Joseph Mayer Collection

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises a miscellany of material amassed by Joseph Meyer, which reflects his eclectic antiquarian interests: calendars of plays performed at Covent Garden and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the early 1740s; a manuscript copy of John Crowne's play Darius, King of Persia; the Mediterranean journal of Lieutenant Henry Smith (1819-1820); reminiscences of Thomas Reay of Liverpool, 1832-3; catalogues of engravers and engravings compiled by Thomas Dodd (1771-1850); two volumes of anecdotes by Daniel Osborne; and verses by Joseph Mayer.

Administrative / Biographical History

Joseph Mayer (1803-1886), collector of antiquities and works of art, was born on 23 February 1803 at Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire. He attended Newcastle under Lyme grammar school, and moved to Liverpool in 1821, entering into an informal apprenticeship as a silversmith under his brother-in-law, James Wordley (fl. 1817-1861). They became partners in 1834, and in 1844 Mayer set up his own business as a jeweller and goldsmith.

He was a natural patriot, and realized the value of cultivating learning and the arts among all classes in Britain. He regarded his collections as a public resource and was an exhibitor at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and at the 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester. He wrote a series of articles in the Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, and contributed a paper, History of the art of pottery in Liverpool (1855, revised edition 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.

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. He was awarded a fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1850. In 1860 he was appointed captain of the Liverpool volunteer borough guard, and in 1864 captain of the 4th Bebington company of the 1st Cheshire rifle volunteers. He retired from business in 1873 and began to write a history of art in England, amassing more than 20,000 drawings, prints and autograph letters. He also collaborated with his nephew Frederick Boyle in the publication of two works: 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 Pennant House on 19 January 1886.

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 -

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by the John Rylands Library from the Mayer Library, Bebington, in November 1947.


Description compiled by Jo Humpleby, project archivist, with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography articles on Joseph Mayer and Thomas Dodd.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1937-1951 (English MSS 1111-1116, 1118-1119).

Separated Material

The Wedgewood Correspondence in the JRUL was also formerly in the possession of Joseph Mayer (ref.: GB 0058 Eng MSS 1101-1110 ).

Custodial History

The collection was formerly in the custody of Joseph Mayer.