Inside West Yorkshire History Centre and Archive: Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit’s author’s deeds to Anne Lister's diary

The grey building which towers over a busy main road in Yorkshire often gets overlooked by passers by, but what lies inside is a whole treasure chest of local history that has shaped the way we live, work and communicate today.

When West Yorkshire History Centre on Wakefield’s Kirkgate opened in 2016, the home of West Yorkshire Archive Service, archivists had over 10 million historical documents to sort through.

The building was funded by Heritage Lottery Fund on the promise that they could file at least another 20 years of archival material

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They also run a range of family activities, run exhibitions and host specialist heritage talks.

West Yorkshire History Centre and Archive ServiceWest Yorkshire History Centre and Archive Service
West Yorkshire History Centre and Archive Service

But what isn’t open to the public other than by special request is the archive which is made up of concealed documents and filed away.

West Yorkshire Archive Service

Upstairs in the centre is the archives, available to staff and who tend to respond to search requests from academics and members of the public as well as having the tough job of securing valuable documents for years to come and putting them into an electronic catalogue.

Archive assistant Daniel Morgan, 36, from Hull - who studied History - said: “This is the safety box of West Yorkshire’s history.”

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Some of the oldest documents in Yorkshire are stored here.Some of the oldest documents in Yorkshire are stored here.
Some of the oldest documents in Yorkshire are stored here.

Not only do the files have to be kept secure and in a cool environment but even opening them using gloves can cause an issue as you lose a lot of dexterity unless it’s photos which are likely to rub so normally it’s clean dry hands which are ideal.

The archives are popular with people researching family history, providing deed documents for solicitors and disputes over properties and land, there’s also many hidden gems carefully filed away.

At first glance, one of the seemingly insignificant deed documents actually belongs to Lord of the Rings author JR Tolkien who began his lecturing at a University in Leeds and living in Headingley.

Alaric Hall is a Senior Lecturer in Medieval English Literature and as such follows in Tolkien’s footsteps.

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Archive assistant DanArchive assistant Dan
Archive assistant Dan

“At this time Tolkien was still working on the Silmarillion. But while he was in Leeds he was getting quite a few poems published, some of which were in mediaeval languages, and it’s interesting to see him learning the art of writing.”

He was also developing the ideas he would later use in The Hobbit. It was while in Leeds that he wrote an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with his friend and fellow Leeds academic EV Gordon, who also happened to be an active member of the Yorkshire Dialect Society.

In a previous interview with the late Christopher Tolkien, JR’s son, he spoke of the impact of his father's stories.

He said: "As strange as it may seem, I grew up in the world he created. For me, the cities of The Silmarillion are more real than Babylon."

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The stunning building on KirkgateThe stunning building on Kirkgate
The stunning building on Kirkgate

Tolkien won Oxford University's Bodley Medal in 2016, for his "outstanding contributions" to communications and literature.

This shows how just one of Tolkien’s deed documents alone can open up a whole wealth of stories, emphasising the importance of the archive.

Archive Assistant Daniel added: “While we mainly only store paper records, we do have a few items in our archives such as those of a “famous strongman in Wakefield from 1950s.”

The West Yorkshire Archive Service blog says:

“One of the more unique items held by the West Yorkshire Archive Service consists of a personalised exercise system developed by the Mighty Apollon, a strongman who lived and worked in Wakefield. Otherwise known as John Crossland Tolson, he took his stage name from his own hero, Louis Uni, who was a French former strongman also known as the Mighty Apollon.

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“The exercise system consists of a number of interesting items. There are four pamphlets which provide advice for fitness and well-being, ranging from getting enough sleep and fresh air, to stating that “over-eating aggravates the condition of thinness.”

Also on the archive’s electronic service are transcribed diary entries from Anne Lister.