Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Societies - Microscopical Societies

MICROSCOPICAL SOCIETY, 21, REGENT STREET. Instituted Sept.3rd, 1839, for the promotion of improvements in microscopic sciences, and in optical and mechanical construction of microscopes. Admission fee, one guinea; annual subscription, one guinea.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

    VERY various are the recreations of the young men engaged in great wholesale and retail houses of business. Concerts, lectures, recitations, and other rational and enjoyable evenings have long been familiar, but till recently we did not know of an entertainment of a more novel and remarkable kind. An invitation to the annual soirée of the “Old Change Microscopical Society” revealed an unexpected scene, which would have delighted all advocates for the diffusion of useful and entertaining knowledge. The society, we were informed consists entirely of employés in one city house—that of Messrs. Leaf, Sons, and Co., warehousemen, in Old Change.
    We find our way to Cannon Street on a rainy February night and enter the brilliantly lighted hall of the City Terminus hotel. Amid the dazzling decorations and a cheerful throng of visitors, we discern a series of oblong tables, ranging from one end of the spacious room to the other. On these tables are rows of microscopes, nearly all of them double-barrelled (binocular). Each instrument has its own lamp by its side, and is adjusted to a prepared specimen which is placed below it for examination. Each is also in charge of an exhibitor —one of the members of the society—who is ready to answer the inquiries of the visitor, or alter the focus of the instrument. Delighted guests—many of them sisters, mothers, aiid friends of the exhibitors— are peering down the wondrous tubes.
    What do they see? Well, it would be impossible here to name all the objects. The remotest regions of the three kingdoms of Nature have been laid under contribution. Here are some minute and beautiful shells, dredged up by Dr. Carpenter from a sea-bottom 15,000 feet in depth. The next table shows us specimens of pond-life. We see strange and wonderfully-constructed creatures, part vegetable and part animal, disporting themselves alive before us. Some of these zoophytes have been fed with carmine, the better to exhibit their transparent bodies. Visitors are astonished to learn that these marvellous creatures are the common denizens of our ponds around London, and that, in view of their exhibition, most of them were procured on Saturday afternoon last at Hampstead Heath, Rainham Marshes, and Victoria Docks. Then the phenomenon of vegetable circulation is shown in the beautiful and celebrated water-plant Vallisneria spiralis—one of the most delightful spectacles the microscope affords. Next is a flake of coal—common house coal—laboriously filed and ground down -with sand-paper and plate glass until it has become as thin and transparent as a sheet of note-paper. Through the microscope we can plainly see the vegetable spores and spore-cases (lying closely packed together) of which the coal is mainly composed. Here is a live frog, with its foot spread out to show the circulation of the blood. The room has now become hot, and the creature is the subject of commiseration from some lady visitors; but the exhibitor explains that the frog has been sent comfortably to sleep for a fortnight by means of a suitable soporific, and is all unconscious of his sympathisers Next are more zoophytes—but we should speedily fill our space with references to such books as “Pritchard’s Infusoria” and the “Micrographical Dictionary” did we try to do justice to this varied and wonderful exhibition of an amateur microscopical society.
    No less than sixty of the microscopes we saw before us at this remarkable soirée belonged to the members of the society alone—that is, to the young men of Messrs. Leaf’s establishment. It seemed incredible, until we verified the fact for ourselves. These exhibitors, -whose lives might seem to be devoted to the microscope, are actually hard at work all day in one of the largest and busiest of the City houses. Microscopy is simply their evening recreation.
    “Occupied as are all of us during the day” (says the president of the society, Mr. Charles J. Leaf) “in an almost unceasing round of duties -which command our attention, and frequently of anxieties and grave responsibilities, which harass our thoughts, it is of incalculable advantage that when these duties are over we should provide ourselves with some attractive and elevating pursuit, which can be carried on by our own fireside and shared in by those around it.” 
    The Old Change Microscopical Society is indeed an admirable feature of that movement for retrenching the unnecessary hours of business, in which Messrs. Leaf and Co. have taken an honourable part. To many young men the mere scientific study might have at first little attraction, but where the philosophers are surrounded by cheerful groups of fair visitors, it would be difficult to name a more pleasant evening in the City than this exhibition of the sixty microscopes.

The Leisure Hour, 2nd March 1872

Quekett Microscopical Club, meeting at University College, Gower-street. – The object of this club is to afford facilities for the study of the microscope, and of the various branches of Natural History which require its use. Qualification, an interest in such pursuits, and a desire to take advantage of the means of instruction afforded by the club. No entrance fee; subscription 10s. per annum.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879