OWNERSHIP of a rare and irreplaceable collection of thousands of books, bibles, letters and pamphlets gifted to Skipton more than 300 years ago is in dispute.

Ermysted's Grammar School wants joint ownership with Skipton Town Council of the Petyt Library, which was moved from Skipton Library to York University in 2018 with the intention it would reach a more appreciative audience.

In the first four months of the collection being in York, it had received twice the number of visitors it had received in the whole 12 years it had been stored in Skipton Library. And since being under the expert care of the university, more items have been discovered, and is now up to 5,000.

Now, the five year arrangement with York University is under review, with the university wanting to extend it to a 25-year lease; but Ermysted's says its 'joint ownership' needs to be recognised, while town councillors say the school can only be acknowledged as 'owning some of the books in the collection' - even though which books has been unclear since they first arrived in the town.

Ermysted's also wants to be represented on the Petyt Library Trust - membership of which is currently made up of all 16 members of the town council.

The library - collected by Craven born brothers Silvester and William Petyt - started arriving in Skipton in the first decade of the 18th century. It includes 15th century bibles, 17th century atlases and a 1580's edition of chronicles, Shakespeare's source for his history plays.

The books were to form a library at the parish church, including some 'for the use of the grammar school'. Silvester and William had both been students at the school while living in Storiths before becoming prominent lawyers based in London.

The books were originally housed in a small room in the church, at Ermysted's and then on the top floor of Skipton Library before being moved to York.

The collection is open to the public, but by appointment as the books need to be viewed in climate controlled conditions. A party of town councillors and officers and Ermysted's headteacher, Michael Evans, and governor, Stuart Clarkson recently visited the collection.

At the last full meeting of the town council, members were recommended to confirm joint ownership, to increase the length of the lease, and to pursue representation on the trust by the school.

But, Cllr Claire Nash said it was not joint ownership that the school wanted but acknowledgement that it 'owned some books' and claimed it was not what had been discussed at an earlier meeting of the Petyt Library Steering Group, which had been attended by both Mr Evans and Mr Clarkson.

Cllr Robert Heseltine said ownership of the collection could not be proved by either parties, but that both had a 'joint interest' in the library and said the school could apply to be represented on the trust, adding that 'public administration' was the best way forward. There was also dispute that the matter was not for the town council, but for the library trust.

A decision was adjourned for further talks with the school.

Following the meeting, Stuart Clarkson, vice chair of governors at Erymsted's, told the Craven Herald: "We have made it clear from the outset that Ermysted’s would like our joint ownership - not joint interest - of the Petyt Library collection to be formally recognised - both in the agreement with York University and the constitution of the Petyt Library Trust going forward.

"We know from the material in our archives that this ‘debate’ has been going on for decades and we hope to resolve the matter once and for all so that when the next long-term loan agreement comes to an end there is clarity for whoever the individuals are who are lucky enough to be dealing with this in 25 years’ time.

"Our position remains that the Ermysted’s Grammar School Foundation owns a significant part of the Petyt Library collection - both in terms of the number of volumes but also the importance and value of those items within the collection, hence we seek our joint ownership to be recognised.

"The collection is in excellent hands at York and we would like this matter to be concluded swiftly in the interest of ensuring it can remain there for the next 25 years. But we can only agree to that extension once our joint ownership has been formally recognised."