Martin Burgess (“MB”), 1842-1891, Victorian naturalist and slide mounter

by Brian Stevenson, Lexington, Kentucky, USA



A large number of microscope slides have survived from the late 1800s, many of which are wrapped in elegantly designed papers. Professional or wealthy slide preparers frequently included their names or initials in the printing of their covering papers. Information on some such preparers can be found in Brian Bracegirdle’s “Microscopical Mounts and Mounters”, which has become the “bible” of antique microscope slide collecting. Unfortunately, that book contains either minimal or no information on many Victorian-era slide preparers whose work is now housed in our collections. This and subsequent articles are attempts to fill in some of those gaps.

Two slides in my collection bear the monogram “MB” (Figure 1). Bracegirdle plate 5-S shows a slide similar to that in Fig. 1A, with red papering, and on page 66 describes the monogram as having “unknown significance.” The slide shown in Fig. 1B indicates that “MB” was in fact Martin Burgess. While Dr. Bracegirdle’s book does not link MB with Burgess, it does mention on page 19 that Burgess made “an assortment of papered slides, in the 1880s”. Following is a biography of Martin Burgess that I have gleaned from historical records.

Figure 1. Two microscope slides by Martin Burgess. (A) Gold ink on green paper, with monogram “MB”. Specimen is “Skin of Solea vulgaris – Sole”. (B) Gold ink on green paper, more ornate, with monogram “MB” at the top and the maker’s name at the bottom. Specimen is “Parasite of Thrush with food in Stomach”.

According to the age he gave on census records, Martin Burgess was born in Peckham, Surrey, around 1843, possibly the Martin Thomas Burgess born there during the 4th quarter of 1842. Martin appears to have been the eldest of five children of Martin and Priscilla Burgess. The father was a master printer, employing two men at his works in Newington, Surrey, in 1861. During 1861, Martin junior worked as a clerk in a building society.

Martin Burgess next appears in historical records on August 26, 1870, when he was elected a member of the Quekett Microscopical Club. During the following year, he is reported in the Journal of the QMC as having displayed specimens of “transverse section of beech” and Campylodiscus costatus, suggesting a diversity of microscopical interests.

By 1871, Martin Burgess had begun a business of producing and selling microscope slides. His advertisements were regularly featured in “Nature” and “Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip”, giving his address as 3 Mount Pleasant Terrace, Upper Lewisham Road, SE (New Cross, greater London). A variety of exotic items were offered, including “Cuticle of Skin of Fijian Lizard”, “Beautiful winged Seed from Ceylon (mounted),
Lophospermum Scandius”, “Section of Funcus communalis (Rush) showing the Stellate Cells”, “Diatomaceae, Yarra Yarra, Australia” and “Selected Foraminifera – Orbitolites and Quinqueloculina Bronniana”. Martin’s business sense appears to have developed as time passed: initially, he advertised as “M.B.”, but by December, 1871, his ads contained his full name. It is possible that the microscope slides which bear his full name date from after 1871. Burgess also learned about effectively reaching potential customers: in 1871 and early 1872 he offered to sell his “List of Objects” for 2 stamps, but by April, 1872, he distributed the list “Gratis on application”, apparently realizing that people were unlikely to pay him simply for a catalog of his offerings.

I have yet to find ads from Martin Burgess after 1872, perhaps due to reduction of his microscopy business as his other businesses developed. The October, 1873 issue of “Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip” carried an exchange offer from Burgess, “Good Birds Eggs or Lepidoptera wanted for well mounted Microscopic Slide or Material”, suggesting that by that time he was more interested in collecting natural history objects than in making money from his slides.

Burgess remained a member of the Quekett Microscopical Club through at least 1875. On 14 March, 1879, he exhibited “Anther and Pollen of Lavatera rubra”, but was no longer listed as a club member. Burgess was also active in several other natural history societies, displaying “a foot of lady-bird” at the annual soiree of the Croydon Microscopical Club “on Wednesday evening, November 8th, 1871, in the Public Hall”. In 1873, Martin Burgess was instrumental in the formation of The New Cross Microscopical and Natural History Society, serving that year as the club’s secretary. During 1880, Burgess served as the New Cross society’s president. An 1880 issue of Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip described the magazine as having “received the seventh annual report of this society. It contains an abstract of their monthly meetings, which appear to have been very productive, and Mr. Martin Burgess's (President) address, printed in full.” Insight to such clubs and Victorian life are found in the following extract from “The Transactions of the Essex Field Club”: “Saturday, June 19th, 1880 – A Field Meeting of the Club was held in conjunction with the New Cross Microscopical and Natural History Society, the members of the two societies meeting at Theydon Bois on the arrival of the 2:13 train from London. The meeting was conducted by the respective Presidents and Secretaries of the Societies, Messrs. Martin Burgess, R. Meldola, Frederick Stewart, and W. Cole…” “Mr. Martin Burgess, President of the New Cross Society, returned thanks for the cordial welcome accorded members of his Society. They had that afternoon seen some of the beauties of Essex, and he hoped it would not be the last occasion on which the two Societies might be able to co-operate in so pleasant and profitable a way.”

Martin Burgess married Mary Ann Swan during 1865, and had three children over the following years, first a daughter, Jessie, then two sons, William Henry and Frances Sydney. The 1871 England census lists Martin’s occupation at the time to be “Accountant/Collector”. By 1873, the family had moved to 10 Ashby Place, Brockley Road, S.E., in 1881 they lived at 64 Breakspears Rd., Deptford St. Paul, and in 1891 lived at 8 Colfe Rd., Sydenham, Lewisham, London. The family was relatively well-off, the 1871 and 1881 censuses listing them as having employed a teenage girl as their live-in domestic servant. The 1881 census and subsequent records list Martin’s occupation as “Printer”, perhaps continuing his father’s business. Ready access to his father's and, later, his own printing presses may account for the elegant, personalized slide wrappers used by Martin Burgess."

Probably due to illness, Martin Burgess retired from business by 1891. Income for the household was provided by his 18 year-old son William, a “cycle engineer’, and his brother-in-law, Edward Swan, who ran a book and music shop. Martin Burgess died 1 Nov., 1891, at the age of 47, from uremia resulting from a “traumatic stricture” incurred 8 years previously (a crushed urethra, which makes urination difficult and apparently led to build up of lethal amounts of toxins in Martin’s body).

This information suggests that most microscope slides from Martin Burgess / “MB” date from the early 1870s, when his microscopy business was active. It is also probable that some slides are from later dates, from either his personal collection, gifts to friends, or exchanges with other naturalists.

All comments to the author Brian Stevenson are welcomed.


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

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

Hardwicke's Science-gossip, accessed through and

The Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club, accessed through

The Monthly Microscopical Journal: Transactions of the Royal Microscopical Society, accessed through

Nature: International Journal of Science, accessed through

Transactions of the Essex Field Club, accessed through



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