Rescue of an amazing archive

Fate is truly amazing. When it comes to valuable documentation in the country’s archives that may get lost or destroyed – as recently happened at the University of Cape Town – I recalled the amazing rescue of such an archive in England.

This story comes from Edna Healey’s 2001 biography of Emma Darwin:

We’re all familiar with Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who caused an upheaval with his book on evolution and natural selection published in 1859. What is probably less well known, is that he had married into the prominent Wedgwood family. His wife Emma (1808-1896) was a granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood, creator of arguably the most amazing ceramics in the world.

Charles and Emma Darwin as a young couple – American Scientist

While Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) was born into a family of potters in Staffordshire in England, he single-handedly built up the famous enterprise that still bears his name. Its success can be attributed to his meticulous technical and management skills. All his experiments with glazing and materials were written in a secret code that he shared with no-one, except with his wife.

Josiah Wedgwood, creator of the famed earthenware business – Brittanica

When royal and noble families in Britain and elsewhere, including Catherine the Great of Russia, started buying his products, Josiah’s name was made – and his fortune assured.

Wedgwood ceramics – Victoria magazine

His son Josiah II (Jos) was reluctant to take over the business upon his father’s death, but he managed it well. When Jos died in 1843, one of his sons, Frank, inherited the Wedgwood’s lovely stately home Etruria Hall in Staffordshire where he had been living since 1832.

This is where the archive makes its appearance in the story! I quote from Edna Healey’s book:

“Finding the cellars there filled with a dusty heap of old papers, with undiscriminating energy he cleared them out and sold tons of documents to a Birmingham scrap merchant.”

Here the entire history of Josiah Wedgwood and his company would have been lost for ever, were it not for the amazing role of fate.

Josiah Wedgwood’s biographer, Eliza Meteyard, relates how luck, or perhaps fate, played a role in the rediscovery of the archive.

In 1848 one Mayer, a collector of Wedgwood products, was caught in a heavy rainstorm in Birmingham. He seeks shelter in a decrepit and rundown building where he notices huge piles of books and files, which he proceeds to scrutinise. They contain business entries and notes of the Wedgwood factory.

Mayer enquires from the dirty scrap dealer what the files are used for. Says the merchant:

“I wish I’d more of ‘em, for the leaves be a useful size, and folks fancy their bits o’ butter and bacon all the better wrapped in clean writin’. The shops about here will take any amount of this sort o’ thing. They likes big sheets – it’s more convenient.”

A quick negotiation ensued and Mayer carted away scores of crates filled with books from the filthy premises to the station and onwards by train to Liverpool. He personally accompanied the consignment, not for a moment leaving it out of sight.

Although a large number of books were lost for ever, Mayer had the remaining ones meticulously cleaned and rebound. The collection ultimately consisted of several thousand volumes.

In later years, Eliza Meteyard utilised this archive to compile a rather comprehensive biography of Josiah Wedgwood, which was published in 1865.


The Wedgwood and Darwin families were fairly closely interwoven. Old Josiah was the grandfather of both Charles and Emma Darwin. His eldest daughter Susannah (Sukey) Wedgwood (1765-1817) was married to Robert Darwin (1766-1848), a medical doctor. This marriage produced Charles Darwin who married his cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1839, the youngest of nine children of Josiah II (Jos) (1769-1843). It was her one older brother Frank (1800-1888) who almost destroyed the famous company’s heritage by throwing out its files.

A grandson of the old patriarch, also Josiah (known as Joe)(1795-1880), an older brother of Frank and Emma, was married to Charles Darwin’s sister Caroline.

Charles Robert Darwin, shortly before his death. He liked this painting by John Collier – New York Times

Source: Edna Healey, 2001. Emma Darwin – The inspirational wife of a genius. Headline Book Publishing, London.

Note:  This article was originally written in Afrikaans for a newsletter of the Genealogical Society of South Africa (GSSA) in July 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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