Can I have your autograph?

Autograph Album 060

Does autograph collecting still exist as a hobby? I remember being given an autograph album as a child and collecting some rather schmaltzy recommendations from my nearest and dearest. I wonder whatever happened to it? A victim of some parental tidying perhaps, along with my Eagle comics and Black Bob the Dandy Wonder Dog annual. In view of the trouble I get into, more than fifty years later, by refusing to part with collections of crime stories or textbooks of archaeology it may be just as well that my juvenilia were forcibly removed.

The album I should like to describe here is a far more prestigious item. It was found in an attic at a Bradford museum. It came with no documentation of any kind and it had never been given a museum acquisition number. The album’s ex libris front-sheet design shows that in March 1911 it formed part of the library of a Lydia Milligan, and the design was expertly painted by an artist whose initials were L.K.D. The album is quarto (about the height of an A4 sheet but somewhat broader) and it is made of cardboard with a purple-brown leather finish. It contains 30 gold edged sheets on which autographs and other items are mounted, or drawn. There are several loose sheets incorporated among the pages. The album cover is not decorated and carries no manufacturer’s or stationer’s name.

Autograph Album 001

It was not possible to track down all the autographs since several are barely legible, but the collection evidently included scientists, politicians, musicians, actors, authors, explorers and doctors. Examples are: Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s bulldog), W.E. Gladstone, Richard Cobden, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Henry Irving (the great actor who actually died in Bradford), John Ruskin, and Rider Haggard. Two archaeologists are included, Flinders Petrie and Heinrich Schliemann who discovered Troy and Mycenae. Among the physicians are Sir William Gull (of Gull’s disease or myxoedema) and James Paget (of the two Paget’s diseases). This group also includes Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who became the first female doctor to be both trained and registered in the UK.

Usually names have been cut from letters and stuck in, but a few individuals are represented by complete items of correspondence. Very famous people indeed, like John Ruskin or Matthew Arnold, rate a picture, drawing and/or a poem. The individuals collected are mostly English or Scottish; there are no American presidents for example. Heinrich Schliemann and Bret Harte are rare examples of truly international figures in the album. Clearly the collector had contact with, or at least interest in, significant writers, artists, musicians, explorers, scientists and physicians; but not royalty nor the higher nobility. A surprising omission, in view of what I subsequently learned about the likely collector, are the Bradford textile barons such as Lord Masham, Sir Titus Salt or Sir Isaac Holden. In fact local figures are altogether very poorly represented, which must I think indicate a degree of disconnection from the community in which the collector was living. Four entries mention Bradford as a place but the Bradford Philosophical Society and Airedale College are the only city institutions recorded. So, who collected the autographs? Was there a single individual involved or are we looking at a joint enterprise? To understand who Lydia Milligan might have been it is necessary to describe briefly the extended Milligan family in Bradford.

Autograph Album 020

John Milligan snr (1740-1819) was a farmer in Kirkcudbright, Scotland. John was married twice. Most of his children emigrated to Yorkshire and many became important figures in the Bradford textile trade. There were two significant children (of at least five) from John’s second marriage to Elizabeth Charters (1749-1831). One was Robert Milligan (1786-1862) Bradford’s first Mayor and briefly an MP; he founded Milligan, Forbes & Co (at the site of what is now the Bradford T&A building). There was also Walter M Milligan (1792-1873) the founder of Harden Mills.

We are more concerned with one child (of at least two) from John’s first marriage to Susan Durham. This was John Milligan jnr (1771-1847) a stuff (worsted textile) merchant, and founder of the firm of John Milligan & Sons. John Milligan jnr may have had as many as 11 children, two of whom became especially well-known. One was a daughter, Susan Milligan (1815-1886), who married Sir William Henry Ripley of Ripley’s Dyeworks and Ripleyville fame. There was also a son, Harrison Milligan (1810-1883) who later managed his father’s firm.

In tracing the collector of the autographs we are concerned with the women in three generations of this Harrison Milligan’s family. In 1848 Harrison had married Lydia Baines (1826-1915) of Wilsden and Lydia’s name, according to the convention of the time, became Lydia Milligan. The couple lived in considerable style at Benton Park, Rawdon. Sadly the house has now been demolished but is the site of Benton Park School. Harrison & Lydia had at least two daughters and a son themselves. Their son, Henry Harrison Milligan (1848-1887) also worked for John Milligan & Co, but died young. One daughter, Sarah Lucy Milligan remained single and lived at the family home up to, and probably after, her mother’s death in 1915. She died herself in 1928. Her diary for 1921-27 survives, which is a fascinating document in its own right but does not bear on the authorship of the autograph album.

We are more concerned with the second daughter, Lydia Constance Milligan (1863-1943). I don’t yet know a great deal about this Lydia but on 6 Sept 1884 she certainly married another wealthy Rawdon resident, Harry Evelyn Dewhirst, at Benton Chapel with the Rev. T. Hatton officiating. The fathers of the newly-weds (Harrison Milligan & William Dewhirst) had bpth died by then. In 1911, the date on the album, this couple had been married for 20 years and were living in Harrogate.

The initials L.K.D. are attached to the very striking front drawing. I believe this must be Lydia and Harry’s daughter Lorna Kathleen Dewhirst (1892-1978), who was then aged 18 years. Lorna K. Dewhirst was born in 1892 in Bradford. Ultimately she seems to have married a John Bonella Third, and died in Norwich, Norfolk as recently as 1978. Lorna had a sister, Elfrida Mary Dewhirst (1901-1990), who married a John Shaw Jones in 1927 and died in Lower Ditton, Surrey. At least one of the drawings appears to have been initialled ‘E.O.’ If the letter ‘O’ is actually a misshapen ‘D’ then perhaps both sisters collaborated in illustrating the album. In general the standard of the album drawings are those of a very talented amateur but two sketches seem to be the work of professional artists.

I am quite certain then that I know the family who collected the autographs, but not necessarily the individual. In 1911 the census records that there was only one Lydia Milligan living in England, namely the then 85 year old widow of Harrison Milligan, still living with an unmarried daughter and a nurse companion at Benton Park, Rawdon. There is no reason why she could not have been the collector. Few autographs have even an early twentieth century date but Mrs Milligan might reasonably have stopped collecting in her 70s. The only puzzle would then be the front plate. This shows as you can see a striking female figure, in her 20s perhaps, uncorseted and with female anatomy more than hinted at. It is hard to image an image more unsuitable to exemplify an 85 years-old Victorian, widowed, grandmother unless she was a truly extraordinarily broad minded woman.

I think it more psychologically plausible that her grand-daughter, who had real artistic skill, might have portrayed her own 48 year old mother in such a way, but even here I have reservations. One must also ask if a married Edwardian gentlewomen would have chosen to use her maiden name on a book-plate. Although Lydia Dewhirst had certainly been born Lydia Milligan this was not her name in 1911 and her husband was still living. Moreover the collection is essentially a Victorian one. Unless Lydia Milligan started collecting in her very early teens it would appear that she is too young to have obtained many of the autographs, especially if they were contemporary acquisitions. Two letters refer to a ‘Miss Baines’ at dates which would have been too late for this to have been her own mother, once Lydia Baines; but an unmarried sister who helped Lydia is a possibility.

I could most easily believe that the third generation woman in this family, Lorna K Dewhirst, painted the female image to represent herself but she was, of course, never known as Lydia Milligan at any time of her life. At the moment I am forced to think along the lines of a collaborative effort. The, as yet, unknown family historian who collected the Milligan-Dewhirst archive, which is now in the West Yorkshire Archives (Bradford), records this statement: “(Val) thinks daughters (Sarah) Lucy and Ida (Lorna) produced scrapbooks. Ida married a Dewhirst”. This isn’t completely true since Lydia Milligan, not her daughter Ida (Lorna), married a Dewhirst. But it does suggest that scrapbook keeping was a family occupation. Interestingly two ‘birthday books’ in the Milligan-Dewhirst archive seem to have belonged and been used by more than one family member; perhaps collaborations of this type were traditional?

Several album letters carry dates but I have no way of knowing the number of years that had passed between the writing of the letters and their incorporation in the collection. The latest dated letter is 1902 and the earliest 1811, but if I said that the bulk of the collecting occurred in a twenty-five year period between 1875 & 1900 I doubt I should be far wrong. There is a single letter in the collection that records the actual donation of several autographs by a Harrogate physician, Dr James Mouillot. The ‘titles’ awarded to the individuals mentioned means that their assembly must have post-dated the Jubilee Honours of 1887 and probably occurred in 1890-91.

With my main interest being in industrial archaeology I most certainly cannot claim to be a family historian but I hope at least I have, to some degree, illuminated the authorship of this wonderful item.

Autograph Album 028


One thought on “Can I have your autograph?

  1. The book plate is very beautiful. Why do you think it is meant to be someone know to the artist? It feels to me more like a goddess representation. I also wonder whether we can make so many assumptions about what people of the time would have felt ‘proper’. I drew semi-clad women from a young age (with hindsight my painting of a topless woman in art class at middle school when I was obsessed with Brom and other fantasy artists raised a few teaching staff eyebrows I was oblivious to at the time) and if I’d given you one of these pictures you probably would have displayed it so as not to hurt my feelings while wondering whether it was appropriate subject matter! I can imagine an 18 year old’s mum or gran accepting the book plate with an ‘oh, that’s nice dear’ reaction 😉


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