A UNIQUE assemblage of items, diligently put together in the 17th century by two of Yorkshire’s most successful philanthropists, owned by Skipton Town Council and until recently housed in the town, is set to enhance the reputation of York University’s rare books collection as a vital research resource.

The Petyt Collection was until late last year stored in special rooms at Skipton Library, it is now on loan for the next few years at least to York University, where it is set to fascinate and enthral academics from both home and abroad.

When brothers William and Sylvester Petyt travelled to London from 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 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 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 chief officer at Skipton Town Council, Dave Parker.

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.

Sarah called the council and asked if she could help, by offering to house the entire collection.

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.

“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.

“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,” she says.

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 and a delegation from Skipton Town Council visited to see how their collection will aid research.

“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.”

Two public events are due to take place at the university, on June 19, a drop in session between 1.30pm and 3pm, and on June 13, four academics will talk about the collection, to find out more, visit: york.ac.uk/news-and-events/events/public-lectures/summer-2019/petyt-collection/