Wedgwood Correspondence

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 Eng MSS 1101-1110
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      3 subfonds; 10 volumes

Scope and Content

Ten volumes containing 19th-century copies of private and business correspondence of the Wedgwood family, notably the ceramic manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood senior (1730-1795). The volumes were probably compiled by Eliza Meteyard in the 1860s, in the course of her research for The Life of Josiah Wedgwood (1865). Meteyard made extensive use of Joseph Mayer's vast collection of original Wedgwood correspondence and papers.

Among the correspondents are Wedgwood's partner Thomas Bentley (1731-1780), James Watt (1736-1819) and James Watt junior (1769-1848), Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), David Garrick (1717-1779), Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and Anna Seward (1742-1809). The original letters are now dispersed and some are thought to be no longer in existence.

A note in English MS 1110, folios 1-4, deals with the provenance of the originals of the letters, formerly in the possession of Louisa Goddard, but later dispersed.

Administrative / Biographical History

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) was the leading figure in the English ceramics industry during the Industrial Revolution. He was born at Burslem, Staffordshire, where the Wedgwoods were a prominent and extensive local family, many of whom worked in the local pottery industry, including Josiah's father. When his father died, Josiah entered the family's pottery business. He soon became an expert thrower. At fifteen he was apprenticed to his brother, Thomas, and gained experience of most aspects of the production process. However his brother did not take him into partnership, and Josiah spent a short and unsuccessful period working for Thomas Alders and John Harrison of Cliff Bank, near Stoke. His originality of mind in regard to design and production was already apparent, and he was able to experiment with new methods when working for Thomas Whielden between 1752 and 1758.

After this, Wedgwood set up business on his own, employing one of his cousins, Thomas, to work for him. He established a works at Ivy House, Burslem, and he not only was responsible for its management but worked on the production line as well. He experimented with new clays and glazes, introduced better finishes and cut down on the wastage of materials. He also produced more refined designs for his ceramics, often based on classical and Renaissance motifs. By 1762, with a growing reputation, he was appointed Queen's Potter. In 1766, he took Thomas Wedgwood into partnership and purchased an estate between Burslem and Stoke. In 1769 he opened his Etruria works at this location; the complex included his own house and a village for his workers. The market for Wedgwood's products continued to grow throughout the 1770s and 1780s, when he produced many ornamental objects. He enjoyed great success with his jasper body, a ceramic which could be coloured and polished for fine designs.

Wedgwood was known for his great energy and imagination in experimenting with new processes, and adapting and improving existing methods of manufacturing ceramics. He had a keen amateur interest in the chemistry of ceramics and an appreciation of good design. In 1783, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, followed by the same honour from the Society of Antiquaries three years later. Wedgwood also worked to improve conditions for his workers, establishing free schools, and he was deeply engaged in bringing canals to the Potteries area; the Trent and Mersey canal ran through his Etruria estate. He died in 1795 at Etruria. He had married his third cousin, Sarah Wedgwood (1734-1815), in 1764 and they had seven children. One of his daughters, Susannah, was mother to Charles Darwin (Wedgwood was a good friend of Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin). His son, Thomas (1771-1805), carried out pioneering experiments in photography, and was a friend to such figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Sir Humphrey Davy.

Source: Robin Reilly, 'Wedgwood, Josiah (1730-1795)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

Joseph Mayer (1803-1886), collector of antiquities and works of art, was born on 23 February 1803 at Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire. He moved to Liverpool in October 1821 and began an informal apprenticeship as a silversmith under his brother-in-law, James Wordley (fl. 1817-1861), entering into partnership with him in 1834, and setting up on his own as a jeweller and goldsmith in 1844. He demonstrated a remarkable flair for business and the financial success he achieved enabled him to indulge his passion for archaeology and collecting.

He was an exhibitor at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and at the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. He funded several scholarly publications, sponsored archaeological excavations and wrote a series of articles in the Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. In 1855 he contributed a paper, History of the art of pottery in Liverpool (revised edn, 1873), which remains fundamental to the study of the subject. Mayer was one of the earliest systematic collectors of ceramics, with important holdings of Liverpool porcelain and pottery, and a notable collection of Wedgwood wares. He also acquired a vast hoard of documents of Josiah Wedgwood, the foundation deposit of the Wedgwood archive collection now at the University of Keele. Mayer generously put these papers at the disposal of Eliza Meteyard and advised, and assisted financially, in the completion of her Life of Josiah Wedgwood (1865).

Mayer's collection was first made accessible to the general public in May 1852, when he opened an Egyptian Museum (later the Museum of National and Foreign Antiquities) in Colquitt Street, Liverpool. In 1867 he presented the collection to the Liverpool Free Library and Museum. In 1850 he was awarded the fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Retiring from business in 1873, he applied himself, inconclusively, to writing a history of art in England, amassing more than 20,000 drawings, prints, and autograph letters, as well as continuing to collect works of art and antiquities. He also collaborated with his nephew Frederick Boyle in the publication of Early Exhibitions of Art in Liverpool with some Notes for a Memoir of George Stubbs RA (1876), and Memoirs of Thomas Dodd, William Upcott, and George Stubbs RA (1879). He died at Bebington, Cheshire on 19 January 1886, and was interred at St Andrew's Church, Bebington.

Source: C.W. Sutton, 'Mayer, Joseph (1803-1886)', rev. Lionel Burman, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The collection was purchased by the John Rylands Library from the Mayer Library, Bebington, in November 1947 (accession no. R93406), together with many other items, for a nominal sum.


Description compiled by Jo Klett, project archivist, with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography articles on Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Mayer.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1937-1951 (English MSS 1101-1110).

Separated Material

The Library holds other manuscripts formerly in the possession of Joseph Mayer, within the Joseph Mayer Collection (ref.: Eng MSS 1111-1116, 1118-1119).

Custodial History

The ten volumes belonged to the antiquary Joseph Mayer (1803-1886), who acquired a vast hoard of documents of Josiah Wedgwood, now located at the University of Keele. According to the ODNB, 'Mayer generously put these papers at the disposal of Eliza Meteyard and advised, and assisted financially, in the completion of her Life of Josiah Wedgwood (1865). It is likely that the volumes were compiled by Meteyard in the 1860s in connection with her research.

A note in English MS 1110 by Eliza Meteyard, dated 30 July 1867, records the history of the forty or so letters in that volume. The original letters were originally in the possession of Josiah Wedgwood, and they later passed to his grandson Francis Wedgwood of Etruria and Barlaston Hall. Meteyard states: 'About 1846 Miss Louisa Goddard, a lady who lived probably at that date in the Wedgwood family, was allowed to look through this box of papers, and which is now in my possession, and select such autograph letters as she pleased. [...] Some were given away to friends and have gone to America and elsewhere; the rest Miss Goddard keeps. [...] I have thought it best to have the correct copies lent me by Miss Goddard correctly copied, as an addition to Mr Mayer's Collection of Wedgwood MSS.'

Joseph Mayer established a Free Library at Bebington, his residence on the Wirral, in 1866, and the volumes are believed to have transferred to the Library at some point after this date.

Related Material

Wedgwood's papers submitted to the Royal Society are in the custody of that institution, and his correspondence with James Watt is in the James Watt Papers at Birmingham City Archives.

Correspondence and papers of Josiah Wedgwood are held at Keele University Library; extracts made by Wedgwood from scientific journals are held by the British Library (ref.: GB 0058 Add MSS 28309-18).