The Reverend William MacGregor: an early industrialist collector

Beverley Rogers

Figure 1
Figure 1. Reverend William MacGregor © Tamworth Castle, Tamworth Castle Archive. Click to enlarge.

In his seminal book, A history of archaeological thought, Bruce Trigger argues that 'All branches of scientific investigation that have developed since the seventeenth century have done so under the aegis of the middle classes' (2006: 19). As a contribution to this frequently explored idea, I present a sketch of the very middle class, William MacGregor, and reveal how he used his immense family wealth to build up a collection of antiquities, sponsor excavations and so encourage new discovery and public appreciation (Figure 1). MacGregor's role as a promoter of Egyptology and a benefactor of his town of Tamworth, are now little remembered but it is clear that he made a fundamental contribution to both local and global culture history.

MacGregor was born in 1848 in Liverpool, the second of three sons of Walter Fergus MacGregor and Anne Moon. His Scottish grandfather had made a fortune as a merchant and banker, whilst his father owned a thriving Liverpool iron foundry. William was educated at Rugby school in Warwickshire, then went to Oxford University where he proposed to study law, but instead chose a life devoted to the church. MacGregor held his first post of curate at Hopwas in Tamworth, Staffordshire. After a brief spell returning to Liverpool as vicar of St Matthias Church, MacGregor returned to Tamworth as Vicar of St Editha's Church.

A staunch supporter of Muscular Christianity and holding strong liberal views, MacGregor sought to improve the lives of the poor in Tamworth by lobbying for better sanitation and conditions. He was also a generous benefactor, for his inherited wealth allowed him to help the town in many ways. He provided funds towards the building of a hospital, built the Tamworth Baths and Institute, assisted with setting up a Co-operative Society and aided the restoration of Tamworth Castle for public enjoyment. MacGregor also involved himself in the community in other ways such as founding clubs for recreation and instruction. He was also a magistrate for the County and stood for Warwickshire County Council as a County Councillor between 1889 and 1901.

In 1885, MacGregor began to develop a potentially life-threatening illness of the lungs, probably as a result of Tamworth's growing cholera or typhoid cases. On the advice of his doctor he wintered in the dry climate of Egypt and there became entranced by the country and its history. That same year he joined the Egypt Exploration Society and became quickly involved in its activities. By 1888, MacGregor was assisting Edouard Naville, the Fund's excavator, with a dig in Bubastis where he also took on the role of photographer (Figure 2). He returned to Bubastis with Naville the following year and further sites of Tell el-Yahudiya, Memphis and Ahnas el Medineh were also investigated. Naville and MacGregor were to remain firm friends and correspondents until Naville's death in 1926. MacGregor joined the Fund's Committee in 1889 and proceeded to play a central role in the Fund's decision making.

Figure 2
Figure 2. MacGregor's photography illustrates Edouard Naville's Bubastis (1887–1889). Photograph courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society ( Click to enlarge.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Bolehall Manor: William MacGregor's home. Photograph courtesy of Janella Horne. Click to enlarge.

In 1902, MacGregor began to sponsor excavations alongside fellow benefactors and museums, beginning with Abydos then being excavated under the direction of Flinders Petrie on behalf of University College London. The same year MacGregor became a patron for John Garstang's work at Bet Khallaf & Reqaqnah. In 1904, Garstang offered MacGregor the prestigious post of Vice-President of the Liverpool Institute of Archaeology of which Garstang was founder. MacGregor held this position for the remainder of his life. He continued sponsoring excavations for the Institute, including as those at Edfu. Esna, Beni Hasan and Meroe.

MacGregor's involvement as benefactor entitled him to a share of the antiquities found. Already a collector of Turner paintings, from his first visit to Egypt MacGregor turned his attention towards acquiring Egyptian antiquities. Through a network of dealers, agents and contacts, plus through buying at auctions, MacGregor's collection expanded yearly. In 1903 he created a purpose-built museum within his home at Bolehall Manor to accommodate the growing number of objects (Figure 3). The museum had many visitors, including Naville, Garstang, Archibald Sayce, Lord Carnarvon, the banker and collector Frederick Hilton Price and Henry Wallis, the latter who went on to compile a catalogue of the ceramic pieces entitled Egyptian Ceramic Art: the MacGregor collection. MacGregor encouraged publications of many of his objects and loaned key pieces to the British Museum and the Burlington Arts Club exhibition for display. Students were encouraged to study the collection '…both for its general excellence and for including among its treasures certain well-known objects of exceptional importance' (Wallis 1898: v–vi). MacGregor himself was recognised as an outstanding collector and was compared alongside contemporaries such as F.G. Hilton-Price and Lord Carnarvon for his eye for finding outstanding specimens (Capart 1937: 132).

In 1921, surprisingly, MacGregor decided to sell his collection to the firm Messrs Spink and Son, a highly-regarded London dealer in antiquities. In the summer of the following year the collection was offered in 1800 lots through the auction house Sotheby's. A total of over 8000 pieces were sold over a period of nine days and it was hailed as a 'remarkable collection of Egyptian antiquities … unparalleled by any other private collection in England, Europe or America' (Sotheby & Co. 1922).

Museums, dealers and collectors all flocked to purchase items, which as a collection had covered a broad range of subjects, materials and dates. The proceeds reached the staggering total of £34,092 9s. One of the key pieces was an obsidian head of Senwosret III, sold for the highest price of the sale at £10,000 (Araújo 2006: 66–8). This fragmented head, originally believed to be a representation of Amenemhat III, Senwosret III's son, became the property of the Armenian businessman and collector, Calouste Gulbenkian. It can now be found in the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon (Inv. No. 138).

The collection as a whole was hailed as being '…instrumental not only in furthering the progress of Egyptology but also in bringing Egyptian art before the eyes of an educated public' (Capart 1937). Today, it lies scattered in various museums and private collections around the world. Items such as 'MacGregor Man' in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the ivory plaque of King Den in the British Museum are just two examples of the rare and high quality of items that MacGregor owned. It is unfortunate that whilst many artefacts have retained the MacGregor collection provenance, others through time and distance have lost their link to him. When MacGregor died in 1937, he left behind him the legacy of many beautiful and often unique pieces that have been preserved for future generations to view and study. His life and collection stand testament to how patronage from the middle-classes played an important role in the emerging discipline of Egyptology.


  • CAPART. 1937. Obituary. Chronique d'égypte 13: 132.
  • DE ARAÚJO, L.M. 2006. Egyptian art : Calouste Gulbenkian Collection. Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.
  • NAVILLE, E. 1891. Bubastis (1887–1889). (Eighth Memoir of The Egypt Exploration Society Volume For 1889-90). London: Egypt Exploration Fund.
  • SOTHEBY, WILKINSON & HODGE. 1922. Catalogue of The MacGregor Collection of Egyptian Antiquities. London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge.
  • TRIGGER, B. 2006. A history of archaeological thought. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • WALLIS, H. 1898. Egyptian ceramic art: The MacGregor Collection. A contribution towards the history of Egyptian pottery by Henry Wallis with illustrations by the author. London: Taylor & Francis.


  • Tamworth Public Library
  • Tamworth Parish Magazine
  • Egypt Exploration Society
  • Liverpool Institute of Archaeology
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