Henry Webb, Microscopist (ca. 1816-1866)

by Brian Stevenson, Lexington, Kentucky, USA

Henry Webb was a well-regarded microscope slide maker during the 1860s. He presented at several international exhibitions, and was awarded at least one medal for the quality of his work. Webb was recommended as a slide supplier by one of the 19th century’s preeminent authorities on microscopy, Lionel Smith Beale. Despite all that, he seems to be largely unknown these days. Brian Bracegirdle’s Microscopical Mounts and Mounters briefly mentions Henry Webb, but does not specifically illustrate Webb’s work. Ironically, a slide made by Webb is illustrated in Microscopical Mounts and Mounters, but the maker was not recognized (plate 39, slide P). Henry Webb’s relative obscurity today may stem from his short career, which spanned no more than 15 years.

Examples of Henry Webb’s work are shown in Figure 1. He used a variety of custom-made slide papers, some of which state only his name, some his name plus “Birmingham”, others which bear only his initials, and others which bear both his name and his initials.

Figure 1. Representative slides by Henry Webb. His deteriorating mental health might explain the variations in handwriting on these slides. A. Gold ink on green paper, with “H Webb” in the lower oval. A similar pattern with gold ink on black paper is known. B. Black ink on green paper, with “H. Webb Birmingham” in the lower oval, and the initials “H” and “W” tucked into the pattern above and below the specimen, respectively. C. The paper is identical to that on slide B, except the name and city are omitted from the lower oval. D. The same pattern as on slides B and C, with gold ink on red paper. The lower oval is covered by a gummed-on oval label, so it is unknown whether or not this paper also bears Webb’s name. E. Gold ink on green paper, with “H. Webb Birmingham” in the lower oval. The initials “H” and “W” appear in diamonds both above and below the specimen. Original picture courtesy of B. Davidson. Another example of this style of paper is illustrated in “Microscopical Mounts and Mounters,” plate 39-P. F. Same pattern as E, gold on red paper.

Henry Webb’s neighbor, William Porter, occasionally used Webb’s papers on his own slides. On the specimens I have seen, Porter had crossed out Webb’s initials using an ink pen. An example of a Porter slide with Webb’s papers can be seen in Microscopical Mounts and Mounters plate 30-G, where the paper was mis-identified as being by J.T. Norman. William Porter will be the subject of a future essay in this series.

Henry Webb was born in Bristol, Gloucestershire ca. 1816. He married Esther Harper in 1843 at St. Martin’s, Birmingham, Warwickshire. They had at least seven children, an average-sized family for that time. One daughter, Fanny, appears to have died before the age of 13, also a not-uncommon occurrence in those days. The 1851 census reports that Henry worked as a gardener, the family living on Bristol Road, Edgbaston, Warwickshire.

By 1858, the Webbs had moved to George Street, Balsall Heath, in the Kings Norton district of Worcestershire. Although now a part of Birmingham, Balsall Heath in the mid-1800s was in a separate county. Henry Webb was recorded as being an “optician” and “preparer of microscopic objects” in an 1858 commercial directory of Birmingham and the surrounding areas. The 1861 census also listed him as such. No evidence has been found to explain his change in careers between 1851 and 1858.

Webb clearly learned his new trade quickly and well. In 1862, he exhibited “microscopic objects” at the International Exposition in London. He was awarded an Honourable Mention “for his skilful manufacture of microscopic objects.”

He also exhibited at the 1865 Dublin International Exhibition. His presentations included “objects for the microscope ; freshwater algae, &c. &c. ; injections, opaque and transparent.” A report on the exposition in Chemical News commented “H. Webb, of Birmingham, shows what appears to be a very fine collection of microscopic objects, as far as an opinion can be given without an examination under the instrument.”

Late that same year, Lionel Smith Beale published his third edition of How to Work with the Microscope. An appendix recommended the following six “preparers of microscopic objects”: J.E. Barnett, A. Hett, Hudson and Sons, J. Norman, C.M. Topping and H. Webb. Beale clearly held Webb in good company.

In addition to being a preparer of microscopic specimens, Henry Webb was actively involved in the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society. A diversity of interests was evident. During 1865, “specimens, both botanical, mineral, and zoological, &c., were given by Mr. Henry Webb, at one of the meetings.” The following year, “Mr. H. Webb read a highly practical and interesting paper ‘On Blights.’ It was most profusely illustrated by diagrams, specimens, and microscopical preparations.” An 1877 report of the Birmingham society described Webb as having been “prominent among the contributors.” That article also mentioned that Henry Webb “stood in the foremost rank as a preparer of microscopic objects.”

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip reported from the 1867 Paris Exposition, “Microscopic objects are exhibited in the British section by Mr. Topping and Mr. Norman, of London, Mr. Cole, of Liverpool, and Mr. Webb, of Birmingham.” That article implies that Webb’s preparations were presented. It is unknown who actually showed his material, or how it was presented.

Henry Webb died four months before the Paris Exposition opened, on 22 December, 1866. His death record states that he committed “suicide by poisoning with carbolic acid while insane.”

Comments will be welcomed by the author.


Many thanks to Brian Davidson, Howard Lynk and Steven Gill for freely sharing information and pictures of their slide collections.



Beale, Lionel Smith, 1865, How to Work with the Microscope, 3rd edition, published by Lindsay & Blakiston, Philadelphia, page 263. http://books.google.com/books?id=wuInDMbaF0IC

Bracegirdle, Brian, 1998, Microscopical Mounts and Mounters, Seacourt Press, Cowley, Oxford.

Census, birth, marriage and death records for England, accessed through http://ancestry.co.uk

Death record for Henry Webb. Registered first quarter, 1867, Kings Norton, vol. 6c, page 273.

Dublin International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, Official Catalogue, 1865, published by J. Falconer, page 14. http://books.google.com/books?id=ofYHAAAAQAAJ

General and Commercial Directory of the Borough of Birmingham, and six miles round, 1858, published by W. H. Dix & Co., pages 310 and 449. Accessed through http://www.historicaldirectories.org

International Exhibition 1862, Official Catalogue, 3rd edition, published by Truscott Son & Simmons. Entry 2987.

Langford, John Alfred (1877) Modern Birmingham and Its Institutions, vol. 2, page 47. http://books.google.com/books?id=vr0HAAAAQAAJ

M.C.C., 1867, A Voice from Paris, Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip, vol. 3, May 1, pages 97-99. http://books.google.com/books?id=QyEWAAAAYAAJ

Medals and Honourable Mentions Awarded by the International Juries, 1862, second edition, published by Her Majesty's Commissioners by George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, page 202. http://books.google.com/books?id=DvoGAAAAQAAJ

Proceedings of societies: Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society, 1885, Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, vol. 5, page 80. http://books.google.com/books?id=3xEKAAAAIAAJ

Proceedings of societies: Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society, 1886, Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, vol. 6, pages 196-197. http://books.google.com/books?id=R74VAAAAYAAJ

Tichborne, Charles R.C., 1865, Dublin International Exhibition, Chemical News, vol. 12, July 7, page 5. http://books.google.com/books?id=-PjNAAAAMAAJ

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