Tag Archives: The Builder magazine

The Leeds Mummy

Leeds is an unlikely place to find a three-thousand year old Egyptian mummy. But the coffin containing the embalmed remains of Nesyamun, a priest of the ancient god Amun, was brought to Leeds in 1823 having been unearthed near Thebes in Egypt. It became the star exhibit in the newly formed Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society’s museum on Park Row (“The Philosophical Hall”) which also housed rooms for the society’s meetings, a hall for lectures and recitals, and an extensive library.

Although his coffin bears an inscription praying for Nesyamun’s freedom of movement in an eternal afterlife, it was probably not anticipated by the tomb-scribes that his soul’s wanderings would bring him to West Yorkshire. His mummified remains, however, have not since been allowed to rest in peace.

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Park Row, Leeds, 1882, by Leeds artist John Atkinson Grimshaw. Public domain

The Philosophical Hall, built in 1821 to a neo-classical design by Leeds architect R. D. Chantrell, appears in the left-foreground of Atkinson Grimshaw’s wonderfully moody, and appropriately spooky, evocation of late-Victorian Park Row (above). So successful was the Philosophical and Literary Society, and its museum, that the hall was substantially enlarged and renovated in 1862 by architects Dobson & Chorley, who gave it the impressive porch we see in the painting. The splendid Italian-gothic Beckett’s Bank appears opposite (designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, who also built the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station in London).

On visiting Leeds in 1896, The Builder magazine praised Park Row “for its remarkable succession of large and dignified buildings”, adding, “…it is not often that one meets with a modern city street which can show so large a proportion of buildings that are worth notice.” For almost 150 years Park Row was home to the earthly remains of Nesyamun, the “Leeds Mummy”, but, inevitably, few of the street’s buildings “worth notice”, now remain.

By the time of its renovation in the eighteen-sixties, the Philosophical Hall’s museum (according to its historian, E. Kitson Clark) “…was equal, if not superior, to that of any other provincial institution. It comprised 7,000 geological, 1,300 Mineralogical, 6,000 Zoological specimens, and the most remarkable Mummy in the kingdom.”

Other notable exhibits were the skeleton of a female elephant, late of Wombwell’s traveling Menagerie, and those of an Irish elk, an Ichthyosaurus and a Plesiosaurus, plus the stuffed bodies of a young lion, an armadillo and a boa constrictor, also acquired from Wombwell’s. The bones and teeth of a “Great Northern Hippopotamus”, discovered in a brick-yard at Wortley, were featured, as were two skulls of extinct bears, a slab of Breccia with prehistoric flint implements from the Dordogne Valley, and mummies of crocodiles, plus implements and bones from a tumulus on Esketh Moor, near Thirsk. The Archaeological Room displayed a magnificent collection of Greek Marbles, Roman Altars and Querns, together with a tessellated Roman pavement from Isurium (Aldborough, Yorkshire).

Entry was cheap and, “The Museum attracted thousands of visitors, many of whom were in the humbler walk of life, whose decorous conduct…deserved commendation” (presumably their “decorous conduct” was not normally to be relied upon!). A photo of the Zoological Room shows an impressive space well-lit by skylights, with large exhibits in the middle, surrounded by a good many (now terminally old-fashioned) glass display cases at floor level, and a further course of collections running  along a gallery above.

It may seem perverse to bomb someone who has already been dead for three-thousand years, but on 15th March 1941 a German air-raid shell exploded in the Philosophical Hall and disturbed Nesyamun’s slumbers. The building’s frontage was destroyed and three floors towards the front collapsed, so that the curator found himself conducting an archaeological dig in the wreckage of his own museum.

Although the glass case surrounding Nesyamun’s coffin was shattered, the coffin and the mummy within were largely undamaged. Rubble was swiftly cleared, exhibits were recovered, and damage done to taxonomic figures (such as that of Mok the Gorilla, late of London zoo) was repaired. Much of the building, and its essential structure, remained intact, so that the museum’s lunch-time music recitals in the lecture hall were resumed after just a few months’ work, and the whole building was reopened by the Lord Mayor in June 1942.

Given this, it is maddening that the Philosophical Hall was closed in 1965, and demolished the year after, to make way for the atrocious HSBC building that now occupies its spot. The hall had been transferred into the ownership of Leeds Corporation in 1921 and that body never properly restored the frontage, settling for a temporary concrete render that gave it a “makeshift appearance” (according to the Yorkshire Post in 1953). The glorious Beckett’s Bank building, opposite, was demolished around the same time to make way for an anonymous NatWest Bank.

Today’s City Museum (including Nesyamun, and the Great Stuffed Bengal Tiger) was opened in the Mechanics Institute building on Cookridge Street in 2008. Good effort though this is, it only displays a tiny fraction of the collections on show in the old building (the rest is in storage), which could claim to be a natural and local history museum of national importance. Also lost is the architectural quality of the Philosophical Hall itself, and its quality as a centre of municipal cultural and intellectual life. Meanwhile Nesyamun slumbers on – indifferently and indestructibly – as the millennia roll past.

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A reconstruction of how the coffin of Nesyamun might originally have appeared. By Tomohawk (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sources:

Books: The History of 100 Years of Life of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, E. Kitson Clark (1924); The Coffin of Nesyamun, the “Leeds mummy, Belinda Wassell (2008); Building a Great Victorian City, Leeds Architects and Architecture, 1790-1914; West Yorkshire Architects and Architecture, D. Linstrum (1978).

Newspapers: The Builder, 12/12/1896; Leeds Mercury, 17/12/1862; Yorkshire Evening Post, 27/3/1941, 2/3/1942; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 24/3/1941, 28/3/1941, 24/6/1942, 7/7/1941, 3/8/1944, 15/7/1953

A Botanical Building

On the road from Leeds to Shipley, I often admire the old Carnegie Library building at Windhill that stands empty and decaying. This fine brown-stone structure has a simple grandeur to it, with its pleasing curves, roof-pinnacles and balustrade-fronted gallery. It was one of many public libraries in the UK financed in Edwardian times by Scottish-American steel baron Andrew Carnegie. But despite Carnegie’s generosity, it strikes me that the likelihood of this building’s ultimate demise was inherent from its beginning.

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Windhill Carnegie Library, Shipley, photo c1968, courtesy of Bradford Local Studies Library.

Windhill library was built in 1905, financed by a £3000 donation from Carnegie and designed by Bradford architect Abraham Sharp. At that time it was not a middle-of-nowhere relic complicating a busy traffic junction, but an integral part of a vibrant local centre of shops, pubs and other community institutions. On opening, the place was distinguished enough to merit a column in The Builder magazine that described its internal splendour.

The front doors apparently led into a vestibule and a hexagonal entrance-hall whose flooring consisted of terrazzo mosaic tiling. Beyond this was the main lending library, flanked by a reference library to one side and a reading room to the other, furnished in varnished pitch-pine and teak. The librarian’s room was situated in a central position on a raised platform to “afford full supervision” (it was, after all, a more paternalistic age!). There was space for 8,000 books and 50 readers. Upstairs there was a student’s room, a ladies’ room, a patent journal room, toilets for both sexes, a tea-room and a lecture hall accommodating 150 persons. Sliding partitions enabled the whole floor to be opened out for greater numbers if need be.

By contrast, I was able to peer inside the library on a recent visit to observe a derelict shell gutted of its original features. Paint is peeling from the ceiling and dangling in shards, and rubbish is strewn across the exposed concrete base. Most of the window glass has been replaced by haphazard boarding, but the building is not weatherproof since several frames on the upper story gape empty. Much of the external woodwork is rotting, and areas of stonework are buckling and crumbling. Somewhere along the line it has lost its tower, and the place may be said to have joined the ranks of those neglected “botanical buildings” that harbour cultures of vegetation growing out of their guttering.

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 My  photos, taken 8th August 2016

Given how well-appointed the structure was initially, it is interesting to note that Carnegie’s contribution to such institutions went no further than funding the actual building work. Also, given his control-freakery regarding the more prestigious philanthropic foundations that bore his name, it is surprising how much the relevant local authorities were simply given the money and told to get on with.

Working through his secretaries, Carnegie stipulated only that local authorities provide the land, set aside ten percent of the building’s cost annually for its maintenance, and sign-up to the Public Libraries Act of 1850 which enabled them to raise a penny rate for the provision of books. No architectural uniformity was imposed, nor was any charter issued setting out how the actual business of a Carnegie library was to be conducted. Concerning grants to build public libraries in New York City, Carnegie declared: “I give you the seed, cultivate it as you will.”

Deciding which localities were to benefit from his bounty seems similarly lax. The field was thrown open to UK applications in 1902, and hopeful local authorities were to send requests to Carnegie’s secretaries. If approved the council signed a pledge agreeing to the basic Carnegie terms, and the money arrived by instalments as work progressed. The amount given to a town was based on the size of its civic population.

The first Carnegie Library in England (which, unlike Windhill, is protected by a Grade II listing) was opened in 1904 at Keighley, and it got £10,000 (to Windhill’s £3,000), which stretched to mounting a marble bust of Carnegie on a pedestal within. Apparently Carnegie toyed with Sir Swire Smith, who was associated with the Keighley application, by initially offering him $50,000 dollars when Smith was staying with the magnate at his Scottish castle of Skibo, only to rescind the offer next morning with a carefree quip.

This incident suggests that Carnegie enjoyed the power his money gave him over people. “The man who dies rich,” he however declared, “dies disgraced.” Free libraries were just one beneficiary of his untiring efforts to divest himself of his fortune towards the end of his life, but many questioned the philanthropic sincerity of someone who had reputedly made his pile ruthlessly and without regard for workers’ rights.

Another ground for criticism of Carnegie returns us to the present plight of the Windhill library building. Because he did not settle permanent endowment funds on such institutions that could finance books, staff and upkeep, Carnegie did not safeguard them against changing times. He built 660 free libraries in Great Britain in total, but a report on UK library provision in 1914 found that some were underprovided as regards the quantity and quality of their book-stock. Revenue from the penny rate was simply insufficient in some cases, and one commentator talked of “overbuilding” leaving many smaller towns with “collections of bricks rather than of books.”

The upstairs floor at Windhill apparently came to be used as a function hall and ballroom, but when the new Shipley library was opened in 1985 the building closed. It was reputedly leased to the Irish Folk Music Society and a Pentecostal church at one time or another, but it was sold to private owners in 2006 since when it has been neglected. The lack of a permanent endowment may prove fatal to its survival. I’ve just looked at a current photo of Carnegie Hall in New York City and am unsurprised to find that it does not have wild bushes growing from its skyline.   

Sources & Acknowledgements:

The Builder, 27th January, 1906, p. 99; Post Office Bradford Directory, 1909; Carnegie by Peter Krass, 2002; Little Boss: a life of Andrew Carnegie by James A. Mackay, 1997; Books for the People: An Illustrated History of the British Public Library by Thomas Kelly, 1977; The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland Vol III 1850-2000; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Andrew Carnegie; A file of various press sources available at Bradford Local Studies Library.

I am grateful for the help given to me by staff at Bradford Local Studies Library and Keighley Local Studies Library.