Special collections

Leeds Central Library holds many beautiful and rare items of special and historical interest, which are available to view on request. 

Our special collections have books and archive material to interest and inspire everyone, especially researchers, artists, students or history enthusiasts. 

Plan your visit 

You are welcome to view items from our Special Collections at Leeds Central Library but we ask that you contact us at least 24 hours in advance to make an appointment. You will be asked for proof of name and address before accessing items.

All our material is reference only and must not be removed from the library. The books and other items in our special collections are often rare, fragile or valuable and need to be handled with care. Please familiarise yourselves with these guidelines before your visit: 

  • handle material with clean hands without lotions or sanitiser 

  • only use pencil or laptop to make notes as pen can cause permanent damage

  • keep loose documents in their original order and handle one at a time 

  • use the book cushions and weights provided 

  • tell us about any accidents or damage 

You can use your own digital camera to photograph items, but conditions may apply if you want to re-use or publish any images. 

The most important thing to remember is that we want to make your visit as easy and enjoyable as possible so please don’t hesitate to ask questions before, during or after your visit.

You can find us in the Local and Family History department on the 2nd floor. 

Contact: localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk.

Our collections

Many of our Special Collections can now be found on our online catalogue.

Compare with other institutions through Library Hub Discover.

Special Collections

Gott Bequest

A collection of 600 early English gardening books and periodicals including works published in the 16th ,17th and 18th centuries, originally belonging to Alderman Beryl Gott, of the local textile manufacturing family and deposited in the Central Library on her death in 1941. Includes herbals, books on garden design, fine examples of hand coloured botanical illustrations, plus Curtis’s Botanical Magazine dating from 1787. 

Gascoigne Collection

Over three thousand books, pamphlets and periodicals, covering mainly military and naval history, donated in 1968 by Sir Alvary Gascoigne, in memory of his father, Colonel F.R.T. Gascoigne, of Lotherton Hall. Includes army and navy lists from the early nineteenth century, regimental histories and is a rich source for researchers of 19th century military history. 

Wing Collection

The Wing Collection at Leeds Central Library comprises over 800 items printed between 1640 and 1700, mostly Tracts documenting the events, politics, religious debates and social life throughout the turbulent period of the English Civil Wars. 

E. R. Eddison Collection

Born in Adel, Leeds, Eric Rucker Eddison (1882-1945) became a leading civil servant and a writer of fantasy novels, most notably The Worm Ouroboros and The Zimiamvian Trilogy. In the 1960s Eddison’s wife, Winifred, bequeathed many of his original manuscripts and notes to the Leeds Central Library. 

Ernestine Henry Collection

A collection of 'Sweepiana' (things relating to chimney sweeps, their working conditions and the folklore, literature and mythology surrounding the subject) which were collected by Dr Sidney A. Henry and donated to Leeds Museums in 1956 in memory of his mother Ernestine Henry. Dr Henry's interest in sweeps was first aroused by his researches into industrial cancer and particularly on the incidence of this disease among those who worked in sooty surroundings. From this he began to take an interest in sweeps as persons and this led him to investigate the history of the trade. The collection was later divided and much of the books and literature were given to Leeds Central Library, whilst prints and other ephemera remained at the museum. 

Leeds Pottery Collection

The manuscript volumes known as the Leeds Pottery Drawing Books were compiled and used in the Leeds factory as a guide and record of the products. They contain pen and ink drawings of high quality and where enamelled products are recorded they are in water-colour. The books date from 1778 to 1779. Of the twelve known drawing books, nine are owned by Leeds Libraries and Information Services and the other three are in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Pattern Books, dated between 1783 and 1814, form the printed trade catalogue of the factory. They contain a series of engraved plates of designs selected from the Drawing Books issued with a key, or index, in several languages. 

Alf Mattison Collection

Alf Mattison maintained a valuable record of the history of socialism in Leeds and was a prolific compiler and collector of newscuttings, books and ephemera relating to the Labour movement. In 1929 he sold this collection to Edward Brotherton to be housed in the Leeds University Library. His other great interest was local history and he regularly gave lectures in venues across the city and published The Romance of Old Leeds in 1908. The collection of material that was donated to Leeds Central Library by his widow in 1946 is predominantly made up of newspaper cuttings, manuscripts of lecture notes and unpublished articles relating to Leeds history and prominent individuals. It also contains 16 volumes of diaries dating from 1925 – 1944. 

Riley Collection

A complete set of Willie Riley’s books donated to the Central Library. Many of these have personal dedications by the author written inside to members of his family. The collection also contains a number of Willie’s unpublished short novels, sermons and book reviews. 

Sanderson Collection

Kenneth Sanderson (1896 -1977) was an avid costume collector and fashion enthusiast throughout his life. Sanderson’s collection was purchased by Leeds City Council in 1949, and was consequently split between Leeds Museums and Leeds Central Library—Lotherton Hall now houses the textiles and costume pieces, and the Library holds the printed materials. This collection contains fashion plates, magazines, books and photographs dating from the 1770s to the 1950s. 

Scatcherd Collection

Alice Cliff Scatcherd (1842-1906) was a lifelong campaigner for women’s rights who lived much of her life in Morley. She was secretary for the Leeds branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS) and one of the founding members and treasurer of the Women’s Franchise League. Her scrapbook  comprises letters, photos and letterpress relating to the national suffrage campaign, politics, education and Morley civic life. The rest of the collection includes Scatcherd family records, portraits and papers collected by Norrison Scatcherd.  
View scrapbook  
 

Arthington Trust Collection of Missionary Tracts

The Arthington Trust Collection consists of approximately 1000 early twentieth century missionary reports, pamphlets, magazines and books. Much of the material is by or about the Baptist Missionary Society and the London Missionary Society and was originally collected by Robert Arthington, born in Leeds in 1823. The Arthington family had made money in the brewery trade and Robert became a wealthy man on the death of his father. He developed a keen interest in missionary work and set up the Arthington Trust to administer money to the above named missionary societies. The collection was donated to Central Library in 1956. 

Crosfill Bequest

Collection of material relating to the temperance movement.  

Political Cartoon Collection

The Collection mainly covers 19th-century Parliamentary elections in Leeds between 1868 and 1880.   

Treasures

This selection of a few highlights represents the significance and breadth of materials held by Leeds Libraries. 

Book of Hours

The Horae beatae Mariae Virginis, or Book of Hours, was given to the library in 1929 by Beryl Gott, who also bequeathed the botanical collection that bears her family name. This illuminated manuscript was probably produced in Paris c. 1480.

Saxton Atlas

The Leeds copy of Saxton’s Atlas was acquired for the library in 1951. 

Often referred to as the ‘father of English cartography’, little is known about the personal life of Christopher Saxton. He was probably born in the Yorkshire parish of Dewsbury in the early 1540s. Later his family moved to Dunningley between Morley and Middleton in the South Leeds area. He began his survey of England in 1574 and of Wales in 1577. The first copper plates were engraved in 1574 and the atlas was completed in 1578. The atlas contains 35 hand coloured maps of the counties of England and Wales.

Cistercian Missal

Leeds Central Library acquired the Cistercian Missal from an auction at Sotheby's in December 1901 for the sum of £5. 

At over 500 years old the book has an extraordinary history. According to Thomas Wilson the book had ‘probably been preserved by William Cooke of Beeston when Kirkstall Abbey was dissolved’. The known provenance of the Missal suggests that it is highly likely that the book was used by the Cistercian monks of Kirkstall Abbey.

Animal Locomotion (1872-1885) Eadweard Muybridge

The library possesses a very rare complete edition of Animal Locomotion. It consists of eleven large folio volumes with a full set of 781 plates, over 20,000 images in total. The work was published exclusively by subscription at a price of one hundred dollars for each copy. One hundred plates constituted a copy of the work. Subscribers chose their selection from the 781 plates available in the prospectus and catalogue. As a result, the sets differ depending on the interests of the individual subscribers. 

Antarctic photographs

An album of more than ninety photographs taken during the Antarctic expedition by the ship 'Morning' acting as a relief ship to Captain Scott's 1901-4 Discovery expedition. The Morning made two voyages to the Antarctic, on the second it returned with the whaling ship the ‘Terra Nova’ with orders to rescue Discovery which had been trapped in the ice.

The Birds of Great Britain. 1862-1873. John Gould.

Often described as "the most sumptuous and costly of the British bird books" (Mullens & Swann), our first edition set has five volumes which contain 376 coloured plates. The work was issued in 25 parts and Gould's illustrations were all painstakingly coloured by hand.  

Leeds Libraries also has Goulds’ six volume set; A monograph of the Trochilidæ, or family of humming-birds, published 1861-1887.

Research Guides 

These research guides provide thematic overviews of some of our collection areas. They are a curated selection of material designed as a starting point for your research.

Blog

The Secret Library is home to Leeds Libraries heritage blog. It gives a behind the scenes look at our stunning 1884 Central Library building and an insight into its history and architecture. We also highlight different items from our Special Collections, including rare books, manuscripts, prints and playbills.  

Magnolia Box

Take a piece of history home with you! Discover beautiful maps and pottery, as well as selected images from the Gott Bequest of botanical books and the Sanderson Collection of fashion plates, available to purchase from Magnolia Box. 

Flickr 

Enjoy some of our digitised collections for free. We continue to digitise and upload new content to Flickr so that it is even easier to access our special collections. From scrapbooks to political cartoons, view some of our most unique items from the comfort of your own home. 

Exhibitions and events 

Workshops and events will take place during the year across the city to showcase our special collections. Find more information on our events page.