It was not a simple process for an Archbishop of York to move into – or out of – Bishopthorpe Palace. This enormous building did not come fully furnished and each new incumbent was expected to supply the premises with fittings and furniture to suit themselves. Take, for example, Dr. Charles Longley who, in 1862, had only been Archbishop of York for two years when he was translated to Canterbury. He did not want the furniture he bought for Bishopthorpe and offered to sell it to his successor, Dr. William Thomson. If he did not want it, it would go for auction. The Archbishop-elect found it difficult to make up his mind. It would save him a great deal of expense moving into a large, fully-furnished house and, after all, as he wrote to Zoe his wife, “… we could replace dull carpets, etc. by degrees.” He continued, “But what is still more important, we should avoid the most serious evil of an auction in the house, which would pull it about and soil it terribly.” However, after sending a “good man down from London” to inspect Longley’s property, Thomson decided to forgo his offer and put up with an auction. And so, following extensive advertising in the press, the sale of goods began on 5th January 1863, and lasted for a further five days. The public flocked to the Palace to view and bid for the contents of each room. The array of dinner wagons, chairs made from mahogany, rosewood and walnut, sets of rich crimson satin Damask window curtains, four-poster and French bedsteads with chintz hangings was stunning. Also on sale were “superior copper articles” from the kitchen and furniture from the servants’ dormitories.
Soiled or not, the Palace eventually became home to the Thomson family where they lived for twenty seven years until the Archbishop died on Christmas Day, 1890. Having lived in one place for so many years, and having a wide range of interests, Archbishop Thomson had collected a prodigious number of items. Despite his misgivings about Longley’s auction, that was how his sons and executors decided to dispose of their father’s possessions. In March 1891, and with dealers arriving from London, the sale began at the De Grey Rooms in York with the 6,000 volume library. This first part of the auction took five days to complete.
A further day at that location was devoted to an array of Dr. Thomson’s miscellaneous effects which reflected his interest in photography and science: A large microscope, two telephone transmitters, map measuring instruments, glass-plate cameras, printing frames, negative boxes and other equipment for a dark room which suggests the Archbishop may have printed his own photographs. To this eclectic collection was added 1,000 ounces of silver, old coins, watches, and the cellar of choice wines. That day’s sale alone totalled £889.
The venue changed to the Palace for the next seven days. Numerous vehicles were engaged to convey visitors between York and Bishopthorpe where the items to be sold were displayed in the many rooms. These included two grand pianofortes, a harmonium, and an extensive wardrobe of linen, blankets and counterpanes; outside were carriages, harnesses and greenhouse plants. Biddings were reported to be exceedingly brisk and “fancy prices were realised.”
Whether, on this occasion, the “evil of an auction” left the Palace in a fit state for Dr. Magee, Archbishop Thomson’s successor has, unfortunately, not been recorded.
Linda Haywood, Bishopthorpe Community Archive
Auction Catalogue courtesy of Explore York Libraries & Archives. Reference: EPH/2/2620
Thomson, Ethel H., The Life and Letters of William Thomson, Archbishop of York, [London, Forgotten Books, reprint, 2015] pp 62-63.
The Yorkshire Herald, 28 February 1891, pp 1, 2
The Yorkshire Post, 3 March 1891, p6
The Yorkshire Herald, 7 March 1891, p2