Exploring History:
Glimpses into the Life of Amateur Microscopist
Thomas Southwart, 1861 – 1911

by Brian Stevenson
last updated August, 2015

The following was the first of this series of microscopists’ biographies. It is intended to serve as an example of what one can glean from historical records about people from bygone ages. I may well be the only person who currently owns microscope slides by Thomas Southwart, but I hope this information will help other collectors to unearth information about similar, previously-unknown amateur and professional microscopists.

The 10 microscope slides shown in Figure 1 were purchased in England. Most used the same style of off-the-shelf paper wrappers, and all have the same handwriting. Importantly, many have a name on them, T. Southwart, and dates ranging between (18)90 to (18)99. The most significant of these, from a historical perspective, is shown in the upper left-hand corner of Fig. 1. That slide is marked “Pollen Grains from Wedding Bouquet, 27-8-90, T & MAS”. It was this slide, a tender reminder of the preparer’s wedding day, that caught my attention and led me to buy this group.

Figure 1. Microscope slides by Thomas Southwart


There are numerous internet-accessible sites that allow searches of historical documents such as birth, marriage, death and census records. I used ancestry.co.uk for these searches, but there are a half dozen or more other companies that offer pay-per-use or subscriptions. Using the wedding bouquet slide as a start, I searched the English marriage records for a “T. Southwart” who married in August, 1890. This yielded the name Thomas Southwart, who married during the 3rd quarter of that year, in the Bradford district of Yorkshire-West Riding. That search result contained a link for me to see the names of other people married in the Bradford district during that quarter of 1890, which revealed the name Martha Ann Moore. Her initials matched those on the wedding day slide, and subsequent census records confirmed that identification. If I had wanted to, I could have obtained a copy of Thomas Southwart and Martha Ann Moore’s marriage record from the General Records Office (GRO) for England and Wales, which would include details such as their fathers’ names, witnesses, place of the wedding, etc., although that currently costs 7 pounds per record. If anyone out there is interested, order using one or both names and specify 3rd quarter, 1890, vol. 9b, page 387 of the Bradford district, Yorkshire-West Riding. The GRO has on-line ordering and payment, and paper records are usually posted to you within 2 or 3 days.

Next, I searched English census records for Thomas and Martha Ann. Censuses were taken in England every 10 years, beginning in 1841, and are currently available through 1901. The 1891 census record for Yorkshire shows Thomas and Martha A. Southwart living at 39 Spring Gardens, Thornton. Thomas was then 29, employed as an insurance agent, while Martha Ann was 27 and worked as a cloth weaver. By the time of the 1901 census, Thomas had been promoted to assurance superintendent, Martha Ann did not work outside the home, and they had a 6 year-old son named Donald.

The censuses also indicate where each person was born. Together with their ages, that information can be used to search birth-marriage-death databases at sites such as ancestry.co.uk. If successful, that search will reveal the quarter of the year and the district in which a person was born, and the volume and page numbers on which their record can be found. The birth record, containing precise date of birth and parents’ names, can be ordered from the GRO. I found that Thomas was born during the 3rd quarter of 1861 in Thornton. Martha Ann was also born in Thornton, in 1864, but two girls with that same name were born then in the town. If one were so inclined, our Martha Ann’s birth date could be precisely determined by comparing her father’s name from her marriage record with those on the birth records.

Thomas died during the 2nd quarter of 1911, and his death record can be obtained in volume 9b, page 346 for the Dewsbury district, Yorkshire. Martha Ann died in 1937, at the age of 77 (Yorkshire West Riding, North Bierley district, volume 9b, page 28.)

These ten slides are amateurish in their preparation, and have endured quite a bit of abuse through the years. Yet they give us some glimpses into Thomas Southwart’s life. He was obviously interested in the natural world around him, as he caught and mounted various local insects. Algae and desmids were prepared from a water source in Denholme Clough, just west of Thornton, so he obviously got out into the countryside. And he was a sentimental man who thought to keep some pollen grains from his wife’s wedding bouquet.


Additional Tips

Other resources can be very useful for uncovering information on a person’s life. General web search engines such as Google occasionally find web sites related to your person of interest, such as other people’s genealogy pages. Luck may also be had from Google Books, which contains a large number of digitized old magazines, journals and book. Google Books searches what is essentially a subset of the Google database, and is useful for eliminating non-printed material. As a caveat, several other organizations have digitized old publications, and made them available online. Those files generally cannot be obtained through Google Books, but can be found through regular Google. For those reasons, I search both Google and Google Books. A good start for searching is to use the name of the person of interest plus “microscope”, or variants thereof, which frequently finds records of the person’s involvement with microscopy clubs, offers to exchange slides, etc. Also try variants on the name, such as “Thomas Southwart”, “T Southwart”, “Southwart Thomas”, “Mr. Southwart”, etc. (ignore punctuation for Google, it is not necesary). Results from such searches will suggest additional keywords for subsequent searches. Print resources from Google Books may be downloaded to your personal computer as pdf files.

As noted above, other organizations have made digitized books, magazines, and other printed material available through the internet. I have found archive.org to be particularly useful. Print material may be read online either as plain text or as a scan of the actual publication. As with Google Books, resources can be downloaded to your own computer. Online versions can easily be searched for keywords or names. Two useful sets of journals available from archive.org are The Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club from volume 1, 1869 through volume 13, 1918, and Hardwickes Science-Gossip from volume 2, 1866 through volume 27, 1891.

The University of Leicester runs a site containing digitized historical directories from England. Those directories contain addresses, occupations and other information on many English towns and counties, going back to the 1700s.

I did not find any information on Thomas Southwart in the above-described databases. I have generally had good success when searching for professional microscopists, or members of large clubs such as Quekett or the Royal Microscopical Society.

Figure 2. Detail of Thomas Southwart’s slide of pollen from flowers in Martha Ann’s wedding bouquet, August 27, 1890. Photographed using a 10x objective lens and C-mounted digital SLR camera on a Leitz Ortholux II microscope.



Ancestry.com. http://www.ancestry.co.uk

Archive.org. http://www.archive.org

Archive.org, The Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club, volume 1. http://www.archive.org/details/journalofquekett01quek. Other volumes of the journal can easily be found using this URL as a start

Archive.org, Hardwickes Science-Gossip, volume 2. http://www.archive.org/details/hardwickesscienc02cook. Other volumes of the magazine can easily be found using this URL as a start

General Register Office, vital records for England and Wales. http://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content

Google. http://www.google.com

Google Books. http://books.google.com

Historical Directories, a project of the University of Leicester. http://www.historicaldirectories.org/hd