Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) was the Leeds historian. No one before or since comes as close. He lived here all his life – educated at Leeds Grammar School – and tried his hand, unsuccessfully, as a merchant. He was lucky, inasmuch as he didn’t have to work. After attempting to make fortunes he gave himself to learning and published three books – Ducatus Leodiensis, Museum Thoresbyanum, and Vicaria Leodiensis. The first is his great work, a history and survey of Leeds and its surrounding area, plus the great families there.
He lived in Kirkgate (a blue plaque commemorates the place, close to Superdrug) and was an avid collector of all manner of things. He really did have a museum in his house. But when he died, no one was that interested in his collection. Much was thrown away, and the rest went to his eldest son near London and was sold when he died. Sad, really. Which brings us to the story…
MR. THORESBY’S CURIOSITIES – 1725
“It won’t do,” he said, shaking his head and pursing his lips. “It just won’t do.”
“No, sir,” I agreed.
Mr. Brocklehurst looked slowly around the room once more. He’d tied his stock too tightly in the morning and his large face had been red all day.
“No,” he repeated. “It just won’t do.”
But it would have to be done. Every item in this collection of curiosities needed to be catalogued. And I knew it wouldn’t fall to Brocklehurst the lawyer to do it. It would be my job, his clerk.
Mr. Thoresby had amassed thousands upon thousands of objects during his life, so many that he’d needed to build an annexe to this modest house on Kirkgate for them all. Now he’d passed on his heirs needed an inventory of everything.
I’d miss the man. He’d been my favourite of Mr. Brocklehurst’s clients. Whenever he’d visit the office he’d ask after my wife and children with honest interest. No matter that he was a gentleman with his independent means and I was no more than a law clerk.
Even after his first stroke his mind had been alert. I’d come here several times with papers to be signed and he’d always been polite. He’d even insisted on showing me around this place, his museum as he called it with a wry little smile, and he’d pressed a copy of his book on me, his history of Leeds and the areas around it, picking it from a tall pile, blowing off the dust and inscribing it with his name, writing in an awkward scrawl. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that only gentlemen had the leisure for reading and learning. For the rest of us, life was made for work and sleep. So his Ducatus Leodiensis propped up a broken table leg in our house now, the gold letters on the spine growing dustier each month.
Brocklehurst paced around the room, hands clasped together in the small of his back, pausing here and there to look at this and that. Finally he announced,
“Well, you’d better get to work. And don’t be too long about it. I want you back in the office as soon as possible. There’s plenty of work among the living.”
“Yes, sir.” I opened the ledger on an old table then set down the quill and the ink pot, hearing the door slam in the empty house as the lawyer left. I knew I should begin the task, but instead I walked to a shelf at the far end of the room and picked up a small object.
I’d last been here two months earlier, no more than a fortnight before Mr. Thoresby suffered his second stroke and died. I’d come on a trifling errand, his signature on a note to append to an annuity. He’d been sitting in his parlour, lost in thought when I was shown through.
“Young man,” he said with real pleasure, as if I’d been his first visitor in an age. He struggled to his feet with the help of a stick, putting out a heavy, palsied hand to grip mine. Wigless, he showed wisps of grey hair over a shiny pink skull, and a mouth that drooped on one side. But his eyes still twinkled. Over the last months he’d grown portly, his movements confined to his house or the streets close by. No more wanderings around England or setting off in the morning to walk to York and dine with the archbishop. And invalid now, his wide world had become so small. “Come with me, come on. I have something very special to show you,” he urged, his voice just an echo of the cannon boom it had once been.
I followed him through to this room of wonders. He shuffled slowly, pausing two or three times to catch his breath. Yet once we reached the shelf and he reached out, it was as if his illness had never happened. His hand was steady as a youth’s and his thick sausage fingers were deft as he plucked up the item.
“Do you see that?” he asked me, letting it sit on his palm. “The vicar in Rothwell sent it to me last week.” He displayed it like something precious but I had no idea what it could be. I wasn’t like him, I had no knowledge of these things, no chance to learn. My only learning had been letters and numbers before I had to earn my way in the world. It seemed nothing more than a piece of sharp stone, nothing of value. He saw my look and smiled. “Would you like me to tell you?”
“Yes, sir, I would.” If it was important to him then it must have a purpose, I thought.
“Long ago, before there was any Cambodunum, or Leodis or Leeds, long before anyone thought of a town here, there were people in this country,” he began. It wasn’t the chiding, strident tone of my old schoolmaster. Instead, there was enjoyment in his voice sharing these things with all the eagerness of an enthusiast.
“Where did they live?” I wondered.
“In caves, perhaps, or out in the open. We don’t know that yet,” he answered with a small sigh, as if he was disappointed that he’d never know. “But they hunted. They had to, for food. And they possessed spears and arrows, we do know that. And clubs, I suppose,” he added, as if it was an aside to himself. “This, young man, is an arrowhead made of flint.”
Once he told me, I could discern the shape of it, the point at one end. It was delicate, crude yet carefully worked and I marvelled at how anyone could have made that so long ago and that it could still be found like this.
“Just imagine,” Mr. Thoresby continued, “that a man might have killed many animals with this arrow. Perhaps it ended up in some beast that escaped him. Or maybe it was a wild shot he never found again. Or,” he winked at me, “he might simply have lost it somewhere.”
He replaced the arrowhead on the shelf and we returned to the parlour to finish our business. Since then I’d thought of it often. I told my wife about it but she paid it little mind. Seeing an arrowhead wouldn’t put food on our table or clothe our children. It came to me later that I’d never asked him just how old it was. He would have known; after all, he was acknowledged to be the most learned man in Leeds. Now, though, he was interred under the choir of the Parish Church, his widow gone to live with one of their sons.
I lifted the arrowhead very carefully, astonished that something with all this wait of years on it could be so light. I ran my thumb along the edge and gasped out loud to discover it was still sharp enough to cut the skin. How long had it taken to fashion something like this? What tools had he used? Suddenly I had so many questions ringing like Sunday morning bells in my head and no one to answer them.
Furtively I looked around, as if there might be someone spying on me. It was a ridiculous fancy, of course. The house was all closed up, the shutters pulled tight, the air inside stuffy, still holding that old, desperate smell of disease and death that tugged at the nostrils. Then I took out my kerchief and gently wrapped it around the arrowhead. Another glance over my shoulder and I tucked it away in my coat pocket. No one would know. No one but me would count all the curiosities here.