Charles Pumphrey, 1819-1901

by Brian Stevenson
last updated September, 2019

Despite the professional appearance of his slides (Figure 1), Charles Pumphrey appears to have been purely an amateur microscopist. He was a successful industrialist, which evidently provided him with the time and financial resources to produce good quality microscope slides with custom-printed labels. A fair number of his slide bear labels on which a description of the specimen was type-set (Figure 1). This apparent extravagance suggests that Pumphrey may have produced multiple copies of some slides, possibly for sharing with colleagues. He was a life member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (beginning in 1841), and a long time member of the Ray Society and the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society. He was the President of the latter organization’s Biological Section from 1889 until 1897. As such, he was closely associated with many notable professional and amateur microscope slide preparers, including Herbert W.H. Darlaston, James W. Neville and Richard Hancock.

Figure 1. Examples of Charles Pumphrey’s microscope slides. He mounted a wide variety of specimen types. Although his custom-printed labels look professional, there is no evidence to suggest that he sold any of his preparations. The fluid mount of human fetal intestine used a finely beveled glass square, approximately 1 mm deep. Other, essentially identical fluid preparations by Pumphrey are known, suggesting that prepared these himself. It is possible that he purchased the beveled glasses.


Charles had close business and social ties with his three brothers, Josiah (1823-1911), Samuel B. (1826-1912) and Alfred (1830-1913). Josiah was also a member of the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society. Alfred became a professional photographer, Josiah produced novel technologies for photography, and Charles was frequently noted in records for presentations of his photographs and use of his personal lantern slide projector. Due to their many overlaps, it is often difficult to determine which “Mr. Pumphrey” is being referred to in historical documents. As a further note, there are no known relationships with the noted Victorian photographer William Pumphrey, who lived in York, England.

The four boys’ father, also named Josiah (ca. 1781-1861) owned a brass foundry. By mid-century, a rubber factory was added to the family portfolio. Charles and Samuel inherited the brassworks, while Josiah and Alfred acquired the rubber factory. Two rubber products proved to be useful for microscopists, as detailed following. While these were productions of the Josiah/Alfred factory, it is likely that avid microscopist Charles had a hand in their development.

Their most significant rubber products for microscopy were rings, for use as mounting cells. These were variously described as rubber, vulcanite and ebonite.

Mr. J.E. Turner wrote to Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip in 1869, “I have lately had a supply of Vulcanite Cells from Messrs. Pumphrey, of Birmingham, and I can safely say they are the best cells that I have used for mounting objects, dry or in fluid, being far superior to tin or glass cells, as in change of temperature there is no give in glass or tin, and the cement cracks; but here we have a substance in every way suited to the wants of the Microscopist, as the cells can be had in various sizes, as slides 3x1, perforated with any sized holes, and also as discs to mount opaque objects on, or to act as a stop to the Lieburkuhn. I have until lately used cells made of the vulcanized rubber, but these had some disadvantages which are overcome by The Vulcanite Cells. I find, in cementing them to the glass slide, a scratch with a fine file on the polished surface causes the marine glue to hold very firm, and also the top side when cementing down the glass cover; they can also be ground down to any thickness required by reducing them with a file first, and finishing off on a flat surface to obtain the cell perfectly level to receive the glass cover.

“H.P.” wrote to The English Mechanic and World of Science, in 1870, “Petals of flowers are rarely capable of presence if their colour is not sufficiently persistent. Those of pelargonium petals may be stripped off, on a glass slip; and mounted in Balsam-potass with them. Thick objects require a cell, which may be glass, wood, vulcanite, or of almost anything. For dry objects cells cut from thick card answer the job admirably. A common gunwad punch serves to cut them out. I have of late used Pumphrey’s vulcanite cells for all purposes; they are cheap and efficient. Wings of insects rarely require any medium. Wings of Lepidoptera should be mounted dry; ‘opaques’ of Diptera, Neuroptera, and Hymenoptera are also dry‘transparents’.

Also that year, R.H. Moore wrote to Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, “Your correspondent has omitted to notice the Vulcanite Cells which are now used by many microscopists in preference to any other form of cell. They are fastened to the slide by marine glue, and are perfectly free from leakage. They can be obtained of any thickness from Mr. S. A. Pumphrey (sic), 21, Paradise-street, Birmingham, who sends 100 assorted to any address for thirteen stamps.” This letter, and that of Mr. Turner, sound suspiciously like they were solicited by the Pumphreys, taking advantage of the popular magazine’s policy of free publication for letters of advice, etc. Many other businesses finagled free advertising in such a manner.

Nonetheless, Pumphrey’s vulcanite cells made a strong, lasting impression among slide makers. The highly esteemed professional mounter Frederick Enock stated that he used only those cells. He also developed an improvement, described in this 1881 letter to The Northern Microscopist, “I have had much bitter experience with preparations mounted in glycerine, which suffer injury from clumsiness in handling, more than the fault of expansion; for after a preparation has been mounted two or three years, the cement becomes very hard, and if injured by a fall, or knock against the microscope, starts a leak. The number of preparations ruined by my customers in this and other ways, prompted me to find a remedy, or to lessen the chance of injury. I have now devised the metal caps, which so far have stood the heavy thumps of the Post-office men, and all the clumsy treatment which many give them. The caps are made to fit Pumphrey's vulcanite cells, as they are the only cell to be depended upon for size and shape. I never use any other. My plan of using these caps is as follows: After having fixed the cover properly and without leakage, I wash the preparation under the tap until all traces of glycerine are removed, then run a good thick ring of any kind of cement round the edge of the cover and cell, finally dropping on the cap, when the mount should be placed aside for a week, so that the cement or varnish may properly set. I use these caps for all deep cells, as they prevent the cover from being pushed off, and am having some made half the depth of those sent, for shallow cells.” Enock then painted over the metal caps, leaving a uniform smooth black appearance. Pumphrey’s rubber cells are visible from the underside of Enock’s deep mounts, and his metal caps may be visible on slides in which the black paint is chipped or worn (Figure 2).

Figure 2. (A) “Leg and foot of Indian spider”, by Frederick Enock. (B) Rear view, showing a Pumphrey’s vulcanite cell. The black rubber can be difficult to discern from the black paint. (C) The metal cap used by Enock to protect the ring from being dislodged is visible where paint has been worn away. The metal appears to be brass.


The Pumphreys’ second aid to microscopists was an improved wedge for the “zoophyte trough” (Figure 3). W.P. Marshall, a member of the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society, wrote to Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip in 1867:

In the ordinary zoophyte trough used for examining under the microscope animal or vegetable objects in water in a free, unconfined condition, the position of the inclined glass plate is regulated by an ivory wedge in front, supported by a whalebone spring at the back inside the trough; but this construction has the objection that the spring is liable to be upset sideways by an accidental touch of the hand, or by catching the stage bracket of the microscope, causing the object in view at the time to be suddenly washed out of the field and perhaps lost altogether, to the disappointment of the observer.

For the purpose of removing this objection, I have devised, in conjunction with Mr. Pumphrey, a double clip that takes the place of the wedge and spring, and is found very satisfactory and convenient, and quite free from risk of disturbance accidentally. This clip is shown full size in the accompanying drawing, and is made of a piece of ebonite about one-eighth of an inch thick, having two long cuts upwards from the bottom end, inclined to one another so as to leave a wedge-shaped piece between them, corresponding to the ordinary wedge for regulating the position of the inclined glass plate; whilst the front and back portions act as spring clips, holding the front plate of the trough and the inclined plate, the two cuts in the clip being made narrower at the bottom end than the thickness of the glass plates, so as to hold them by a slight spring pressure, as shown in the detached view of the clip.

By sliding this clip up or down, the width of the space between the plates that contains the objects under examination, is regulated in the same manner as by the ordinary wedge; and the clip at the same time holds the inclined plate securely in each position, without any risk of being displaced or moved unintentionally, as the clip is entirely free from the back of the trough, and keeps clear of the stage bracket in all positions whilst the trough is being moved upon the microscope stage.

The narrowness of this clip is also an advantage, as the ordinary wide wedge occupies an inconvenient amount of the field of view.

The inclined glass plate, which is usually made as high as the back of the trough, is cut down in this case to the same height as the front of the trough, as this is found to be a sufficient height, and allows the clip to be shorter.

A specimen of these clips is enclosed herewith, and they are now made by Mr. Pumphrey, Paradise Street, Birmingham, from whom they can be obtained. In the drawing the larger of the two sizes of zoophyte trough in ordinary use is shown, but the same clips suit also the smaller size of trough, and in that case the original height of the inclined glass plate is not altered.”

Figure 3. (A) A Victorian-era zoophyte trough. The glass trough measures about 3 inches wide. A glass slip fits loosely inside the trough. A spring, which is absent from this example, would press the glass slip against the front of the trough, while an ivory wedge would hold the slip slightly away from the trough front. Thus, microscopic objects in a water sample could be compressed into a thin area for viewing under the microscope. (B) Marshall and Pumphrey’s 1867 improved wedge, which was a rubber clip that held both the trough’s front and the moveable glass slip, eliminated the need for a rear spring.


Charles Pumphrey was born June 19, in Worcester, England. During 1823-24, the family moved to Birmingham, Warwickshire. The 1841 census shows the Pumphreys living on New Town Row in the St. George parish. Josiah was recorded as being a “brass founder”, as was also 21 year-old Charles. At some point during the following 7 years, Charles became a partner in the business with his father. Josiah was awarded a patent in 1847 “for certain improvements in machinery to be employed in the manufacture of wire hooks and eyes”. Production of hooks and eyes was the major product of the Pumphreys’ brassworks through the remainder of the century, although they were also noted as producers of brass nails in 1848.

Figure 4. An 1861 advertisement from another Birmingham brassworks, shown to clarify the meaning of “hooks and eyes”. I have not located any advertisements from the Pumphrey businesses. Hooks and eyes were the primary means for closing women’s’ dresses and other garments, filling the role occupied today by the zipper. Brass was preferred for this, as it is strong yet does not rust.


The Pumphrey brass business evidently fell on hard times in the late 1840s. In 1848, “Pumphrey, J. and C. brass founders and nail manufacturers, Birmingham” was assigned for benefit of creditors. This appears to have led to reorganization of the business. The 1851 census recorded Josiah as being a “commercial clerk”. Charles still lived with his parents and most of his siblings, and was listed as “hook & eye maker, master, (employs) 17 persons”. On June 30, 1852, Charles Pumphrey married Emma Palmer.

By 1861, the family business had diversified to also include rubber manufacturing, with two brothers operating the brass foundry, and the other two, the rubber business. An 1861 directory of Birmingham listed “Pumphrey, Charles and Samuel B., manufacturers of hooks and eyes, &c, 40 1/2, Mount street” and “Pumphrey, Josiah and Alfred, gutta percha and India rubber manufacturers, and importers of overshoes, &c., 21, Paradise street, and at 42 1/2, Edmund street”. In addition, Alfred was operating a photography business from his home. Father Josiah died in May, 1861, leaving an estate of less than £300. Presumably, his boys, who all appear to have had successful businesses, received their father’s wealth before he died.

Figure 5. An 1861 advertisement for Josiah and Alfred Pumphrey’s rubber company. Their foundry supplied the vulcanite microscope cells and zoophyte trough clips illustrated in Figures 2 and 3, above. From the Corporation General and Trades Directory of Birmingham.


In 1867, Charles and Samuel also began a rubber manufactory, which Samuel eventually took it over completely in 1877. As later described in the Illustrated Guide to the Cork International Exhibition of 1883, “The Ladywood Works were founded in 1867 by Mr. S.B. Pumphrey, for the production of Rubber goods suited for machinery and the general use of manufacturers. A year later the Company was formed, and a rapidly progressive business commenced. The articles made by the Company include driving belts for machinery, engine and air-pump valves, steam washers, water hose, gas tubes, bicycle tyres and pedal rubbers, etc.”

Another business developed during the mid-1860s. “Pumphrey Brothers” sold lantern projectors, lantern slides and assorted other photography and projection apparatus and supplies. A later advertisement from Alfred indicated that he was part of the Pumphrey Brothers. Charles had a strong interest in photography, frequently presented slide shows of his own photographs with his own projector, so Charles may have been another partner in that venture. The business ended by 1876, as advertisements from Alfred that year described him as “late Pumphrey Brothers”.

Figure 6. An 1869 advertisement from the Pumphrey Brothers (“B. Pumphrey”). Charles may have been a partner in this business. Among their wares, the Pumphreys sold the celebrated photomicrographs of Richard Maddox.


The rubber-making partnership of Josiah and Alfred was dissolved in 1873, “Camp-hill Works, Emily-street, India-rubber manufacturers. Josiah Pumphrey, Alfred Pumphrey. Debts received and paid by Josiah Pumphrey, who will in future carry on the business. 3rd June 1873”. Alfred then worked full time in photography.

Charles and Samuel’s partnerships were dissolved in 1877, with Charles taking the brassworks, and Samuel the rubber business, “Notice is hereby given, that the Partnership heretofore subsisting between us the undersigned, Charles Pumphrey and Samuel Baker Pumphrey, carrying on business at 89, 90, and 91, Ryland-street North, Birmingham, in the county of Warwick, under the style or firm of C. and S.B. Pumphrey, as Hook and Eye Manufacturers, has this day been dissolved, by mutual consent; and notice is given, that all debts due to and owing by the said late partnership will be respectively received and paid by the said Charles Pumphrey, by whom the said business will in future be carried on. Dated the 29th day of March, 1877. Charles Pumphrey, Saml. B. Pumphrey”, and “Notice is hereby given, that the partnership heretofore subsisting between us the undersigned, Charles Pumphrey, Samuel Baker Pumphrey, and Samuel Price, carrying on business at 89, 90, and 91, Ryland-street North, Birmingham, in the county of Warwick, under the style or firm of the Midland India Rubber Company, has this day been dissolved, by mutual consent, so far as regards the said Charles Pumphrey; and notice is given, that all debts due to and owing by the said late partnership will be respectively received and paid by the said Samuel Baker Pumphrey and Samuel Price, by whom the said business will in future be carried on under the same style as heretofore. Dated the 29th day of March, 1877, Charles Pumphrey, Saml. B. Pumphrey, Samuel Price”,

Charles’ wife, Emma, died May 2, 1881. Her obituary in The British Friend indicated that the Pumphreys were Quakers. Charles remarried on April 1, 1884, to Marion deCastley. Marion died October 24, 1898. Charles married a third time, in mid-1900, to the much-younger Alice Gertrude Rogers. The 1901 census recorded the household at 5 Park Road, King’s Norton as containing retired 81 year-old Charles, 47 year-old Alice, Charles’ 43 year-old daughter Laura, and two servants.

Charles died on September 17, 1901. Alice received both Charles’ and Marion’s estates, valued at just over £15000. The India Rubber and Gutta Percha and Electrical Trades Journal reported, “The death occurred at his residence, Castlewood, Park Road, Moseley .. of Mr. Charles Pumphrey, a very old citizen of Birmingham, and one who was highly respected for his quiet, unostentatious work in the cause of social reform. The deceased carried on business in partnership with his brother, Mr. Samuel Pumphrey, as a hook and eye manufacturer, at Regent Works, Herbert Road, Small Heath. He was a man of considerable mechanical knowledge and skill, and was the inventor of a labour-saving machine which proved of great importance to the industry. For a considerable period he was associated with his brothers in the rubber trade, their business in Ryland Street being taken over some time since by the Midland Rubber Company.



Birmingham Commercial List (1874) Dissolution of the partnership of J. and A. Pumphrey, Estell and Co., London, page 11

Bracegirdle, Brian (1998) Microscopical Mounts and Mounters, Quekett Microscopical Club, London, pages 77 and 164, and plate 30, slides J and K

The British Friend (1881) “Deaths .. At Southfield, King’s Norton, near Birmingham, Emma, wife of Charles Pumphrey, in her 62nd year”, Vol. 39, page 5

The British Friend (1884) “Marriages .. At St. Philips, Birmingham, Charles Pumphrey, of King’s Norton, to Marion de Castley. No cards”, Vol. 42, page 89

Corporation General and Trade Directory of Birmingham (1861) William Cornish, Birmingham, pages 272, 466, 471 650 and 666, and advertising section

England census, birth, marriage and death records, accessed through

Harrison, William J. (1890) “Photography can admirably record every twig and leaf. It is certain that good photographs of plants, especially if taken while growing in their native haunts, would help to vivify the dry leaves of herbaria, and they would be much valued by those who study and teach botany. I have seen some exquisite work in this direction done by one of our members, Mr. Charles Pumphrey”, Notes upon a Proposed Photographic Survey of Warwickshire, Birmingham Photographic Society, Birmingham, page 16

Hartnell, H.C. (1883) Illustrated Guide to the Cork International Exhibition, Guy Brothers, Cork, page 126

H.P. (1870) Mounting microscopic objects, English Mechanic and World of Science, Vol. 11, page 476

The India Rubber and Gutta Percha and Electrical Trades Journal (1901) Obituary of Charles Pumphrey, Vol. 22, page 261

Law Times (1848) “Assignments. For the Benefit of Creditors .. July 28. Pumphrey, J. and C. brass founders and nail manufacturers, Birmingham”, Vol. 11, page 407

London Gazette (1877) Dissolution of the partnerships between Charles and Samuel Pumphrey, April 20, page 2540

Marshall, W.P. (1867) Clip for zoophyte trough, Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, Vol. 3, page 105

The Midland Naturalist (1889) “Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society – General Meeting Jan. 29th .. Mr. C. Pumphrey and Mr. C. J. Watson exhibited by the aid of the oxyhydrogen lantern a large number of photographic views of objects and places of interest in Switzerland, Italy, the Channel Islands, Weymouth, Bath, and of the recent beautiful hoar frost on leaves and trees in this district, which were much appreciated by the meeting, and a hearty vote of thanks was passed to them”, Vol. 12, page 71

The Midland Naturalist (1890) “Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society – Geological Section, March 18th, A paper on Norway and the North Cape was read by Mr. W. P. Marshall, M.I.C.E., and illustrated by the oxy-hydrogen lantern by Mr. Charles Pumphrey. There was a very large attendance, the accommodation of the Examination Hall, Mason College, being taxed to the uttermost. A hearty vote of thanks was given to Messrs. Marshall and Pumphrey”, Vol. 13, page 94

Moore, R.H. (1870) Vulcanite cells, Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, Vol. 6, page 20

Perry & Co.’s Monthly Illustrated Price Currant (1876) Advertisement from Alfred Pumphrey, Dec. 5, page 44

Pharmaceutical Journal (1875) “Soirée of the Midland Counties Chemists’ Association .. was held in the Town Hall on Thursday evening, Feb. 4th, and was attended by nearly four hundred persons .. At half-past eight o'clock the soirée opened with a lecture by Mr. Josiah Pumphrey, who used limelight illustrations. Dancing commenced at about halfpast nine”, Vol. 5, page 668

Pritchard, Andrew (1847) “6169. J Pumphrey, Birmingham, brass-founder, for certain improvements in machinery to be employed in the manufacture of wire hooks and eyes. Nov. 2”, English Patents, Whittaker & Co., London, page 405

The Photographic News (1888) “Birmingham Photographic Society .. Charles Pumphrey .. read his paper on Stereoscopic Pictures from Film Negatives, and exhibited a number of the same in the stereoscope taken by him on films in Switzerland. His explanation and description of the process proved of great interest to the members present. In the discussion which followed, C Pumphrey said the great bar to taking stereoscopic pictures with amateurs was the extreme care and exact manipulation required”, Vol. 32, page 350

Post Office Directory of Birmingham (1879) pages 131, 189, 394, 524 and 527

Probate of Josiah Pumphrey (1861) “The will with a codicil of Josiah Pumphrey formerly of Lee-crescent Birmingham but late of 4 Lodge-road All Saints Birmingham in the County or Warwick deceased who died 6 May 1861 at Lodge-road aforesaid was proved at Birmingham by the affirmation of Rebecca Pumphrey of 4 Lodge-road aforesaid Widow the Relict and the sole Executrix. Probate being granted under certain Limitations. Effects under £300”, accessed through

Probate of Marion Pumphrey (1898) “Pumphrey Marion of 5 Park-road Moseley Worcestershire (wife of Charles Pumphrey) died 24 October 1898 at 22 Newhall-street Birmingham Administration Worcester 2 May to Alice Gertrude Pumphrey widow Effects £1150”, accessed through

Probate of Charles Pumphrey (1901) “Pumphrey Charles of 5 Park-road Moseley Worcestershire gentleman died 17 September 1901 Probate Worcester 10 January to Alice Gertrude Pumphrey widow and Laura Margaret Pumphrey spinster Effects £14300 18s 5d”, accessed through

Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1889) Life Members: 1841, Pumphrey, Charles

Report of the Microscopical Section of the Birmingham Natural History Society (1869) “The objects exhibited during the year, not have been so numerous as formerly, yet unusually rare, exciting much interest, being from personal capture.. Mr. Charles Pumphrey, Stephanoceros Eichornii, marine Polyzoa of Genera Alcyonidium and Flustra. Two crustacea captured at Watchett, Phoxichilidium olivaceum and Pycnogonum littorale, also a collection of palates of Mollusca”, page 15

Scientific Opinion (1870) “Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society, at the meeting held February 8th, … The following are some of the specimens exhibited at the meetings … By Mr. C. Pumphrey, some singular cylindrical bodies from Bulimusacuttus, and stellate hairs of Aralia papyriera (the Chinese rice-paper plant)”, page 253

Scientific Opinion (1870) “Tuesday, (June) 14th, Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society, 7.30 p.m. ‘On the Preparation and Mounting of Palates of Mollusca’, by C. Pumphrey”, page 516

Turner, J.E. (1869) Vulcanite cells, Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, Vol. 5, page 139