Exploring History – Glimpses into the Life of Amateur Microscopist Thomas Southwart

by Brian Stevenson, Lexington, Kentucky, USA



Most people’s collections of antique microscope slides include several slides by unknown makers.  These may have been prepared by amateur microscopists, or by professionals who sold through various outlets.  Occasionally, a name is attached to such slides, but cannot be found in commonly-used reference materials such as Brian Bracegirdle’s “Microscopical Mounts and Mounters”.  Even that reference contains numerous examples of slide preparers for whom a name is known, but nothing more.  This article is designed as an example to help other collectors discover information about mysterious preparers of history.

Figure 1

I recently obtained 10 microscope slides from England (Fig. 1).  Most used the same style of 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)98.  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 & M A S”.  It was this slide, a sentimental specimen from the preparer’s wedding day (Fig. 2), that caught my attention and led me to buy this collection.  

Figure 2

There are numerous internet-accessible sites that allow searches of historical documents such as birth, marriage, death and census records.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 English Records Office, which includes 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.


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 M. Southwart.


The censuses also indicate where each person was born.  Together with their ages, 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.  I did not identify information about Martha Ann’s death – it is possible she remarried and changed her name, or died more recently, since many of the English deaths after 1930 or so have yet to entered into internet search engines.


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.

All comments to the author Brian Stevenson are welcomed.


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Published in the October 2008 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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