far more personal, discriminating basis and this resulted in much the strongest part of the Brotherton Collection when it was transferred to Leeds University.

The Brotherton Collection Advisory Committee of the 1940s decided that the Collection's acquisitions programme should build on this strength and mainly concentrate on aspects of English Literature. Even with generous endowment income, the Collection could not afford to be as boldly opportunist and eclectic as Brotherton had been and it also seemed important that the nature of its growing contents should be better defined for the information of potential users. While certain 19th-century and early 20th-century authors would continue to be collected (the Brontës, Mrs Gaskell, Swinburne and others), the central focus would be on the period 1600 to 1750, particularly poetry and drama. A crucial influence on the adoption of this policy was Bonamy Dobrée, Professor of English Literature at Leeds University from 1936 to 1955.

The Collection's accessions registers show printed items from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries being purchased in the 1950s and 1960s in quantities that now seem staggering; the flow diminished somewhat in the 1970s as prices relatively began to rise. Not surprisingly, the number of contemporary literary manuscripts acquired was much smaller, about three or four per year on average, ranging from fragments of individual poems to extensive miscellanies and commonplace books and collections by individual authors. For many years the most consistent source was Peter Murray Hill, besides the auction houses. The manuscripts were also relatively cheap before the 1970s, unless in the autograph of a writer of some established repute. These manuscripts were given MS Lt and MS Lt q identifiers (on the whole sequentially, though with some inconsistencies) and in effect the 1970s ended with the acquisitions MS Lt 54 and MS Lt q 38, both being miscellanies of high quality.

The early 1980s were a time for reflection as the 50th anniversary of the Brotherton Collection in the University approached. Two important basic facts were evident. First, although the emphasis of purchasing had been on 1600-1750 material, far more use was being made of other parts of the Collection, particularly literary material from the later 19th century and the 20th century. Secondly, there was considerably more research interest in manuscripts throughout the Collection than in printed material. The conclusions drawn from this were that a greater proportion of purchasing should be of 19th- and 20th-century literary manuscripts than in the past and that ways of encouraging more use of the 17th and 18th century material, particularly the manuscripts, should be sought.

It was decided that the latter objective would best be pursued by creating a comprehensive, integrated index to the thousands of poems in the manuscripts. The contents of a few more notable miscellanies had been indexed individually, but most were literally closed books. Further, while a conventional first-line index of the poems would be a great advance, it was felt that far more information could be usefully provided about the poems. This view was stimulated by appreciation of the indexes to D. F. Foxon's English verse, 1975, particularly the subject index, which, despite limitations acknowledged by Foxon himself, offered new ways of engaging with 18th-century poetry.

Fortunately these deliberations coincided with the arrival of the personal computer in the library workplace. It was seen immediately that an index in free-text electronic database form would be ideal for recording features of the poems consistently and for searching, and the database Brotherton Collection Manuscript Verse, or BCMSV, was initiated in 1987. BCMSV was necessarily 'stand-alone' at first, but it was made freely accessible through the web as soon as possible in the early 1990s. The record structure originally devised continues to be used and the data underlies the present resource from Adam Matthew Publications. In a recent survey of first-line indices for poetry of the long eighteenth century (c. 1660-1830), BCMSV was described as "the most sophisticated and flexible index yet created for a collection of manuscript poetry".

The indexing of the subject matter of the poems remains an important element in BCMSV, a major purpose being to facilitate its use by historians whose interests are not primarily literary but who may benefit from gaining contemporary perspectives, articulated in verse, on the topics they are studying. Such accessibility gives life and value to poems, perhaps negligible in literary terms, as historical and cultural phenomena - private or public statements of opinion and belief, indications of prevailing concerns, expressions of taste. This, in turn, justifies the Brotherton Collection's willingness to acquire and make available manuscript verse of all kinds, the stumbling, derivative and disregarded beside the eloquent, innovative and celebrated. As high quality verse manuscripts have become more rare and more expensive in the market, it is undeniable that a coherent rationale for acquiring 'lesser' manuscripts has been welcome.

Before now, use of BCMSV has invariably led to a degree of frustration. Once interest in consulting a manuscript was aroused through the index, there was delay while access to it was arranged: a visit to Leeds had to be planned, a microfilm or other copy had to be ordered, questions relying on the perceptions of another party for their answers had to be asked. In 2005, the Library provided more immediate access of a limited kind through its website by offering a digitised image of a sample of every hand used in the BCMSV manuscripts. These images, over 320 in number, had practical value in giving a general sense of each manuscript's appearance, as well as assisting the researcher with comparisons, attributions and ascriptions. However, the images also clearly showed how desirable digitised versions of the complete manuscripts would be.

The comprehensive remote access now allowed by Adam Matthew's enterprise transforms this situation. The function of the original manuscripts as the final, best authorities remains, and direct use is expected to continue, perhaps with fewer casual consultations, but with more occasions when the verification of online texts is undertaken. The manuscripts collection itself will continue to grow. 'Literary Manuscripts' could not have been imagined by Lord Brotherton, whose most active campaign as a Member of Parliament was to secure better telephone communication between London and Yorkshire, but we are confident that he would welcome an improvement in the virtual accessibility of research resources that does not undermine their value as physical artefacts.

Browse the Brotherton Collection Manuscripts.