Thomas Brittain, 1806 - 1884

by Brian Stevenson
last updated July, 2021

Thomas Brittain played important roles in popularizing microscope studies in Manchester, England, being a founding member of the original Manchester Microscopical Society in 1858, and the second (and current) MMS in 1880. He served as President of the MMS in 1882. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society.

Brittain was an amateur, who prepared microscope slides for his own enjoyment and to show to colleagues. He prepared a wide range of specimens (Figures 1 and 2), although he had high interest in microscopical fungi and other cryptogams. He was a founding member of the Manchester Cryptogamic Society, in 1878. A series of monthly articles that he wrote for The Northern Microscopist were collected into a book, Micro-Fungi: When and Where to Find Them.

Figure 1. Microscope slides that were made by Thomas Brittain. He bought custom-printed labels for use during the 1860s and 1870s - similar labels were also used by other early members of the Manchester microscope community. The slide on the left bears what was probably an earlier customized label, lacking a date. The second slide from the left was later owned by fellow Manchester microscopist, John Boyd.


Figure 2. Some uncommonly large dry mounts of leaves with fungi, dating from the 1860s and 1870s. Adapted for nonprofit, educational purposes from an internet auction site.


Figure 3. Thomas Brittain.


Thomas Brittain was born on January 2, 1806, in Sheffield, Yorkshire. He was a son of Samuel and Ann Brittain.

For the first 60 or so years of his life, Brittain was involved with the sale and production of cloth. His 1836 marriage license described him as a "salesman" in Ardwick, Lancashire (then on the outskirts of Manchester). The 1841 census recorded his occupation as "linen draper" in Sheffield, while the 1861 census listed his as a "fancy manufacturer silk", living in the Manchester suburb of Withington. During the later 1860s, Brittain drastically changed the course of his career, and became an accountant.

Brittain related to J.T. Slugg that he had been connected with "the Manchester trade from 1831 to 1845". This was accompanied with reminiscences of being a fabric buyer and salesman.

As is evident from government records, Brittain live on and off in Manchester through much of the first half of the nineteenth century. He happened to be there in 1837, when railway engineer John Fowler (1817-1898) visited the city and reported, "At Manchester I went to see Mr. Thomas Brittain, and in the afternoon we had a long ramble in the environs and town, and at night he kindly offered me a bed, which I, with my wonted good nature in such cases, accepted, and on Monday morning, having furnished myself with a map of the town, I thoroughly examined the public works, particularly the Bolton Railway, now in process of execution. In the afternoon Mr. Brittain obtained me the sight of a spinning and weaving factory, where we saw the whole progress from the raw wool to finished calico, and in perfection too, being the largest of the kind in Manchester, which I assure you is saying no little. At five o'clock I left Manchester for Liverpool, much gratified by Mr. and Mrs. Brittain's kind hospitality".

Brittain became seriously interested in microscopy during his 20s. He later wrote, "In the year 1834 the writer became the possessor of his first microscope, at the cost of about thirty shillings, with which he pursued some investigations of a scientific character, but without results of permanent value. The instrument had the prismatic defect of most, if not of all, the microscopes of the day, so far as the higher powers were concerned, but was a source of great pleasures and stimulated the owner to seek out and take advantage of improvements in the instrument as they began to be introduced".

Brittain's history of microscopy in Manchester continued, "About that time (i.e. 1830s-40s) the name of Mr. W.C. Williamson (now the popular Professor of the Victoria University) became well known for the excellent work he was doing with the microscope, as did also that of Mr. J. Sidebottom, Dr. Hepworth, and several others, and it was a great pleasure to the writer to have the advantage of their friendship.

It is but justice to Mr. J.B. Dancer, the optician, of Manchester, to put upon record the valuable aid he gave to students of microscopy at this period, by the prompt introduction of improvements in the structure of microscopes and their appendages, as they came to the front. At his place of business in Cross Street, microscopists frequently met, and many pleasant friendships were formed there which have had the advantage of a lifelong duration. Mr. Dancer settled in Manchester in 1841, and I believe he was the optician who had the honour of first introducing achromatic microscopes to the scientific students of the district. I remember seeing a long list of the names of gentlemen for whom he had made achromatic microscopes up to 1845, in which year he made for the writer a third instrument. At that time there were between fifty and sixty owners of achromatic instruments in and about Manchester, and amongst that number there was a respectable minority of excellent practical workers. A large number have passed away, but a few still remain who retain their love for the microscope, as they prove by the practical work they still carry on with that instrument.

It was not until the year 1858 that steps were taken to form a Manchester Microscopical Society. During the years of previous study many pleasant social gatherings had been held, but in that year a number of the more active workers resolved to take steps to form an association, which might embrace a large circle of scientific students, and aid in diffusing the love of microscopic study. The names of those gentlemen are put upon record in a proposal made in the autumn of that year for the establishment of such a society.

The following are the names of the gentlemen who originated the movement: Messrs. W. C. Williamson, Thos. Turner, T. H. Novell, Joseph Sidebottom, H. A. Hurst, George Mosley, John Slagg, junr., John W. Maclure, W. Romaine Callender, J.B. Dancer, James Dorrington, J.W. Long, M.L. Tait, John Dale, J.G. Dale, James G. Lynde, Edward Coward, John Watson, S.W. Williamson, John Parry, E.W. Binney, W.H. Rideout, Daniel Stone, Thos. Brittain, James Thompson, and Dr. R. Angus Smith.

A meeting of those interested in the subject was held at the Chamber of Commerce, on the 15th December, in the same year, when it was 'Resolved that it was desirable to form a society for the promotion of microscopic research, to be called the Manchester Microscopical Society, and that those who signed the proposal should be the first members'.

As the whole of them were members of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, the rooms of that society in George Street were made use of for the purposes of the new association, when it ultimately assumed the designation of a section of the Literary and Philosophical Society.

Amongst the names of the founders of the association are many who have made their mark in scientific research, pre-eminently the first chairman, now Professor Williamson, of Owens College, who has by his microscopical investigations in geological flora earned for himself a world-wide reputation.

The first ordinary meeting of the section was held on the 21st February, 1859, when Mr. W.C. Williamson, the president, delivered an inaugural address. On the 21st March, Mr. George Mosley read a Paper on the 'History, Habits, and Anatomy of Daphnia Pulex'. This was the beginning of ordinary practical work which has gone on with more or less of industry until the present day.

Amongst the names of the original promoters are some who have become eminent in the world of politics. Mr. W. Romaine Callender and Mr. J.W. Maclure becoming active leaders on the tory side, and Mr. John Slagg, junr., now member of Parliament for Manchester, an equally active leader on the liberal. Notwithstanding this divergence of opinion on public matters, the common work in scientific research laid the foundation of friendship which remain unbroken, and of pleasant recollections of happy evenings never to be forgotten.

Mr. J.B. Dancer, one of the original members, has the honour of being the first to introduce microscopic photographs. This was in April, 1858, the first production being a copy of a tablet, erected to the memory of William Sturgeon, the electrician, at Kirby Lonsdale. This was done on the suggestion of the late Mr. E.W. Binney, and the photographic picture on a microscopic slide being but the size of a pin's head, was a matter of astonishment to all who had the pleasure of seeing it. Since then works of art and copies of newspapers have been reduced to like minuteness. At the siege of Paris all communications with the outside world were carried on by the application of Mr. Dancer's happy invention. Carrier pigeons conveyed microscopic objects from nation to nation upon which the life or death of armies had to depend; as also the happiness or misery of countless social circles.

A few years after the establishment of the microscopic section of the Literary and Philosophical Society, the Manchester Scientific Students' Association came into existence, and has had a prosperous career in diffusing a love of science by means of lectures, excursions, and microscopic study. In this latter case, as in the former, the work was done by a section, which, however, now partook of a social character, and was as of necessity limited to a comparatively small number of members".



The Manchester Scientific Students' Association later became the Leeuwenhoek Microscopical Club. From a history of that group, "Throughout its existence the Club has limited its membership to just that number which its members could conveniently accommodate in each other’s house and seat around a common table; but, generally, at the meetings there has been room for one or two guests. There has never been a period when it could not have enlarged its borders; but a doubling of the number of its members would, in most cases, have proved inconvenient for accommodation in a private house, and would, besides, have consumed too much time in the examination of the suite of objects prepared to illustrate the special study of the evening. It has been found by experience that six or eight persons, with two or three microscopes revolving in order within the circle, make the happy medium for the most effective consideration and discussion of the many points which arise during the demonstration of any practical subject… It was the inability of the Club to elect any more members which led the late Mr. Thomas Brittain – a frequent guest of the members of the Club – to initiate a movement for a larger Club, which culminated in the establishment of the Manchester Microscopical Society in the year 1880".



Continuing Brittain's history of Manchester microscopy, "The love of microscopic study has spread with remarkable rapidity. Mechanics and young men of small means have entered the field in considerable numbers, and some of them have done excellent work. In 1879 a few microscopists, seeing the growing enthusiasm, entertained the idea of establishing a society for microscopical study upon a popular basis, with a small subscription so as to bring it within the reach of youths and others of limited means.

The subject was first mooted by some correspondence in the Manchester City News. The writer, with a few others, Mr. Richard Bastow acting as honorary secretary, had a private conference on the subject, when it was resolved to send out circulars and summon a meeting of those who were thought likely to attend and take an interest in the movement.

This meeting was held in an upper room in the Manchester Mechanics' Institution, on an evening in December, 1879, when twenty-seven persons attended. The result was the establishment of a "Manchester Microscopical Society," pure and simple, at a low subscription of five shillings per annum. The idea of the meeting as to its popular basis has been a complete success, as is demonstrated by the gradually increasing number of members. On the 25th February of the present year (1883), the number of members enrolled was 175, with indications of still further large additions.

This is not the time to speak of the work done by this young and prosperous association, but it may not be improper to notice that a considerable number of young members, new to the difficult work of microscopical investigation, have succeeded in producing most excellent results, insomuch as to astonish older microscopists connected with the movement. It is a great pleasure to the latter to witness the success which has crowned the labours of the few years of the society's existence, and also to look forward with hope to the years that have to come".



At an early meeting of the MMS, in February, 1881, Brittain gave an account of an excursion that collected a number of his favored fungi. From the minutes, "In 1870, he made one of a party of Science Students who visited the Duke of Bridgewater's coal mines at Worsley. From 20 to 30 descended one of the shafts, finding that when at the bottom, they were upon the banks of an underground canal, whose windings extended for a distance of about eighteen miles. After sailing along the canal from shaft to shaft and examining the working arrangements of the mine, a visit was paid to the stables, which contained animals that had never seen the light of day, except that imperfect glimmer which finds its way down the shafts. The boat which conveyed them along was furnished with candles, which just served to make darkness visible; until out of the rock at one point of the voyage they came across a gas jet which shed a strong and welcome light around. This gas-light had been burning for about ten years: it was the natural gas escaping from coal imbedded in the rock. The most interesting objects met with, however, were the two fungi Merulius lacrymans and Polyporus destructor, which occurred in large quantities upon the arched roof of the canal. During the passage, large white patches were noticed overhead; but they did not attract special attention until they came upon one of them, hanging down, which was seized by several of the company. Upon arrival at home it was found that although the greater bulk of the material was merely the white cottony mycelium, there was a rounded patch of an orange color which contained the fruit, and which was shown to the members by the essayist".

A series of Brittain's magazine articles on microscopical fungi were collected into a book, Micro-Fungi: When and Where to Find Them (Figures 4 and 5). A review described the book, "Thomas Brittain has had the happy thought of compiling an A B C of microscopic fungi. He has arranged his pleasant gossip and useful hints in the form of a companion to the months, so that he has given the student materials for thinking and research 'all the year round'. The author writes not only with full knowledge, but with most painstaking endeavour to smooth the path of the young beginner. At the end is a lengthy appendix, containing a long list of the microfungi to be found on leaves of plants".

Brittain prefaced his work, "The writer of this little book on micro-fungi has been induced to undertake the task of preparing it as a first lesson to the beginner who desires to enter upon the delightful study. What may be called the dry and technical parts of the science have been omitted as far as possible. The varied attractions and endless sources of pleasure which Nature prepares for the student, from month to month, have been presented before him (so far as the writer was able) to tempt him onwards into a field of investigation where his industry cannot well fail of procuring for him a reward of innocent and lasting enjoyment".

Micro-Fungi begins with "January", "If there be any one branch of botanical study more likely than another to attract the special attention of the student of microscopy, it is the study of the minute fungi. Wherever his home may be, they come around him from month to month on all sorts of decaying or dead organisms, animal and vegetable. They float in the ponds and ditches, and their invisible spores are carried through the atmosphere in every possible direction, even along our streets and into our dwellings, especially our cellars. Most of these decompose for want of the required nidus, but countless thousands are developed into active vitality, and bring into existence most beautiful organisms. Now, in this dead time of winter, we have them in all damp places around our homes—often on the bread we eat and in the water we drink—on our cheese; and if we eat the tinned meats our cousins send us from Australia, we may find the fungus there in the shape of a hateful white patch. If we scan with careful eye our window panes, we may find house flies who have sought out quiet corners where they might die, and there upon their dead remains we find a mass of minute white threads, which are the filaments of a well-known and interesting fungus".

Two additional writings from Brittain that convey his enthusiasm for microscopical investigations and his desire to share knowledge:

"Eggs Of Parasite Of Rook - Walking a few days ago near the rookery of Fallowfield Brow, as the place is called, I was impressed with the angry chatter of the birds, and the large number of black feathers scattered on the ground. It occurred to me that the eggs of the rook parasite might be upon the feathers. I collected a number of them, and on my return home examined them under the microscope, when I found that my conjecture was correct, for hundreds of the eggs were crowded in a mass upon the stalk of one feather only. Other feathers had but a comparative few upon them. As I examined the eggs I noticed several young parasites escaping from the fractured shells, prepared to begin public life on their own account".

"Parmelia parietina - Of the few Lichens which are within easy reach of the Manchester Microscopist the Parmelia parietina is the one which is most plentiful and the most easily found. It grows upon the trunks of trees, and upon stone walls, as also upon rocks in the Buxton valley, and other surrounding hills in great plenty; but chiefly in damp situations, for it requires a large amount of moisture for its healthy development. The colour of the plant is of a greenish yellow, the yellow deepening frequently in the direction of orange. It forms a conspicuous and beautiful object wherever it may be found, but especially so if upon the limestone rocks. The contrast of colour betwixt the plant and the white of the limestone has a charming effect . This lichen is not only plentiful in the district I have indicated, but it is found in all other similar districts throughout the entire kingdom. As a microscopic object it is exceedingly interesting; it is a Gymnocarpus lichen, and if a very thin section be obtained of the fruit vessel - the apocethium - the asci will be seen in situ, each ascus containing eight minute sporidia. In dry weather it is difficult to remove it from its native home, and will break into fragments if roughly handled; after a shower of rain it may be removed without the slightest difficulty. On examination of the section the student will find in the water or other fluid he may use a large number of small floating green bodies. These are gonidia, and are found in all lichens. They never exist in fungi, and thus form a test by which the two may be known".

Brittain was involved with several other scientific organizations. During the 1870s, he was part of a group that sought to establish an aquarium facility in Manchester, serving as the Secretary. In 1878, he helped form the Manchester Cryptogamic Society, and was elected to be that group's first Vice President. In 1882, he published a book on cards, Whist: How to Play and How to Win.

Thomas Brittain died in early 1884. A memoriam wrote, "Mr. Thomas Brittain died at his residence, at Urmston, on January 23. He was a native of Sheffield, where he was born in 1806. Although the greater part of his life was passed in active business, yet he was for many years a prominent member of the Manchester Mechanics' Institution, the Field Naturalists' Society, and other societies of a literary or scientific character. He was, for one term, president of the Microscopical Society, and upon his retirement from that body an address, signed by 120 members, was presented to him in recognition of his services in the promotion of microscopical study. On the formation of the Cryptogamic Society he became one of its vice presidents. For two years he was a town councilor of Manchester. He also took a leading part in the erection of the Aquarium near Alexandra Park. He was one of the oldest members of the Manchester Chess Club".

From The Dictionary of National Biography, "Brittain did not make any claim to be a discoverer, but he was a pleasant exponent of science, and did much to popularise the taste for natural history".

Figure 4. Cover of Thomas Brittain's 1882 "Micro-Fungi: When and Where to Find Them".


Figure 5. An 1883 advertisement, from "The Field Naturalist".


Figure 6. This advertisement for the sale of Thomas Brittain's microscope slides appeared in the April 24, 1884, issue of "Nature".



Axon, William E.A, (1886) The Annals of Manchester: A Chronological Record from the Earliest Times to the End of 1885, J. Heywood, London, page 401

Axon, William E.A, (1885-1900) Brittain, Thomas, The Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 6, pages 359-360

Bracegirdle, Brian (1998) Microscopical Mounts and Mounters, Quekett Microscopical Club, London, pages 17 and 118, Plate 7-K

Brittain, Thomas (1882) Eggs of parasite of rook, The Northern Microscopist and Microscopical News, page 162

Brittain, Thomas (1882) Micro-fungi: When and where to Find Them, A. Heywood & Son, Manchester

Brittain, Thomas (1882) Parmelia parietina, The Northern Microscopist and Microscopical News, page 255

Brittain, Thomas (1882) Whist: How to Play and How to Win, J. Heywood, Manchester

Brittain, Thomas (1883) The beginnings of microscopic study, The Field Naturalist, and Scientific Student, pages 7-8 and 80-81

Brittain, Thomas (1883) The beginnings of microscopic study in Manchester, The Field Naturalist, and Scientific Student, pages 148-150

England census and other records, accessed through

The Field Naturalist, and Scientific Student (1883) Advertisements for Micro-fungi: When and where to Find Them, in several issues

Herbarium History (2011) Manchester Cryptogamic Society,

Mackay, Thomas (1900) The life of Sir John Fowler, Engineer, Bart., K.C.M.G., etc., J. Murray, London, pages 22-23

Manchester Microscopical Society Transactions and Annual Report (1891) Portrait of Thomas Brittain, frontispiece

Nature (1884) Advertisement for the sale of Thomas Brittain's microscope slides, Vol. 29, April 24 issue, page ccii

The Northern Microscopist and Microscopical News (1881) Manchester Microscopical Society, page 63

Probate of the will of Thomas Brittain (1884) "4 March. The Will of Thomas Brittain formerly of 3 Claremont-street Nelson-street Chorlton-upon-Medlock Manchester but late of 3 Lodge-avenue Urmston near Manchester both in the County of Lancaster who died 23 January 1883 at 3 Lodge-avenue was proved at Manchester by Mary Macmartin (Wife of James Inglis Macmartin) of 3 Lodge-avenue the daughter and Thomas Percy Brittain of Beulah Villa Ashfield-road Urmston Commercial Clerk the Son the Executors. Personal estate £197 4s 5d", accessed through

Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (1859) Election of Thomas Brittain, page 94

Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (1859) "Some fine specimens of Ferns were exhibited by Mr. Thomas Brittain", page 177

A Review of the Work of the Leeuwenhoek Microscopical Club, Manchester, From October, 1867, to March, 1891, in Pamphlets on Protozoology (Kofoid Collection), on line at

Slugg, Josiah T. (1881) Reminiscences of Manchester Fifty Years Ago, J.E. Cornish, Manchester, page 45