Lord Brotherton of Wakefield, one of the University of Leeds greatest benefactors, had created the largest chemical empire in the UK of its time. Brotherton had established works in Wakefield in 1878 (at the age of 22) for the manufacture of ammonium sulphate, using by-products of local mining industries. These works were followed by others at Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds and Sunderland.
Brotherton's interest in collecting books and manuscripts began in 1922, with an attempt to buy the 'Towneley Mysteries', a medieval manuscript which contained a cycle of plays with Wakefield associations. This was unsuccessful, but led him to begin a collection which eventually included 35,000 books, 400 manuscripts, 4000 deeds, and 30,000 letters.
Brotherton acquired Shakespeare's First Folio in 1924 at the height of his collecting interest from Gabriel Wells, a major book dealer of the period. Wells had bought it in 1922 for $9,500 at auction in the Anderson Galleries, New York, from a sale titled 'The Splendid Library of the late Theodore N. Vail of New York'.