Joseph Mayer 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 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 other material, for a nominal sum.


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 Library also holds the Wedgwood Correspondence, formerly in the possession of Joseph Mayer (ref.: Eng MSS 1101-1110 ).

Custodial History

The collection was formerly in the custody of the antiquary Joseph Mayer (1803-1886).