AN ELABORATE key which was returned to Ilkley 50 years ago serves as a reminder of one of the most remarkable men ever to have hailed from the town.

The key had been presented to Dr Robert Collyer when he opened the new free library in 1907. And the valuable gift was given back to the town in 1969 by the widow of one of his grandsons.

Robert Collyer rose from humble beginnings to become one of the great preachers of America. His importance was apparent from the huge respect shown to him when he visited the town where he had once worked as a blacksmith.

A report in the Ilkley Gazette in 1907 said it was estimated that 1,800 people came to see the opening- the largest number ever to have congregated in Ilkley up to that point. A bust of Dr Collyer was placed in the library along with a bust of the building’s benefactor Andrew Carnegie, the hugely wealthy American philanthropist whose own life was a rags to riches story.

Portraits of both men were on the key which was presented to Dr Collyer.

A report in the Gazette in 1969 described the preacher’s early life.

“As a child Dr Collyer spent long working days in a mill in the Washburn Valley and escaped from this when he was apprenticed to Jackie Birch, an Ilkley blacksmith whose forge was in Leeds Road between Weston Road and Brook Street. After serving his time, Robert Collyer hoped to carry on the forge on the death of Birch but the Lord of the Manor thought he was too young.

“He suffered a great blow when his first wife died, and eventually emigrated to the United States where his fame as a preacher began to grow in Chicago and spread to the remainder of the States and to this country when he accepted the pastorate of a church in New York.”

The paper says: “Robert Collyer loved Ilkley. He knew as much about it as anybody and more than most and never tired of proclaiming its virtues. He never forgot the village, never lost touch with it, and in its pride of association with a man who had done so much, Ilkley responded with a demonstration of affection which probably had never been seen before and certainly not since to one man.”

The opening of the library was to be the preacher’s last visit to the town he loved.

In 1912 the Ilkley Gazette recorded: “It is with profound regret we have to announce that the death has taken place, in New York, of the Rev Dr Robert Collyer, the poet-preacher and noted American divine. News reached his Yorkshire relatives last week that he was seriously ill. The life of Robert Collyer – formerly factory lad at Blubberhouses, next a blacksmith at Ilkley, and later one of the great pulpit lights of America – has been almost a romance, only it has the recommendation of actual truth.”