Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Rescued from recycling: a Victorian benefactor

Old documents have always been at risk from fire, flood, decay, insects and vermin for numerous centuries, whether written on paper, parchment, vellum, papyrus or silk. As one Epharmostos writes, to his brother Zenon in 3rd century BC Egypt, 'Your last letter was eaten by mice.'  (British Library papyrus 2655).

Over twenty centuries later, the hapless Charles Pooter finds several pages torn from his diary: "Sarah said ... after the sweep had left, Mrs Birrell (the charwoman) had cleaned the room and lighted the fire herself.  Finding a burnt piece of paper in the grate, I examined it and found it was a piece of my diary.  So it was evident someone had torn my diary to light the fire.  I requested Mrs Birrell be sent to me tomorrow."   George Grossmith makes this a running joke in his Diary of a Nobody (1892), with Pooter's son Lupin remarking, "If it had been written on larger paper, Guv., we might get a fair price from a butter man for it!"

In a more frugal age, when most things were handmade and paper was costly, old manuscripts of all sorts were re-used, from parlour to kitchen to privy, and lost forever.   Yet, like John Evelyn's Diary, some amazing treasures have been rescued by diligent collectors.   Josiah Wedgwood's correspondence with his friend and partner Thomas Bentley were saved by Joseph Mayer, a Liverpool collector (1803-1886).

Thomas Bentley, attrib. Francis Rigaud,  1778
© Wedgwood Museum Trust

  Mayer was collecting Wedgwood ceramics well before it was fashionable, and according to Eliza Meteyard, "while few cared to learn (about Wedgwood's life and work) Joseph Mayer was hoarding up every little scrap of information, purchasing old deeds and papers"; until  "by a mere accident, as strange as it was interesting, a very large portion of the business papers belonging to Mr Wedgwood's works, passed into his hands."

Joseph Mayer the collector,   William Daniels 1848
© National Museum Liverpool

In 1848, he discovered various correspondence and old ledgers from the previous century being used in a shop and rescued them, recognising their importance to the history of Wedgwood.  Eliza Meteyard was able to use them in her classic biography, The Life of Josiah Wedgwood: from his Private Correspondence and Family Papers, published in 1865, and they are now safe amongst the Wedgwood archives, thanks to Joseph Mayer.

Staffordshire earthenware butter pot  c. 1650-1700
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Appropriately, these old manuscript pages were being used in a grocer's shop for wrapping butter - paper having replaced the earthenware pots once used to transport and store butter.  And wares like this had been part of the stock in trade of old pottery families, like the Wedgwoods in Burslem.  

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