Treasures from the archives that speak volumes

Forget museums and art galleries, Sarah Freeman trawls the archives of Yorkshire’s universities and uncovers a trove of hidden gems.

1. The Liddle Collection:

Founded 30 years ago to record the experiences of those who lived through the First World War, the University of Leeds’s archive of original letters, diaries, photographs, newspapers, memorabilia and oral history is now of international importance. It’s often the smallest things which speak volumes about the period and highlights of the collection include a map of Bavaria which was hidden in the base of a sardine tin and sent to a Prisoner of War camp and Adolphus the toy dog mascot which was carried on many flying missions by Maurice Le Blanc Smith, who was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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2. The Festival of Britain Collection: In the 1970s the library of the Sheffield School of Art acquired a box of items from the 1951 showcase of British architecture, design, science and art originally held by the Daily Mirror. From small acorns large oak trees grow and thanks to a large number of acquisitions and donations the collection, now housed in Sheffield Hallam University, comprises of around 200 items, including catalogues, posters, and ephemera from postcards to teapots and even a pair of nylon knickers made to commemorate the event which gave the country’s design and manufacturing talents a worldwide audience.

3. The Church Courts of York Records: From arguments about church taxes on liquorice, roses and pigeon dung to family disputes over wills and inheritance, the papers held at York University paint a vivid picture of the social, economic, political and religious world of people living between the 14th and 19th centuries. Until 1858 the church courts had jurisdiction over a wide variety of crimes, including tax evasion, defamation and the professional conduct of the clergy, school teachers and midwives, but until recently the records were difficult to access. However, they have now been made available online and are set to become one of the most widely-used records in the whole of the UK.

4. The Astbury Camera: It may be unspectacular to look at, but Leeds University is home to the camera which represents the birth of modern molecular biology. The brainchild of Professor William Astbury, the camera was designed and built in the workshops of the university’s textile department in the mid-1930s in the hope of furthering his research in developing artificial alternatives to wool and cotton. However, it soon found another use and Astbury, along with a student Florence Bell used the camera to take the first X-ray photographs of DNA. In so doing they provided the foundation for James Watson and Francis Crick’s groundbreaking DNA discoveries in the 1950s.

5. Frank Dobson’s Cornucopia:

The University of Hull boasts an impressive collection of sculpture featuring works by everyone from Henry Moore to Jacob Epstein, but the star work has to be Frank Dobson’s Cornucopia. Before the London based artist had even completed Cornucopia in 1927, leading art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell hailed the piece as marking the rebirth of British sculpture and the work was featured in the pages of both the London Illustrated News and, perhaps more surprisingly, Vogue. When Hull bought the collection in 1967, Dobson’s work had been eclipsed by a younger generation of artists led by Moore and Barbara Hepworth, but in more recent years his reputation as one of the most important English sculptors of the last century has been restored.

6. The JB Priestley Archive: While the Bradford born writer may be best known for An Inspector Calls and The Good Companions, he didn’t stop at plays and novels, penning his autobiography and works on social history and the theory of time. The Priestley estate donated a massive archive of material to the University of Bradford, which aside from scripts from plays, films and television broadcasts, also includes press cuttings, theatre programmes, personal correspondence, photographs and one of Priestley’s now iconic pipes. As well as being a man of words, he was also an enthusiastic artist and one of Priestley’s paintings of Ullswater is also held in the special collection.

7. HMS Beagle Instruments:

At first glance it looks like an old, but ordinary wooden box. However, inside it contains a piece of history-making equipment. The brass sextant, held in Sheffield University’s special collection, was used on the first of the three survey expeditions carried out on HMS Beagle to South America. Belonging to Lieutenant James Kirke, the sextant, made by renowned instrument makers Troughton and Sons of London, helped guide the crew across hundreds of miles of desolate water. The Beagle’s second voyage, which had a young Charles Darwin on board, might be more famous as it sowed the seeds for the publication of the Origins of the Species, but without the findings from the initial expedition, that expedition may never have happened.

8. The Chocolate Archives:

Terry’s chocolate factory may have closed its doors and Rowntree’s may have been bought out by Nestlé some years ago, but the history of York’s two great chocolatiers and philanthropists is held at the city’s university. Alongside the usual papers relating to the history of the two companies, which were among York’s main employers in the 20th-century, the archive also contains rare advertising material, including the blue KitKat wrapper used for the plain chocolate version produced during the Second World War and lesser-known products such as Terry’s Chocolate Apple, produced between 1926 and 1954, a precursor to the more successful Chocolate Orange.

9. The Glass Wedding Dress:

Paying homage to a former professor who revolutionised the manufacture of glass in the early 20th century, the University of Sheffield’s Turner Glass Museum remains one of the most comprehensive in the UK. The collection ranges from drinking glasses to contemporary installations, but the most unusual has to be a glass wedding dress. In 1943, the same year Prof WES Turner began the collection, he married Helen Nairn Monro, a leading glass artist and engraver from Edinburgh. In tribute to the couple, Scottish company Glass Fibres Ltd made her wedding dress, hat, shoes and handbag. According to Jim Smedley, who runs the museum, the dress would not only have been incredibly expensive, and heavy to wear, but the bride suffered for her art when the glass fibres on one of the shoe heels cracked on her wedding day.

10. The Ayckbourn Archive:

Last year the University of York added to its already extensive special collection when it acquired the archive of playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn. Containing thousands of items, including original stage sketches, plot diagrams and personal correspondence, the archive of working drafts and revised typescripts maps not only the creation of some of Sir Alan’s 75 plays, but also a career in theatre spanning last five decades.