Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lever, Ashton

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LEVER,Sir ASHTON (1729–1788), collector of the Leverian Museum, eldest son of Sir James Darcy Lever, knight, by his wife, Dorothy, daughter of the Rev. William Ashton, born at Alkrington, near Manchester, on 5 March 1729, was educated at the Manchester grammar school, and matriculated 1 April 1748 at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. After leaving Oxford, and residing for some years at Manchester with his mother, he settled at his seat at Alkrington Hall. From his early years he had a passion for horsemanship, field-sports, archery, and was an ardent collector of very varied objects. At first he collected live birds, and his aviary at Alkrington was then reputed to be the best in the kingdom. About 1760 he purchased at Dunkirk several hogsheads of foreign shells, and for a time his whole attention was taken up with shells and fossils. Stuffed birds next occupied his attention, and ultimately all kinds of natural objects and savage costumes and weapons were added to the collection, which became famous and attracted many visitors. In 1774 he was induced to remove his museum, to which he gave the name of the ‘Holophusikon,’ to London. Taking Leicester House, in Leicester Square, he filled sixteen rooms and various passages and staircases with his curiosities, and advertised that they were to be seen each day from ten to four, ‘admittance 5s. 3d. each person.’ He was a good naturalist, and a man of varied accomplishments, but grew eccentric in dress and manner. Madame d'Arblay has left a curious picture of the grotesque figure he presented when she visited the museum in 1782 (Diary, ed. Barrett, i. 495).

Excessive outlay on the museum impaired his fortune. After it had been valued before a parliamentary committee at 53,000l. it was offered at a moderate sum to the British Museum in 1783, but the museum trustees declined to buy it. In 1788 Lever obtained an act of parliament to dispose of it by a lottery of thirty-six thousand tickets at a guinea each, of which, however, only eight thousand were sold. The museum fell to a Mr. James Parkinson, who exhibited it in a building called the Rotunda, erected for the purpose on the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge. Here for some years it was one of the sights of London, but eventually it became neglected, and the owner dispersed it by auction in 1806, the sale occupying sixty-five days, and the lots numbering 7,879. The sale catalogue, compiled by Edward Donovan, fills 410 pages. The collection is also described partially in G. Shaw's ‘Museum Leverianum,’ 1792, 4to, and in A. Ella's ‘Visits to the Leverian Museum’ (intended for children), 12mo. A number of Leverian specimens are yet preserved in Mr. Syer Cuming's collection at Kennington, Surrey.

Lever was high sheriff of Lancashire in 1771, and was knighted at St. James's on 5 June 1778. After the disposal of his museum he retired to Alkrington, and died suddenly at the Bull's Head Inn, Manchester, on 24 Jan. 1788, aged 58. He married in 1746 Frances, daughter of James Bayley of Manchester, but left no children. He was great-uncle to Charles Lever the novelist.

Portraits of Lever appear in the ‘European Magazine,’ 1784, and Baines's ‘Lancashire,’ 1833.

[European Mag. January 1782 p. 17, August 1784 p. 83; Gent. Mag. 1773 pt. i. p. 219, 1788 pt. i. p. 179; Hone's Every-day Book, ii. 985; Baines's Lancashire, 1833, ii. 565, ibid. ed. Croston, ii. 351; Chalmers's Biog. Dict. xx. 219; Wheatley's London Past and Present, 1891, ii. 381; Ogden's Archery, a Poem, 1793, pp. 23, 63; Ogden's Poem on the Museum at Alkrington, 1774; Wood's Prospect of Manchester, a Poem, 1813, p. 23; Notes and Queries in Manchester Guardian, 26 Feb. 1877; Trans. Lanc. and Chesh. Ant. Soc. vii. 222; Fitzgerald's Charles Lever, 1879, i. 4; Tom Taylor's Leicester Square, 1874.]

C. W. S.