Unpacking part of the past

A unique assemblage of items, diligently put together in the 17th century by two of Yorkshire’s most successful philanthropists, is set to enhance the reputation of the University’s rare books collection as a vital research resource.

17th century research tools: Some of the Petyt brothers' books are unpacked in the University's library.

When brothers William and Sylvester Petyt travelled to London from their native Skipton in the mid-1600s, both had their sights set firmly on careers in law. Their Yorkshire grit saw their ambitions fulfilled and even excelled; each carved out distinguished careers as lawyers, with William even rising to the position of keeper of records for parliament.

But they never forgot their modest upbringing on the Yorkshire moors, or their schooling in Skipton, and both wanted future generations in their home county to have the opportunities they’d had. With a lawyer’s eye for detail, they set about creating a library, and shipping the books back to their native Skipton creating what’s now known as ‘The Petyt Collection’.


It was almost by chance that in late 2018, the University’s special collections librarian, Sarah Griffin, noticed an email from the town clerk at Skipton Town Council. The 2,500-book collection was taking up space needed for IT equipment and they were keen to find out whether the University could digitise the collection. Not one to let an opportunity go by, Sarah called the council and asked if she could help, by offering to house the entire collection.

The response was positive and it was quickly agreed that, while the collection remains the property of Skipton Town Council, the University will house the library for at least the next five years.

Sarah says the Petyt brothers’ collection is particularly fascinating due to the period in which it was put together.

“The brothers were living in London during the English civil war and the commonwealth period - an extremely interesting time in our history,” she says. “They collected about 2,500 contemporary books, mainly written in English. Many of the books deal with religion and politics which were closely tied together at that time.”


But Sarah says there’s an aspect of the collection which makes it a particularly interesting research tool, and something which in her experience is unique:

“The collection still has its original complete archive,” she says. “That includes its original booklists and inventories. The brothers set up and ran a trust fund through the 18th and 19th century and its records are there; that's what makes the collection such an interesting library, the archive enables researchers to see it growing and developing.”

Such a feature is highly unusual, particularly for a collection which has been frequently moved during its lifetime, and it’s this archive which is of interest to academic colleagues.

As she unpacks the plethora of boxes and cases, a myriad of historic artifacts are revealed, each one bringing the past into the present. One box is laden with seemingly countless legal documents and letters, while another contains a weighty atlas, replete with painted illustrations and fine hand-wrought lettering.


Sarah says: “I’m still unpacking so I’m not entirely sure what’s here. When the team from Skipton dropped it off they suggested there may even be a letter from Cromwell in amongst the collection. I suspect there isn’t, but I’m keeping an eye out.”

Sarah adds she’s determined that while the collection is with the University it’s seen by as many people as possible; several academic colleagues from across the university attended a welcome event in early 2019 and a delegation from Skipton Town Council visited to see how their collection will aid research.

Sarah says they’re delighted to see how the books are settling into their new home and many ideas for research opportunities are now being discussed. She even intends for the books to feature in 2019’s Festival of Ideas.

“For me the Petyt collection is fun because of its variety,” she says. “It’s full of contemporary stuff but also nice atlases, and a beautiful 1480 bible. We’re really lucky, I’m so pleased it’s here.”

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The Petyt Collection is fun because of its variety. It’s full of contemporary stuff but also nice atlases, and a beautiful 1480 bible. We’re really lucky, I’m so pleased it’s here.

Sarah Griffin
Special collections librarian

All titles in the Petyt Collection are now available via Yorsearch. Students and staff wishing to view items in the collection can do so by contacting Sarah Griffin at lib-rarebooks@york.ac.uk