Joseph & Mary Mitchell Collyer

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A Brief Family Profile

This page outlines the information we hold regarding Joseph Collyer (the Elder) and his wife, Mary Mitchell. If you would like to see an abbreviated family tree for this couple you can do so by clicking here.

It seems likely that Joseph was baptised on 2 December 1714 at High Pavement Presbyterian Church, Nottingham (1) . He was the son of John Collyer, a Stationer, and his wife – Alice Tingey. The entry for his baptism stated that he was ill when baptised, and the ceremony was held in private. Joseph’s father must have frequently traversed between London and Nottingham, because he is recorded as having received the Freedom of the Stationers’ Company in London in 1696 (2), but the three siblings of Joseph we have traced were all baptised at High Pavement Presbyterian church in Nottingham.

By 1738 it appears that Joseph had moved to London. In fact, due to the activities of his father he probably moved there before then. On 28 September in that year he must have had a very busy day, as he obtained a marriage licence (3) before marrying Mary Mitchell. The ceremony took place at the City church of St Gregory by St Pauls; Joseph’s stated home parish was St Mary le Bow and Mary’s was the Precinct of St Katherine by the Tower (4).

We have never traced a record of Mary’s birth or baptism, but from the information given by Joseph Collyer in his statement on their marriage licence allegation it seems likely that she was born around 1716. She was the daughter of Robert Mitchell (c1692 – bef May 1742) (5), Skinner of London, and his wife Elizabeth (d bef May 1742). As far as we know, Mary had three younger siblings, two sisters and one brother (6). You can see an abbreviated family tree for this branch of the Mitchell family by clicking here.

Both Mary and Joseph were evidently well educated, but we shall probably never know how and where they acquired this education. In religious terms, they both grew up in families that belonged to Protestant non-conformist churches, and they would, therefore, have been barred from the mainstream English Universities. Mary’s ability to translate from French, and particularly German, into English was a rare thing in the early eighteenth century, as was her knowledge of contemporary European writings. Helen Sard Hughes quotes from Gentleman’s Magazine as follows regarding Mary and Joseph Collyer:

‘(they were renowned as) … translators from the German of Gesner and Bodmer at a time when the German language was little cultivated in this country…’ (7).

The fact that both husband and wife were writers may well mean that they met through both being involved in some form of literary or philosophical organisation, but this is pure speculation.

Joseph was admitted as a Freeman of the Stationers’ Company by Redemption in 1744 (8),

As far as we know, the union of Joseph and Mary Collyer produced eight children (9):

Elizabeth (Bef 1743 – c1775)
Ann (1746 – 1814)
Joseph (1748-1827)
Mary (c1749-1805)
John (c1752-c1772)
Catherine (c1758-1797)
Isabella (c1760-c1764)
William (c1761-1822)

We believe that Mary died in December 1762. We have traced a burial at St Mary, Islington (10), which may well relate to her, but we cannot attribute this with certainty . According to her spouse her death was caused by ‘a lingering illness’ brought on by ‘agitation of mind’, caused by her literary work (11). Mary was bearing children up to 1761, when William Collyer was born (12). At that time she would have been aged approximately 45 years, and was having her eighth child! Possibly the strain of this contributed to her death.

The evidence of the probate record for Joseph tells us that some time after Mary’s death he must have remarried. We have not yet traced this event; we only know that the name of his second wife was Anne (13).

Joseph lived on for approximately fourteen years after the death of his first wife. During this time he carried on his literary activities (see below). We know that he attended the weddings of two of his children as he signed as a witness to the marriages. These events were as follows:

  • The marriage of his daughter, Ann Collyer, to Charles Claringburn of Nottingham on 6th November 1772 at St.Andrew, Holborn (14).
  • The marriage of his son, Joseph Collyer (Younger), to Dulcybella Clayton of London on 16th December 1775 at St.James, Clerkenwell (15).

An insight into the Collyer family can be obtained from the following piece of evidence in the Court of Chancery cause Mitchell v Holloway, which comes from a Master’s Report of 18 December 1776 (16):

‘…by the Affidavit of the said Joseph Collyer sworn on the 23rd day of April 1773 that he was then upwards of fifty eight years of age and had by his said late wife six children living viz two sons and four daughters the elder of which sons was then able to get himself a livelyhood but the younger of such sons being too young to be placed as an apprentice was supported and maintained by the said Joseph Collyer in the best manner he was able tho’ with much difficulty and as to his four daughters he said Joseph Collyer the Elder says that his second daughter was then lately married to Charles Claringburn a manufacturer of stockings at Nottingham and his eldest daughter supplied the place of a servant to him but being very weakly was was unfit for any hard or labourious business so that he the said Joseph Collyer would if circumstances would permit place her at Apprentice for two or three years to such business as may best suit her constitution. That his third daughter was so much deformed in person as to be utterly unable to provide for herself and therefore must depend upon him for her support and livelyhood and the fourth daughter was then only cloathed by him being in other respects maintained and supported by his eldest son but in case the said Joseph Collyer should have an opportunity to place her out Apprentice to some business when of proper age it would require a sum of money which he the said Joseph Collyer was totally incapable of advancing. And that he the said Joseph Collyer had been for many years at a … considerable expense in maintaining and educating his said children and his income being not only very small but uncertain and precarious – depending in great measure on his own state of health which was then very precarious he was himself unable to place his children in any situation of life in which they might obtain a livelyhood and it has been alledged before me that since the said Joseph Collyer made such affidavit the said Elizabeth Collyer the eldest daughter of the said Joseph Collyer is dead …’

Joseph’s death, on 20 February 1776, did not pass without commemoration:

Death notice from The Annual Register (Dodsley,J, 1796): 1776.
‘The 22d, Mr. Joseph Collyer, translator of the Messiah and Noah from the German, and
author of several useful works, in Barns-row, Islington.’ (17).

Both Mary and Joseph Collyer died intestate. In evidence to the Court of Chancery dated 8 February 1768, Joseph claimed that he held Letters of Administration re her Estate, having obtained them from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (18). In our numerous and very thorough searches of the PCC Probate Calendars we have not traced a record of this Administration grant. This may indicate that Joseph gave false evidence to the court. It could also indicate that the Admons were granted by a different court – possibly the Commissary Court of London, which had jurisdiction in Islington. This seems unlikely, however. A reading of Joseph Collyer’s literary works reveals him to have been a very thorough man, and it seems unlikely that he would make such an error in his evidence.

Administration of Joseph’s estate was granted to his wife – Anne Collyer – on 24th March 1776 (19).

The Collyers’ Financial Affairs

The available evidence indicates that Joseph and Mary Collyer, although clearly living a life that one would associate with people of the ‘middling sort’, were continually short of money. In this section I cite some of the evidence we have found that has enabled us to deduce this.

Among the records kept by the Haberdashers, in their administration of the Bankes Trust, was a Cash Book which is now held at the National Archives, Kew (20). This book was used as evidence in the Chancery cases relating to the Bankes Trust, and came to the PRO via the judge who heard the case. The book covers the period 1741-53, and contains lists of payments made in accordance with the wishes expressed by John Bankes, Citizen & Haberdasher, in his Will (proved in 1719). It details the dates of payments, the recipients, and the amounts paid, and Mr & Mrs Collyer feature in it. I list below the relevant entries made during the five year period 1741-46:

28 January 1742 Assignment to JAMES JACOBSON. JOSEPH COLLYER &MARY his wife one of the 4 children of ELIZ., wife of ROBT.MITCHELL.
Half yr at Xmas
£1. 05. 00.
9 February 1742 JOSEPH COLLYER & MARY his wife one of the of the 4 children of sd ROBERT MITCHELL.
One year at Xmas
£2. 10. 00.
24 December 1743 Assignment to JAMES JACOBSON. JOSEPH COLLYER for MARY COLLYER. 1/4 of her mother’s Annuity as receipt 13 July 1742. £2. 10. 00.
24 December 1743 JOSEPH COLLYER for MARY COLLYER. Annuity at Midsr 1742. £5. 00. 00.
24 December 1743 JOSEPH COLLYER for MARY COLLYER. Her mother’s Annuity for 1/2 year £2. 10. 00.
24 December 1743 Assignment to JAMES JACOBSON. JOSEPH COLLYER for MARY COLLYER. 1/4 of her mother’s Annuity as receipt 21July 1743 £1. 05. 00.
24 December 1743 JOSEPH COLLYER for MARY COLLYER. 1/4 of her father’s Annuity as receipt 22July 1743 £1. 05. 00.
14 January 1743 Assignment to JAMES JACOBSON. JOSEPH COLLYER for MARY COLLYER. 1/4 of her mother’s Annuity as receipt 12 January 1743. £1. 05. 00.
18 February 1743 JOSEPH COLLYER & MARY, his wife & one of the 4 children of ROBT MITCHELL.
1/2 yr at Xmas
£1. 05. 00.
18 July 1744 Assignment to JAMES JACOBSON. JOSEPH COLLYER & MARY, his wife
half a year at Midsr.
£1. 05. 00.
9 August 1744 JOSEPH COLLYER & MARY, his wife
half a year at Midsr.
£1. 05. 00.
19 February 1744 Assignment to JAMES JACOBSON. JOSEPH COLLYER & MARY, his wife
half a year at Xmas.
£1. 05. 00.
21 February 1744 JOSEPH COLLYER & MARY, his wife
half a year at Xmas
£1. 05. 00.
19 September 1745 Assignment to JAMES JACOBSON. JOSEPH COLLYER & MARY, his wife
half a year at Midsr
£1. 05. 00.
21 September 1745 JOSEPH COLLYER & MARY, his wife
half a year at Midsr 1745
£1. 05. 00.
10 September 1746 JACOB JACOBSON as assignee for JOSEPH COLLYER & MARY, her 1/4 part of her mother’s annuity due at Midsr. £1. 05. 00.

I have inserted the italics in these entries. They highlight the fact that from the early years of his married life certain payments due to Joseph had been assigned to a certain James Jacobson. I expect that two questions will occur to the reader at this point. Who was James Jacobson, and why did he receive payments that should have gone to the Collyers?

James Jacobson (c1692-c1759) was an uncle of Joseph Collyer’s wife, and our direct ancestor. He was a Broker who traded in the Tower Hill area of London, and his will shows that he was a man of some substance (21). In a Response in the Court of Chancery dated 3 August 1764, several relatives of Jacobson contested Joseph Collyer’s claim to his wife’s annuity (22):

‘…. this annuity had been assigned to James Jacobson by means of a Deed, and that since this assignment the annuity had been paid to James Jacobson and his executors by the Receiver appointed by the Court. William Jacobson ….. also claimed the arrears of the annuity due to Mary (Mitchell) Collyer at the time of her death, in their roles as Executors of the Estate of James Jacobson.’

It seems implicit in this source that Joseph had incurred a debt to James Jacobson, and in lieu of that the above annuity had been assigned to his creditor. This is reinforced by the evidence of the Will of James Jacobson in which the testator waived payment of any sums outstanding to him from Joseph Collyer of London, Gentleman (23).

The Court of Chancery document of 3 August 1764 contained further evidence of the Collyers’ financial problems. It was claimed that Joseph Collyer was not entitled to his wife’s annuity because he had received Insolvent Debtors’ Relief on 4th September 1749. This meant that his property became subject to the conditions laid down in the relevant Act of Parliament. Essentially, the Act for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, dated 10th November 1747 was passed in order to reduce the number of people held in Debtors’ prisons to a manageable number. Persons claiming relief had to give a statement of their assets and debts, and to swear that (a) their statement was correct, and (b) that they had no desire to defraud their creditors. Their assets at the time of the granting of relief were to be forfeited, and divided up among their creditors. Future assets were not to be counted in this reckoning. Debtors who were overseas on 1st January 1747 could surrender themselves, and claim the benefit of the Act. This Act did not apply to people who had claimed relief under the previous Act for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, dated 1742.

An entry in the London Gazette, dated 29th July 1749 -1st August 1749 (24), shows that Joseph was listed among the persons claiming relief under the recent Act for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors. It states that he had surrendered himself to the Warden of the Fleet Prison, London.

An entry in the Insolvent Debtors Sessions Minute Book of the Fleet Prison, London, dated 3rd October 1749 (25) records the adjournment of the hearing of Joseph Collyer’s application for relief under the above Act . COLLYER was said to be in Dublin, which information seems at odds with that in the London Gazette, mentioned above, which stated that he had given himself up to the Warden of the Fleet prison. I cannot explain this.

Joseph Collyer’s signed Schedules of his Real and Personal Estate, dated 31st July 1749, included the statement that he was an overseas fugitive on 1st January 1747, but had given himself up at the Fleet prison, and claimed relief. He was due to appear before the court on 4th September 1749.

A list of the creditors of Joseph Collyer is appended to this statement. It is very long, and included what appear to have been trade debts, as well as persons whose debts seem domestic in nature. The list of creditors included James Jacobson (26).

Eighteenth century debtors’ prisons were notoriously unpleasant places to be; it is a measure of Collyer’s desperation to avoid incarceration that he apparently fled abroad. We do not know whether Mary travelled with him (probably doubtful), or how long he was out of the country. We do know, however, that these events took place at the time when the Collyers were bringing a young family into the world, and their lives must have been extremely difficult. As an example of this, one of their children – Ann Collyer – was born in November 1746 (27), and if we are to believe Joseph’s statement to the Insolvent Debtors’ Sessions, he was overseas on 1 January 1747 (28).

The final evidence of the Collyers’ poor finances comes from their literary work. In The Death of Abel Mary Collyer includes a Dedication to the Queen, which contains the following:

‘Placed by the hand of Providence at an humble distance from the Great, my cares and pleasures are concentred within the narrow limits of my little family, and it is in order to contribute to the support and education of my children, I have taken up my pen.’ (29)

Click here to read a transcription of Mary Collyer’s Dedication from The Death of Abel.

Literary Accomplishments

According to The Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), ‘Joseph Collyer the Elder (d.1776) compiler and translator, edited the translation of Klopstock’s Messiah made by his wife, Mary Collyer, and was himself the author of:

A translation of Bodmer’s Noah, 1767.
A New System of Geography in conjunction with D.Fenning and others.
History of England from Julius Caesar to the calling of the Parliament in 1774. 14 Vols., London, 1774-5, 12mo.
The History of Lady Sophia Sternham, translated from the German.

He died on 20th Feb 1776 (30).

In addition to the books mentioned in the DNB, Joseph Collyer wrote, translated or published a number of other works, among which were:

Translation – Selected Pieces by Voltaire, 1754.

The Parent’s and Guardian’s Directory, and the Youth’s Guide in the choice of Profession or Trade, etc., 1761.
Plutarch’s Lives, abridged from the original Greek, illustrated with notes and reflections, etc.’. Vols. 1-4 abridged by Oliver Goldsmith. Vol.5 by J.Collyer, 1762 (31).

The Dictionary of National Biography describes Mary (Mitchell) Collyer as an ‘authoress (who was) principally known as the translator of Gessner’s Death of Abel (1761). This work passed through numerous editions in England, Scotland & Ireland. She had previously published, in 1750, in two volumes, Letters from Felicia to Charlotte, which recommended her to the notice of Mrs. Montague, Miss.Talbot, and Mrs.Carter. Mrs. Collyer afterwards translated part of Klopstock’s Messiah, but dying in 1763, before it was completed, the remainder was translated by her husband about the end of that year in two volumes. The third volume did not appear until 1772, when the taste for this species of poetry, or mixture of poetry and prose, was beginning to decline (32).’

This entry in the DNB omits to mention several works by Mary (Mitchell) Collyer, among which are the following:

  • Memoirs of the Countess de Bressol (1743) was a work which was intended to ‘inspire the noblest sentiments of Virtue, Piety and Honour’. This was translated from the French in two volumes.’
  • The Christmas Box (1748-9?) ‘…consisting of Moral stories, adapted to the capacities of little children, and calculated to give them early impressions of piety and virtue. Two vols. Adorned with Cuts. Price one shilling. By the author of the Letters from Felicia to Charlotte.’ (Source: List of publications, written for J.Payne & J.Bouquet to appear at the end of Volume two of Mrs.Lennox’s ‘The Life of Herriot Stuart (1751). Quoted by Helen Sard Hughes in her thesis, 1917).
  • The Death of Cain, published in five books. This work has often been attributed to Mrs Collyer, but its authorship is not certain. It appears to have been published after her death, in 1795. If she was the author we assume that Mary’s son, Joseph Collyer (the Younger) arranged for this work to be published (33).

There cannot have been very many married couples who both warranted a place in the DNB, but the Collyers, surely, did. Many of the Collyers’ literary works are held in the British Library, London, and the Library of Congress, Washington DC, USA, and are available to be read by the public.

Space does not permit a detailed analysis of their many works, so I shall confine myself to some brief comments on some of them, which have been collected from various sources, supplemented by a few of my thoughts.

Information from the Introduction: The History of Lady Sternheim by Sophie von La Roche, translated by Joseph Collyer, ed. James Lynn, pub. New York University Press (1992)

The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim shows a firm, confident and sympathetic handling of Sophie von La Roche’s affect-laden idiom and it seems likely that he was influenced by the style of his wife’s epistolatory novel Letters from Felicia to Charlotte (1744) and her 1742 translation of Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne (The Virtuous Orphan, or The Life of Marianne Countess of ****), greatly influenced by Richardson. The translation of Sophie von La Roche was something of a re-importation of Richardson for there can be no doubt that Collyer breathed his literary atmosphere. …..

Where Mary Mitchell Collyer provided Marivaux’s unfinished novel with a conclusion and set about transforming his psychological comedy into an edifying didactic novel along the lines of ‘Pamela’ Joseph Collyer mainly confines himself to occasional prunings of the text.’

The Virtuous Orphan…, by MARY COLLYER, Ed. W.H.McBurney & M.F.Shugrue, Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.

The Introduction to this text (ppxxvii-xliv) gives much information about Mary (Mitchell) Collyer. Her life is outlined briefly, and her career as a writer, also. Whilst attention is given to her ‘taste for landscapes and for the refined pleasures of sensibility’, full weight is given to her belief in the value of reason & education.

The didactic nature of Mary’s writing is pointed out, and this can be appreciated from the author’s Preface (pp.3-6). ‘The history before us deserves to be considered as a useful piece of instruction, a true and lively picture of the human heart.’ It is commented that Mary must have been up to date with the latest developments in the literary world, in Europe, as well as in England.

‘For better rather than for worse, The Virtuous Orphan was the standard eighteenth century English translation. And, through its last reprinting in the Novelists Magazine’ it became the text upon which many critics have based their evaluations of Marivaux’s novel and its influence upon his English contemporaries and successors.’

The History of the Novel in England, by Robert Morss Lovett & Helen Sard Hughes, Riverside Press, Cambridge, Massachesetts (1932)
Contains the following comments on Mary Collyer’s works (noted by Dulcy Bryan):

Chapter VI: The Romantic Fiction, p.98.
‘The two forms of ‘The Virtuous Orphan’ were probably the work of Mary Collyer or of her husband Joseph Collyer, a bookseller of London. The Translator’s Preface, an interesting document, sets forth the current English idea of the social value of a history which displays realistically the motions of the human heart, if only that history ‘be reduced to our own level and applicable to our real circumstances in life.’ It is a statement of literary faith which bears comparison with Richardson’s preface to ‘Clarissa’.

Chapter VII: The Fiction of the Revolutionary Era, p.132.
Relates how the scientific discoveries of Newton and the philosophy of Locke led to the belief in ‘both the sense of fact and the sense of law which dominate much of the eighteenth century literature’. Men were to utilise these aspects of humanity through their reason. However, this mechanistic view of man was argued against by men like Shaftesbury, who believed in the importance of an innate moral sense. ‘Those seeds of virtue implanted in the heart of every reasonable being,’ to quote the title page of Mrs. Collyer’s ‘Letters from Felicia to Charlotte (1744-49), an early example of the philosophy in fiction.’

The authors see Mary Collyer, and writers of the same philosophy, as foreshadowing the ideas of Rousseau and his followers.

The Rise of the Woman Novelist from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen, Jane Spencer, Blackwell, 1986.

Contains two passages of text featuring Mary Collyer.

On page 119 the author relates Mary’s novel Felicia to Charlotte, which she dates as 1744, to works by Richardson and Fielding, which were written in the same decade, and points out how all these novels were concerned with ‘the problems of life after marriage’. This, apparently, ‘reflects the age’s increasing interest in the problems of marriage’.

‘The novel …. was….. written by women ….. who had had the benefit of an unusually good education’.

‘ Well-educated women ‘… did not turn to the lowly novel as the only form of writing they could manage…. They turned to it because they could make money from it. Most women novelists shared (this) motive. … Well-born or not, most women novelists needed the money.’

‘By the beginning of the eighteenth century, then, a path was open for the woman writer, but it was full of pitfalls. There were common expectations about women’s writing: their main subject would be love, their main interest in female characters. The idea that women were naturally inclined to virtue, and could exert a salutary moral influence on men, was spreading; and so was the idea that it was through women’s tender feelings and their ability to stimulate tender feelings in men that this influence operated.’

‘Elizabeth Carter ….. (represented) virtuous women of letters for a generation. … She was praised for her chastity (example given) and her intellectual ability (example given).’ Johnson remarked that she ‘could make a pudding, as well as translate Epictetus’ illustrated how women writers were likely to be admired for their domesticity, combined with their ‘morality and modesty’. ‘The eighteenth-century exaltation ….. ideal was a busy bourgeois woman who combined running a household with long hours of private study’, and thus conformed to the ‘exaltation of family life’ which was typical of the age.

Elizabeth Carter, wrote of Mary (Mitchell) Collyer as follows to Mrs.Montague in December 1761:- ‘ … I never heard anything to her disadvantage, and writing for the support of her family is a laudable employment.’ (Quoted by Helen Sard Hughes in her thesis (1917)) (35).

Helen Sard Hughes continued ‘These ladies, Mrs.Carter, Miss Talbot & Mrs.Montague were prominent members of the circles of both Richardson and Johnson. There is the possibility, though nothing more, that Mrs.Collyer was also an humble adherent of one or both of these groups.’

A New System of Geography, by D Fenning, J Collyer & Others (1771 edition)

On a visit to the British Library in 1993 I was able to look at two volumes of this work. Time did not permit a thorough reading of the text, but I noted a few impressions.

The Preface, dated 24 October 1766, reveals the writer’s aims in producing the work; these cannot, by any means, be considered modest:

‘We shall endeavour to avoid dwelling on dry particulars, and to express ourselves in an easy, entertaining manner’. ‘In short, the utmost care will be taken to render this Performance by far the most perfect of any kind that has yet appeared in the English language, and as complete as the nature of the Subject, and all the advantages we are capable of giving it, will permit.’

I noted that the descriptions of the various countries were generalised, and full of value judgements. I assume that the information included had been obtained from reading the accounts of travellers Click here to read a few transcribed extracts from this work.

The Parent’s Directory and Youth’s Guide, by J Collyer (1761).

This manual, which was, apparently ‘admired for its utility to parents’ (34) was described by Collyer in his introduction as an ‘essay on the Education of the Tradesman and Mechanic’. He sought to describe the qualifications needed by youths aiming to join any of ‘the three learned professions’, as well as providing accounts of various trades and giving advice to apprentices on their conduct. Click here to read transcribed extracts from this work.

All the examples of Joseph & Mary Collyer’s works that I have read have a didactic tone. Indeed, I think it fair to say that the work of most of the writers of their period had a similar tone; I have in mind novels such as Fielding’s Tom Jones and Richardson’s Pamela. It is apparent from the above section on the Collyers’ financial affairs that they certainly did not achieve economic success from their undoubted writing skills. Nevertheless, they both put a tremendous amount of effort into their literary careers.

Joseph Collyer was not only a translator and writer. He followed his father in having his own publishing business. Dulcy Bryan found the following reference to this:

From The Dictionaries of the Printers & Booksellers at work in England, Scotland and Ireland, 1557-1775 at the LDS Family History Library, Salt Lake City:
‘COLLYER, (j), bookseller and publisher in London, Ivy Lane, 1745-61.

Joseph was also recorded as having his own circulating library:

LONDON msx Collyer’s Circulating Library 1741 [Joseph Collyer]
Daily Advertiser, 17 Nov. 1741 (36).

It seems possible that Collyer may have been acquainted with Samuel Johnson and members of his circle. Helen Sard Hughes (1917) notes as follows from ‘Johnson’s Miscellanies’:

‘Easter Eve 1775….. while coffee was preparing, Collier came in, a man who I had not seen for more than twenty years, but whom I consulted about Macky’s books. We talked of old friends and past occurrences and eat and drink together.’ (36)

and also:

‘Collier is dead, April 1776.’ (37)

Of course, we cannot be sure that he was referring to Joseph, but given the date of the second of these entries, it seems likely that he was.

The Collyer Family Chronology, which accompanies this text (38), lists all literary works by Joseph and Mary Collyer that we know to have been published, and also all major Collyer family events. This enables one to put the relevant literary events in the context of the lives of the Collyers, and, hopefully, facilitates greater understanding of the family. Not all these works were written by the Collyers; some of them were merely published by them.

With literary figures as prolific as the Collyers I could continue instances of their work at length, but space does not permit this, or an analysis of their work. I hope I have shown that, although they were minor literary figures compared with their more illustrious contemporaries, they were nevertheless significant figures in English literature. Evidence of this can be seen in the way in which their works are reprinted from time to time, and the appearance of their names in scholarly journals and University syllabuses.

Collyer Family Life

Finally, in this short article, I shall briefly consider what we can deduce of the Collyer family’s day to day lifestyle. The Court of Chancery evidence I cited above shows that the health of the Collyer household was not particularly good, however, we should not compare this to the sort of health we would expect a modern family to enjoy. Lisa Picard (39) quotes statistics to show that the average life expectancy in London in 1751 was about 36 years, and even contemporary doctors accepted that the living conditions prevalent at that time were not conducive to good health (40). As I write this, in 2004, average life expectancy is about 79 for women and 74 for men, a reflection of the advances that have taken place in fields such as housing, sanitation and healthcare over the last 200 years.

As I mentioned above, we have no idea where either Joseph or Mary were educated, but it is apparent that they both received an excellent education. This indicates that their respective parents were comfortably off financially, and the records we have of them indicate that they were of the ‘middling sort’. It does not surprise me that Joseph Collyer was able to develop an interest in literature and learning; as his father was a Printer and Stationer he presumably had ample opportunities of learning. However, it is less obvious that Mary Mitchell would have had a similar education, given her father’s trade as a Skinner. There is much to learn in this field.

Most documents show Joseph’s social status as a ‘Gentleman’, which I take to mean a man who was looked upon by his peers as having a certain refinement of manners. At the very least it suggests that he had a lifestyle that was more genteel than that of most of his contemporaries, and therefore quite comfortable. How do we reconcile this to Joseph’s debt problems?

The literary works of the Collyers show that whatever their financial fortunes, they felt qualified to impress their moral and religious views on their readers, and to educate them. The fact that several of their works sold very well suggests that they were not out of tune with their readers in doing this. The evidence of Mrs Carter suggests that Mrs Collyer was devoted to the maintenance of the well-being of her family (41), and she surely cannot be faulted for that.


A selection of transcriptions of Primary sources relevant to Joseph Collyer & Mary (Mitchell) Collyer can be viewed by clicking here.

Images of the following original sources can be viewed by clicking the relevant links below:

Freedom Record – Joseph Collyer

Marriage Licence Allegation – Joseph Collyer m Mary Mitchell, 1738

Marriage record – Joseph Collyer m Mary Mitchell, 1738


I would like to acknowledge the invaluable help given to me in my research over a period of years by the following people:

  • Helen Mitchell, of Muxton, Shropshire, UK
  • Dulcy Collyer Thomas Bryan, of Charlottesville, Va, USA
  • Alice Latter of McLean, Virginia, USA

G M Culshaw December 2004

  • This page was last updated on Saturday July 2nd, 2011.