William Osburn (1793-1875)
Merchant, Egyptologist, Writer

William Osburn (1793-1875)In 1824 an extraordinary event took place in Leeds, in the presence of a circle of the most eminent men of the town – the solemn opening after three thousand years of the ornate sealed coffin of the Egyptian mummy donated to the Society by the wealthy banker, Edward Blayds of Oulton Hall. The place was Philosophical Hall in Park Row, the home of the recently formed Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.

Among those present was William Osburn, Secretary of the Society, who recorded the opening of the coffin, the slow, delicate unwrapping of the 40 layers of bandage, and the analytical examination of the body. He worked on the interpretation of the coffin’s inscriptions to reveal its secrets. His detailed account, published in 1828, remains a fine example of early research work and shows Leeds leading the way in this new area of knowledge.

William Osburn was a wine and spirit merchant, who joined his father’s business when he was 18. Educated at Leeds Grammar School, and later Cambridge University, he had a wide range of interests – in travel, other lands and cultures, history, theology. In his early 20s he was an enthusiastic founder member of the new Leeds ‘Phil and Lit’ and gave frequent lectures there. Alongside his intellectual interests he shared his father’s fundamentalist religious views, which led him into active campaigns on behalf of the poor and exploited: condemning the use of children to sweep chimneys, promoting working class education (he was a Sunday School teacher for 40 years), and passionately supporting improved conditions for factory children.

But what absorbed him most in the 1820s were the new, exciting discoveries in Egypt, now in British possession - the first mummies from excavated or despoiled tombs were on display in London, together with the unique Rosetta stone, seized from the French. With matching inscriptions in three languages it provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphic writing. He studied the first works on the subject, acquired a cast of the stone, learnt how to interpret the characters, and was able to identify the Leeds mummy as that of the important priest Nesyamun. He wrote articles and gave public lectures on his work. And increasingly he focussed on the association between ancient Egypt and the truth of the Bible, publishing the first of several books on this subject in 1841.

His personal life seemed secure. After marrying in 1829 he and his wife Ann had four sons and two daughters over the next nine years. They lived in elegant style in a fine house in Preston Place (part of the University campus now). But his business ran into trouble. Was he too obsessed with his studies and writing to attend to it? Were his wealthy clients upset by his social and political campaigns, particularly bitter during the 1832 election when he led the local movement for factory reform? Whatever the reason, in 1843 he and his business partner were declared bankrupt. It was a catastrophe for his family – they had to leave their comfortable home, and the family was split up, the younger children left to the care of relatives.

Osburn himself became a rootless figure, lodging in various houses, obsessively researching and writing. He travelled, once at least to Egypt to see its wonders himself, and published five more successful books, on religion and ancient Egypt, including the comprehensive ‘Monumental History of Egypt’. He had a respected reputation, was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, still gave occasional lectures, and served on the committee for the Leeds contribution to the 1851 Great Exhibition. His social concerns remained the same. In 1857 he read a poem to the Leeds Phil and Lit which became known for its dark picture of mid Victorian Leeds, beginning: ‘The AIRE below is doubly dyed and damned/ The Air above with lurid smoke is crammed’. .It continues with a reminder of the deep social divides: ‘The one his villa and a carriage keeps/His squalid brother in a garret sleeps’. Did his wealthy listeners feel uncomfortable?

He finally retired to Guernsey and died in 1875. His children had to cope without his support. His daughter Lucy, trained by Florence Nightingale, became a leading figure in the development of nursing in Australia (and is the subject of a recent biography); his other daughter after an unhappy period as a governess ran a successful school near Harrogate. His sons had to make their way in the world independently.

The mummy of Nesyamun remains one of Leeds’ museum treasures. It has been and is still the subject of modern scientific investigations, but the story of that first unwrapping almost 200 years ago continues to intrigue and impress.

Eveleigh Bradford
November 2016