The Phelps Collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of documents collected by J.J. Phelps, including material concerning the history and archaeology of Manchester and North West England, and Japanese art and culture.

Administrative / Biographical History

Joseph James Phelps (1855-1928) was born at Astbury, Cheshire, in 1855, to Jonathan (of West Heath, Congleton) and Ann Phelps. Little is known of his childhood and education.

Phelps worked for the firm of John Holgate and Co., which specialised in selling modern oil lamps following the introduction of the 'moderator' lamp in 1836. Since 1858 the firm was located at 20, St. Mary's Gate, Manchester. Along with his business partner, Samuel Dixon Evington, Phelps purchased the company in 1890, renaming it Phelps and Evington in 1894. The company imported and sold fuel and sold lamp goods, brass and copper fancy goods and bicycle accessories. Phelps sold his share of the business to Evington in 1905.

Phelps spent a number of years as a volunteer at Chetham's Library. In 1900 he was the acting temporary Librarian, and he became the temporary Assistant Librarian during the First World War when the Librarian joined the armed forces.

In 1896 Phelps was elected a life member of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society and joined the Council of the Society in 1899. He was the Honorary Secretary from 1908 until 1918, was elected President in 1919, and was a Vice-President from 1920 until his death in 1928. Phelps was also a member of the Ancient Monuments Society, the Arundel Society, and the Manchester Amateur Photographic Society.

Whilst interested in all areas of history, Phelps showed a particular interest in Roman archaeology and the Manchester area. His archive collection also illustrates his fascination with cathedral, church and monastic architecture, and Japanese culture.

Always keen to promote and popularise archaeology and antiquarian studies, Phelps was involved in organising the Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, the Manchester Royal Jubilee Exhibition of 1887, and was the Honorary Director of the Old Manchester and Salford Exhibition held at the City Art Gallery between March and April 1904. The success of the 1904 exhibition led to the establishment of the Old Manchester Committee on 16 November 1904, with the aim, which was never realised, of creating a permanent museum of local history. Phelps was a member of this committee, and his archive contains material concerning its work. Further Old Manchester and Salford exhibitions were held in 1907 and 1909 at Heaton Hall, and in 1909-1910 at the Queen's Park Art Gallery in Harpurhey. As in 1904, Phelps arranged and catalogued the latter exhibition.

In 1919 Phelps was awarded an honorary Master of Arts by the Victoria University of Manchester for his services to Archaeology.

Phelps lived with his wife Eleanor at 46, The Park, Eccles, and later at 10 Abbey Grove, Eccles. He died suddenly after a short illness at his house in Eccles on 24 January 1928, aged 73.


The collection is arranged into 2 sub-groups: manuscripts and lantern slides.

The collection also contains a large number of newspaper cuttings which now form the basis of Chetham's Library's cuttings collection. Details of the newspaper cuttings are not included in this catalogue. Also part of the collection, but not described in this catalogue, are books on Japanese and Chinese art and lacquer, historical and antiquarian books, a complete set of the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society and collections of the Transactions of the American Geographical Society, the Studio, and the Connoisseur.

Access Information

There are no restrictions on access to this collection. Viewing is by prior appointment. Please contact

Acquisition Information

The collection was given to Chetham's Library by Mrs Eleanor Phelps in July 1928.


  • John Gandy, 'Joseph James Phelps and his antiquarian collection at Chetham's Library', Transactions of Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, volume 99 (2003).