100 Years of the Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force was created 100 years ago on 1 April 1918.

The RAF was formed by amalgamating two units which had been formed before the outbreak of war. The Royal Flying Corps was part of the army and initially worked as observers and spotters, before developing fighter and bomber aircraft. The Royal Naval Air Service had experimented with bombing operations against German airship stations, and were tasked with the defence of Britain against German attacks.

During 1917 factors came together which led to a re-organisation of British air forces. It was increasingly important for the resources and equipment of the RFC and the RNAS to be fully co-ordinated on the Western Front. Also continued air raids by German Zeppelin airships and then aircraft on Britain, especially London, led to a call for both improved defences and retaliation raids.

The Liddle Collection, held in Special Collections, contains the personal papers of over 4,000 people who experienced the First World War, and it includes the experiences of over 300 men who fought in the air during the war.

The papers of fighter ace John Aldridge, who flew with 19 Sqn, include his logbooks with details of five aerial victories and an oil-stained map marked with the lines of trenches marked. Aldridge had joined the RFC in 1917 but only joined his squadron after the formation of the RAF.

The pace of change in the early RAF is shown in the collection of Frederick Caton. He volunteered to join the RNAS in Feb 1918, but joined the RAF in April. His training as a pilot was heavily concentrated during the summer, and he had joined 216 Sqn in France by 16 August. 216 Sqn was one of the squadrons formed to carry out strategic bombing of Germany partly in retaliation for attacks on London.

The Women’s Royal Air Force was also formed in April 1918, and the Liddle Collection includes the recollections of Dorothy Shadbolt, who was a munitions worker before joining the WRAF, and those of Magda Elliott who was a nurse before becoming a translator at the new Air Ministry.

Maurice le Blanc Smith was another pilot who had a series of victories in the summer of 1918. He also fought against Manfred von Richtofen, the ‘Red Baron’. Some of his possession, including his logbooks and mascot ‘Adolphus’ (pictured below), are on display in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery until mid May 2018.

Maurice le Blanc Smith’s mascot ‘Adolphus’

New Accessions – January 2018

In January we added an interesting nineteenth century manuscript recipe book to our Cookery Collection.  A signature dated 1824 inside the front cover shows that Nanny Clayton from Bierley in Bradford was the original owner.  Evidently religious, Nanny used the notebook to record extracts from the Bible which inspired her.

On 27 February 1829 Nanny married Benjamin Gummersall of Birstall in St. Peter’s Church, Bradford.  After her marriage Nanny turned the book upside down and back to front.  Signing it with her new name and place of residence, Dudley Hill, she began to write in it from what had previously been the back page.  Nanny saw her marriage as a new stage in her life and writings.

Her first entry was the ‘Christmas Hymn’ by the Reverend William Carus Wilson taken from the magazine ‘The Children’s Friend’.  Carus Wilson was the founder of the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge which the Brontë sisters attended.  He features in Charlotte Brontë’s novel ‘Jane Eyre’ as the overbearing head of Lowood School, Mr Brocklehurst.

The recipes in the notebook are in two different hands, neither of them Nanny’s.  Many are for cakes or buns so whoever recorded them seems to have had a sweet tooth!  The recipes include tipsy cake, lunch cake and raspberry buns.  The one recipe which Nanny probably wrote is on a loose scrap of paper and is a ‘Remedy for Ruhmatic’.

Pudding recipes from Nanny Gummersall’s manuscript notebook. Image credit Leeds University Library.

We have also added archives to the Theatre Company Blah, Blah, Blah Collection.  Set up in Harehills, Leeds, in 1985 the Blah’s are a Theatre in Education Company for children and young people.  The organisation offers interactive theatre sessions and workshops for schools which help children to develop their language and listening skills and to explore new ideas.

The Blah’s archive collection contains project files for teachers and production files.  There are many scripts including ones by well-known playwrights such as Mark Catley who has written for ‘Casualty’ and ‘Call the Midwife’, and Mike Kenny a leading writer in young people’s theatre.  Colourful publicity material includes posters and flyers.

In the bleak midwinter…

With 2018 well underway, Christmas and New Year celebrations seem a long time ago, but winter is still very much with us. This month the reading room team have chosen three items in the collections with a winter theme, all of which have been consulted in the Special Collections reading room.

The first item is a volume of The Birds of Great Britain by John Gould (1873) which has proved popular due to the Big Garden BirdWatch challenge our colleagues in the Treasures Gallery team have been tweeting about.  This beautiful image is of a Snow bunting, or Snowflake.  A large number of our team are wildlife enthusiasts and, upon learning that a pair of peregrines were nesting in the tower of the Parkinson Building last year, regularly checked their progress.

LAVC papers
Papers from the Leeds Archive for Vernacular Culture. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Our second item is a file of articles and letters about winter and spring festivals from the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture collection. One recorded in 1967 describes a Pembrokeshire new year custom in which children would hold sprigs of sea spurge and sprinkle water on passers-by to bring them good luck in exchange for pennies. Another documents a Swiss custom held on February 1st called The Burning of the L’hom Strom, or Straw Man. The ceremony is pagan in origin, with the Straw Man representing winter. It is drawn through the streets by horses and burned to herald the returning sun.

Further information is available about the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture heritage lottery project on our website.

Artists' book
Ice blue no.5. by Pat Hodson with words by Liz Cashdan. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Our final choice is from the Artists’ Books collection Ice Blue no.5 is a concertina-shaped art work comprised of a collage of layers of transparent material and stitching, reminiscent of ice and drawing on memories of Iceland. It is adorned with words from a poem ‘Two Islands’.  It is a collaboration between the artist Pat Hodson and the poet Liz Cashdan.  Artists’ books are intriguing and the team always look forward to retrieving from this collection as we never know what we’re going to find.

We hope you enjoyed our selection of winter – themed items. If you’d like to see them for yourself, or anything else in our collections, please get in touch to book a visit. Special Collections is open to the public and you can find information about planning a visit on our website.

Mounting an Exhibition

Our Assistant Conservation Officer, Eugenie Karen, gives an update on plans for our new exhibition.  Preparations for the fifth changing exhibition in the Treasures Gallery are well underway.  ‘Rights and Romance: Representing Gypsy Lives’ showcases items from our Gypsy, Traveller and Roma collections.  It will open on 1 March.

Exhibition planning requires extensive teamwork and cooperation.  Given that this is now our fifth outing, our systems are running in a near well-oiled fashion.  However similar the processes are though, each show stands alone because the material going on display brings its own challenges.

As a conservator, I am tasked with assessing whether the objects are suitable to be put on display.  I am then required to ensure that each item receives what is in effect a care plan.  I need to ensure the object is as comfortable as possible for the duration of its exposure.  After the initial assessment and the green light is given, I decide what the object needs in terms of light levels, temperature and support.

Supports are not there to be seen.  We try to ensure that the object is showcased to its best advantage, but if you ever visit an exhibition and see a person contorting themselves to examine something behind the object, they are probably a visiting conservator getting inspiration.  Sometimes we make the supports in house, using polyester film, acrylic supports, foam, box board or simply paper or mount board.

Sometimes an object demands more to show it to its full advantage.  Included in the upcoming exhibition are two flowers crafted from wood shavings.  They are incredibly delicate and brittle.  There are not many objects in this exhibition so we decided that these two items ought to achieve an extra prominence by getting bespoke mounts made.

woodshaving flowers
Flowers made out of woodshavings mounted on Perspex stands. Image credit Leeds University Library.

It was felt that such fragile items ought to ‘float’ and I called upon the expertise of Jon Baxter, a local mount maker.  We devised a design whereby a clear Perspex mount would cradle the heavier ‘head’ of the flower counterbalanced by a hole through which the stem would slot which raises the whole thing above the surface of the case.

We won’t know how fully we have achieved our aim until we begin installation in February but I am confident they will look beautiful.

Reuniting correspondence: Merle Brown and Jon Silkin

Letter to Merle Brown from Jon Silkin, 19 July 1969
Letter to Merle Brown from Jon Silkin, 19 July 1969

Tracing literary correspondence can be a frustrating experience for researchers. An archive does not usually include letters written its creator, which can be scattered across many collections or held in private hands. A good example of this phenomenon is the Jon Silkin archive in Special Collections. The archive contains a large series of letters written to and kept by Silkin, but little of his own correspondence.

Having held the Silkin Archive since 1995, Special Collections was very lucky to be offered, in 2015, a series of letters written by Jon Silkin and Lorna Tracey to Merle Brown. Brown was an academic, critic, and founder of the Iowa Review. The letters were kindly donated by Brown’s widow, Carolyn. Some of Brown’s letters to Silkin are in BC MS 20c Silkin/8/BRO-3.

Silkin’s letters to Brown were written between 1965 and 1978, and offer an insight into the personal and professional relationship between the two men. 

Brown, who described Silkin’s The Peaceable Kingdom (1954) as ‘the finest first volume of poetry written by a living English poet’ contributed critical essays to Stand magazine during Silkin’s editorship. He regularly critiqued Silkin’s poetry, writing an essay on Silkin’s ‘Amana Grass’ in the inaugural issue of the Iowa Review.

The letters show Silkin’s rigorous responses to Brown’s writing, and include detailed discussion of his own poetry. At one point, he writes ‘in my mid-thirties I’ve hardly evolved a ‘style’ of my own’ [12th Nov 65].

Much of the correspondence focuses on the work of creating and maintaining Stand. Silkin and Tracey regularly mention the pressure of maintaining the magazine. The letters give real insight into the business of publishing literary magazines in this period. They describe frequent ‘sales’ tours whilst staying on friends floors and sofas and also adapting to new technology.  Tracey discusses the potential purchase of an IBM  Selectric Composer, and an addressograph machine.

It is rare and fortunate to be able to reunite both sides of a correspondence which had been continents apart.

Learning, Sharing and Planning for the Year Ahead!

Special Collections and Leeds University Library Galleries started the year with a day of sharing, learning and planning at a staff away day. It was a great opportunity to bring everyone together and reflect on all that we achieved in 2017 across Special Collections and both Galleries.

We started the day with a few exercises to find out more about everyone in the room. We discovered that the most languages spoken by one person is three. We have many musical team members, with the cello, guitar and tuba among the instruments played, definitely enough to start a Special Collections band! Many of our team members hold multiple roles within the University, the most being three by one person. Lots of our wonderful staff have been on television at least once – so much star quality!

The core focus of conversation throughout the day was about further increasing access to our world-renowned collections for students, academic staff, researchers and the wider public. We heard about the ways in which our teams have already been working on this and shared with colleagues what have been the most significant changes.

In the Galleries we have had a Visitor Experience team restructure and welcomed two new wonderful Gallery Assistants, and a new Galleries Events and Marketing Assistant. This has helped us to provide consistent service to our visitors and focus on providing excellent customer service. The Special Collections Reading Room team have updated all of their manuals and documentation to make them more accessible to visitors. This will ensure that researchers using Special Collections have all of the information they need.


Collections and Engagement Managers working across the service discussed the huge amount of material bequeathed to the University’s collections last year and the on-going task of cataloguing it all and making it available for future access and display. Our Digital Content team shared their work around visitor enquires and setting targets to reduce response time. Their aim is to facilitate access to Special Collections material as quickly as possible and continuing to develop the fantastic service they provide.

Medical Manuscripts Image Capture
How the medical manuscripts were captured. Image credit Leeds University Library.

We heard about an exciting marketing campaign being developed for 2018. It will increase awareness of the Galleries in the Leeds to ensure that as many people as possible know what an amazing asset we are to the city, and that we are free and open to all! The Galleries are currently working with a design company to develop new concepts and create eye-catching visuals – be on the lookout throughout May and let us know where you spot them!


Did you know that archives can sometimes contain hazardous materials? We learned what to look out for and how to take precautions when dealing with potential risks in our collections. Did you know that degrading film negatives emit vinegar fumes, called ‘vinegar syndrome’ or that toxic arsenic was used in a 19th and early 20th century conservation technique for damaged paper called ‘silking’? We were encouraged that our Collections Care Team are making sure collections hazards are being logged and managed safely.

With everything from marketing to archives, we had a fantastic day of sharing, reflecting and planning and are looking forward to an exciting year to come! Special Collections and the Galleries are open to staff, students and the public six days a week, so come along and find out more about the amazing exhibitions, displays, archives and research resources we have to offer!

Perronet Thompson – a distinguished, globe trotting family

December was a relatively quiet month for new accruals.  A highlight was a small collection of documents added to our Thomas Perronet Thompson Collection.  The archives include ‘A Pedigree of Perronet and Thompson’ by Henry Wagner, FSA, (1840-1926) showing the families’ ancestry from the early 1600s.  Wagner is mainly remembered today for his extensive research into the family history of British Huguenots in the 19th century.

In the pedigree Wagner traces the family back to the French Benjamin Mestral, Seigneur des Vaux and Catherine Baptiste, of Lausanne, who married in 1621.  Jean, the husband of their daughter Susanne, is the first Perronet listed.  His family came from Berne in Switzerland.

Many of Jean and Susanne’s descendants had impressive careers.  They include Jean-Rodolphe Perronet (1708-1794) a celebrated French civil engineer.  Perronet discovered how to design stone arch bridges with narrower piers.  These created larger areas for boats to pass through.  Best known for the Pont de la Concorde in Paris, Perronet continued to work on the construction of the bridge despite the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.  He was an inspirational teacher and founded the world’s first engineering school in 1747.

William Perronet (1729-1781) was a surgeon and apothecary who, for several years, served as an army surgeon.  Although he was not closely involved with the Methodist movement some letters between him and Charles Wesley exist in the Wesley family archives.  William’s brother’s Charles (1723-1776) and Edward (1726-1792) were Methodists for a time and worked as itinerant preachers accompanying Charles Wesley on his tours.

Vincent Perronet
Vincent Perronet, Mayor of Exeter 1944-1945, brother of Sir John Perronet. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Many of the family served with the army or became colonial administrators.  One such was Sir John Perronet Thompson (1873-1935) a colonial administrator in Simla and Delhi, India.  He was Chief Commissioner for Delhi from 1928-1932.  Our new accrual includes some of John’s letters to his sister Isabel written from 1898-1932, a copy of his speech to the House of Commons and an address to the Lincoln Diocesan Conference ‘The Problem in India’ both dated 1932.

In his correspondence and speeches Thompson comments on political and social issues in India.  He was evidently an advocate of independence for the country long before it happened.  His letters also include news about the Thompson family.  When Isabel asks about career prospects for her son, Basil, Thompson advises that colonial administration in India is no longer a good option.