Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thoresby, Ralph
THORESBY, RALPH (1658–1725), antiquary and topographer, was the son of John Thoresby by his wife Ruth, daughter of Ralph Idle of Bulmer in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His father was a Leeds wool and cloth merchant in good circumstances, who had served in the parliamentarian army under Fairfax, and had again joined his old general on his rising in arms against the Rump. The family of Thoresby of Thuresby in Wensleydale was of respectable and ancient descent, and the antiquary, who represented the family through a younger branch, was especially proud of the connection with John Thoresby [q. v.], the archbishop of York.
Thoresby was born in Leeds on 16 Aug. 1658 in his father's house, the seventeenth in line between Kirkgate End and Vicar Lane. He was educated first in the school, formerly the chantry, near the bridge at Leeds, and subsequently at the Leeds grammar school. In 1677 he was sent to London to acquire mercantile knowledge in the household of a relative, John Dickenson, a cloth merchant of Leeds and London. His father's instructions ‘to be always employed in some lawful employment or other’ (Letter from John to Ralph Thoresby, 15 Aug. 1677, Hunter's preface to Thoresby's Diary) allowed him considerable liberty of action, and he appears to have occupied more time in attending nonconformist services, visiting remarkable places, and copying inscriptions than in studying the methods of commerce. Following his father's advice contained in the same letter, ‘to take a little journal of anything remarkable every day,’ he began at this time to write the diary which he continued throughout life, making his first entry on 2 Sept. 1677. In February 1678 he returned to Leeds, where he remained till July, when he was despatched to Rotterdam to learn Dutch and French, and to continue his mercantile training. Here he also indulged his growing predilection for antiquarian research, and much of his time was spent in noting important buildings, copying epitaphs and inscriptions. A serious form of ague from which he recovered with difficulty compelled him to return to Leeds in December 1678.
Thoresby's responsibilities were suddenly increased by the death, on 30 Oct. 1679, of his father, with whom he had always lived on terms of the closest intimacy. Left with a moderate fortune and a brother and sister to settle in life, he determined to carry on his father's business; but during the next five years, though he sometimes attended the market, the bulk of his time, according to his diary, appears to have been spent in discursive reading and antiquarian study. He paid occasional visits to London, partly on business and partly to buy books, and on one of these occasions, in October 1680, he attended the levee of the Duke of Monmouth. At this period Thoresby was a presbyterian and a zealous attendant at nonconformist gatherings. In December 1683 he was indicted at quarter sessions under the Conventicle Act, but was acquitted (Hunter, i. 190). After this he regularly attended one service each Sunday at the established church, to which he eventually conformed. In May 1684 Thoresby made an effort to enlarge his business by entering the linen trade, and for this purpose purchased his freedom in the Incorporated Society of Merchant Adventurers trading to Hamburg, but with no great success.
Meanwhile he was making a reputation as an antiquary and collector. The collection of coins and medals bought by his father from Lord Fairfax's executors for 185l. served as a nucleus for the ‘museum of rarities’ for which Thoresby importunately begged and indefatigably collected throughout life. He lent a number of his Saxon coins in 1682 to Obadiah Walker [q. v.] to be engraved in his edition of Spelman's ‘Life of King Alfred.’ Edmund Gibson [q. v.], afterwards bishop of London, and Sir Andrew Fountaine [q. v.] were subsequently indebted to him for similar loans for illustration in Camden's ‘Britannia’ and the ‘Numismata.’ Thornton, the recorder of Leeds, and William Nicolson [q. v.], bishop of Carlisle, were among the earliest of his literary friends; but he rapidly improved his acquaintance with such kindred spirits as Bishop Gibson, Gale, Hickes, Hearne, Richardson, Ray, Strype, and Bishop Kennett.
Thoresby appears first to have begun definitely collecting material for his topographical work, the ‘Ducatus Leodiensis,’ in 1691 or 1692. In 1693 he was in possession of considerable material, and his knowledge at this time enabled him to revise, at Bishop Gibson's request, the account of the West Riding of Yorkshire in Camden's ‘Britannia.’ The plan of his work was designed in 1695, and he was encouraged to pursue the task energetically by both John Evelyn and Bishop Gibson in May 1699. Its progress was, however, hampered by other occupations of the author, who was elected a common councillor of Leeds on 21 June 1697, and took the oaths of allegiance and supremacy on 23 June. He was also elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1697, his qualifications being communications on botanical subjects and northern Roman remains. The following year he was much harassed through difficulties in connection with an unlucky oil-mill speculation at Sheepscar in which he had embarked in 1689. It ultimately caused the loss of his capital and involved him in a lawsuit, and he was for a short time imprisoned for debt. In 1699, after long consideration and much correspondence with his friend John Sharp (1645–1714) [q. v.], archbishop of York, he publicly conformed to the church of England, ‘judging it to be the strongest bulwark against popery, and a union of protestants absolutely necessary.’ Thoresby finally withdrew from business in 1705, and, having also retired from the corporation, devoted himself mainly to the extension of his museum and the composition of the ‘Ducatus,’ a portion of which was submitted to, and received the approval of, George Hickes [q. v.] in January 1709. Though singularly industrious and much attached to the subject, Thoresby found the work more tedious than he had expected (Hearne, Coll. ii. 19), and its progress was very slow. The book was published by subscription in May or June 1715. There was a first dedication to the Marquis of Carmarthen, and a second to the mayor and aldermen of Leeds; in all some two thousand copies were printed, and the price appears to have been 3l. for the small paper copies (Atkinson, R. Thoresby, ii. 262). On the whole the work was well received, but out of Yorkshire the long account of Thoresby's museum appears to have attracted more attention than the topographical portion. A second edition, with notes and additions by Thomas Dunham Whitaker [q. v.], appeared in 1816 (Leeds and Wakefield, fol.). Encouraged by the congratulations of his friends, Thoresby intended to complete the work by an historical account of Leeds and the neighbourhood (Thoresby to Charlett, 25 Oct. 1718, ib. p. 316). This intention was not, however, fulfilled. Apart from the history of the church of Leeds, which was issued as ‘Vicaria Leodiensis,’ only a fragment on the history of Leeds under Roman rule was completed; this was appended to the life of the antiquary in the ‘Biographia Britannica.’
In November 1715 Thoresby sent up to London, at the request of Molyneux, the Prince of Wales's secretary, good intelligence as to the march of the pretender which he received from his friend Nicolson, bishop of Carlisle. Though in some quarters he was suspected of Jacobite leanings (letter from Nathaniel Hough, 1 Feb. 1715–16, Atkinson, ii. 293), he appears to have been absolutely loyal to the Hanoverian succession. From 1716 to 1720 that part of his intended history of Leeds by him termed ‘Vicaria Leodiensis, or the History of the Church of Leedes,’ occupied his attention; the manuscript was ready for publication in 1720, and then sent to London, but the book did not appear till 1724. In 1721 he assisted Bishop Gibson again in his new edition of Camden, and made considerable corrections and additions to Collins's ‘Baronetage.’
Thoresby died on 16 Oct. 1725, and was buried on 19 Oct. among his ancestors in the chancel of St. Peter's, the parish church, Leeds. On the rebuilding of the church in 1838–41 a mural tablet was raised to his memory. Thoresby's museum and library were bequeathed to his son Ralph, after whose death they were sold by auction in London in 1764. A Thoresby Society has been founded at Leeds.
On 25 Feb. 1685 he was married to Anna, daughter and coheir of Richard Sykes of Leeds. She died in 1740. Of his ten children, only two sons and a daughter survived him. The elder son, Ralph, was rector of Stoke Newington; the younger, Richard, was rector of St. Catherine's, Coleman Street, both preferments having been granted by their father's friend Gibson, bishop of London.
Thoresby was the first Yorkshire antiquary to publish a work of importance. He had access to the original material of his friends Torre, Johnston, Richardson, and Hopkinson, which exceeded that gathered by himself. He was no real scholar, somewhat inaccurate, and (possibly from his love of rarities) excessively credulous, but his extreme industry and the exercise of boundless curiosity rendered his ‘Ducatus’ a useful and important compilation. His diary is interesting, but its minute detail is wearisome. It was published in 1830, in two volumes, under the editorship of Joseph Hunter [q. v.] The title of the Yorkshire Pepys, which has been applied to Thoresby, is undeserved. He maintained a correspondence with Hearne, and several of his letters have been published in Hearne's ‘Collections’ (Oxford Historical Society's Publications).
There is a portrait of Thoresby by Parmentier, painted in 1703, in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries; an engraving by Deane is prefixed to Hunter's edition of Thoresby's ‘Diary.’ Another engraved portrait by Vertue, completed in 1712, is prefixed to the ‘Ducatus.’
[Article in Biogr. Brit. by Ralph Thoresby, his elder son; life of the author prefixed to Thoresby's Ducatus, ed. 1816 by J. D. Whitaker; Thoresby's Diary and Correspondence, ed. Hunter; Atkinson's Ralph Thoresby the Topographer; Derham's Physico-Theology, 1723, p. 174; Gent. Mag.; Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes; Gough's Anecdotes of Brit. Topography, ii. 436.]