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James Blake Gardiner of Bristol: the forgotten optician

Giovanni Maga, Inst. of Molecular Genetics IGM-CNR, Pavia (Italy)


The work of James Blake Gardiner as an optician and scientific instrument maker is poorly known. Similarly to other small enterpreneurs in the Victorian English province, scarce information and even scarcer instruments of Gardiner survive to date. There is no mention of him or of his instruments in reference collections such as the one owned by the Royal Microscope Society (UK), or the Billings microscope collection (US). Gardiner is not mentioned in reference books about the history of microscopy, such as those written by the known historians B. Bracegirdle or G. L'E.Turner, nor he was mentioned in popular books of the XIX century about microscopy, such as those written by J.T. Quekett, W. Carpenter, J. Hogg, H. van Heurck, T. Davies. Apparently, only one microscope (in my collection) and two barometers (sold at private auctions) are known bearing the trademark "Gardiner, 2 Clare street Bristol".


Life of James Blake Gardiner

Mention of a James Blake Gardiner, optician, operating at 2 Clare street in Bristol, can be found in the form of advertisements on local newspapers from 1863 to 1867 (Bristol Times and Mirror, Western Daily Press, Somerset County Gazette). An excerpt from an advertisement of 1866 is shown below.


Figure 1. Advertisement of Gardiner's business.

In earlier advertisements he qualified himself as "son-in-law to John King". Luckily enough, this John King was a known scientific instrument maker.


John King Jr. (London 1797 - 1871?) was the son of John King Sr. who established his business as an optician in Bristol at 2 Clare street in 1821. He was probably born in London, as indicated by the British census register, reporting the christening of a John King, son of John King, in 1797 at St. Marylebone, London.

His father, John King Sr. was also an optician. He was foreman to Charles and Richard Beilby, opticians at 2 Clare street in Bristol since 1808, themselves successors to Joshua Springer, active in Bristol since 1762.

It is known that King continued the Beilby's brothers business at 2 Clare street upon their retirement in 1821, however he may have been already active as an instrument maker in London. The Webster signature database, in fact, reports an improved compound microscope c.a. 1775 signed by King I (or J), sold at Sotheby's on Dec 10th 1973, as possibly made by John King Sr. Thus, even though uncertain, it is possible that John King Sr. moved from London to Bristol at the beginning of the XIX century. 


King Sr. and King Jr. were operating the business together at 2 Clare street until 1831. This is certified by an advertisement appearing on the journals "The Law Advertiser", 1831 vol. 9, pag. 279, and "The London Gazette", 1831, Vol.I Pag 526, announcing that the partnership between John King Jr. and his father John King Sr. was dissolved on March 15th 1831. 


Figure 2. Excerpt from the London Gazette, March 1831

Private correspondence between John King Sr. and his son, reveals tensions between the two of them, due to an affair that John Jr., married, had with another woman. Apparently, he abandoned his wife and children, a course of action that did not meet his father's approval. This may explain the dissolution of the partnership.

However, things later apparently changed for the better and John King Jr. came back to his family and settled matters with his father. We have no direct testimony of such a turn of events, but this can be inferred from the available sources.


In fact, in his will, on record at the British National Archives, John King Sr. qualifies himself as "late of Bristol, optician" and appoints his wife Elizabeth and his son John King Jr. as his sole heirs. The son John King Jr. is mentioned in the will as being a "mathematical instrument maker and optician" at 2 Clare street. The will also appoints John King Jr., together with his wife Harriet and their children, as beneficiary of the estate in 2 Clare street.


Figure 3. Excerpt from the will of John King Sr., 1845 (underlined are the passages referring to him and his son).

Thus, John King Jr. took over the business after his father retired. For a while, the business was also run by John King Jr. and his son.

Thomas Davies King (1819-1884), John King Jr.'s son, was also a known optician. He ran the business in 2 Clare street, Bristol, his home address, together with his father John and, for a short period, with a Henry Payne Coombs. In the same years, he had also a shop in Denmark street. He married Anna Reed in 1844. In 1851, he was appointed a prize at the Great Exhibition in London, for his excellent microscopes. However, in 1858 T.D. King emigrated in Canada and his journeymen Husbands & Clarke took over his business in Denmark Street, soon becoming themselves renowned instrument makers.

T.D. King became a scholar in Shakespearian studies in Canada, as mentioned in his obituary on the journal Shakespeariana, vol. 2, 1885. John King Jr. mentioned his son in his will as a "journalist" living in Canada.

Thus, at least since 1858, the shop in 2 Clare Street was left in the hands of John King Jr. alone. At that time, he was aged 61 and likely hoping for a younger hand to help him.

It was about that time, that the lives of John King Jr. and James Blake Gardiner became intertwined because of a love affair. 


The England Marriage register, reports the marriage between James Blake Gardiner (born 1836, father Joel Gardiner) with Harriet King (born 1833(a), father John King) in St. Mary-Redcliffe Church, Bristol on Nov. 17th 1863. That she was the daughter of John King Jr. is further confirmed by the English Births and Christenings database, that reports christening in St. Mary-Redcliffe Church, of an Harriet King, born on 28 Dec. 1832(a) by John King (father) and Harriet (mother) in Bristol.

Thus, James Blake Gardiner became son-in-law to John King Sr. in 1863 and took upon him King's business at 2 Clare Street, as testified by the fact that the advertisements under his name started to appear exactly in 1863.

Since 1865, James B. Gardiner quotes his father-in-law as "late" (see above).

However, the Census register of 1871 lists a John King, born 1797 in London, as a retired optician living in Bedminster (Bristol) with his wife Harriet King. Thus, "late" here means "retired", indicating that James Blake Gardiner was running the business at 2 Clare street alone from 1865.


Figure 4. 2 Clare street, where Gardiner had his business, today.

His career as an optician was short, though.


A notice of bankrupt for James Blake Gardiner, optician at 2 Clare street, Bristol, was advertised in Perry's Bankrupt Gazette and in the London Gazette in 1867. In the Assignment Deed, a John King "gentleman", living in Somerset is listed as a trustee for James Blake. Somerset was also where John King Sr. lived after his retirement (as written in his will). Thus, we can assume that the King's family had an estate in Somerset where John King Jr. also retired. 


Figure 5. Excerpts from the London Gazette, June 1867 and October 1867

It is interesting that among the trustees nominated in the Deed of Assignment, there was a George Bendon of High Holborn, London. George Bendon was one of the partners in the renowned Keyzor & Bendon scientific instruments makers' shop, operating between 1855 and 1873 at 50 High Holborn. Whether Gardiner had business relationships with Bendon is unknown. The only surviving microscope signed Gardiner looks very different from the known models produced by Keyzor & Bendon, but this does not exclude that Gardiner may have been a retailer for this London firm, or acquired from them spare parts for building his instruments. However, the fact that Bendon figured as a trustee and not as a creditor, implies that there were no pending debts between him and Gardiner.


Apparently, James Blake Gardiner did not resume his job as an optician afterwards, even if he was still living in Bristol for several years hence. In fact, the Historical Bristol Street Directory since 1871 does not list Gardiner (or any other optician) anymore at 2 Clare Street.

Apparently, however, he was still in the optical trades but as an employee, not an owner. The 1871 census reports him living in Bedminster (South Bristol), working as a “mercantile clerk”. The 1881 census describes him as a “mercantile clerk optician”, living in Weston Super Mare, Somerset. So, he probably went to work for some other optical shop.

The Bristol Parish Register reports christening of James B. Gardiner's son Herbert Cornabie Gardiner on Aug. 13th 1871 and of his daughter Ada Beatrice Anstey Gardiner on Nov 30th 1873 in St. Mary-Redcliffe Church Bristol. The 1881 census also lists a son Francis M. Gardiner, born in 1868 and a daughter Ethel M. Gardiner, born 1870.

It is a pity that Gardiner's work as an optician lasted for such a short time. Surely, fierce competition by already well established opticians like Husband & Clarke, for example, who operated their shop one block away from Gardiner's, may have contributed to the poor state of Gardiner's business. Moreover, his father-in-law was already on the verge of retiring when Gardiner joined the business and could not tutor him for long in the scientific instrument making craftsmanship.

This may have been relevant, since scientific instruments making was definitively not ones of Gardiner's family abilities. Indeed, his father was into a completely different business.


The English Births and Christenings database reports Christening of a James Blake Gardiner, father Joel, mother Harriet, on July 12th 1836 in Bristol. James' father, Joel Gardiner (1795 - 1869), married Harriet Elizabeth New in 1819. James' family was large. According to the England and Wales Census register of 1841, the household Gardiner was composed of Joel Gardiner, age 45 (head), Harriet Gardiner, age 40 (wife) and Harriet (18), Joel (16), Eliza (12), James Blake (5), Anna (1). Two additional members are listed: Mary Bowen, age 40-44 and Elizabeth Jones, age 20-24 (probably housemaids). The residence is noted as Cathay Brewery, Bedminster (South Bristol). Also, the State of the Bristol Infirmary reports a donation of 2 guineas by Mr. Joel Gardiner, brewer in Cathay, in 1841.

So, Joel Gardiner was a brewer. His business seems to have had alternate fortunes.

In 1841, the Law Journal Reports (vol. X, pag.86) published a notice of a Fiat for Bankruptcy of Joel Gardiner. Interestingly, a Mary Ann Gardiner jr. spinster, is mentioned as the Petitioning Creditor. The England Births and Christenings reports a Mary Ann Gardiner born 1827 from Joel and Harriet Elizabeth. Thus, she was probably sister to J.B. Gardiner, even if she was not mentioned in the household register of 1841.


Figure 6. Excerpt from the Law Journal 1841

On March 1842, even the life insurance of Joel Gardiner was auctioned as part of the bankruptcy Fiat.


Figure 7. Excerpt from the London Gazette, 1842

However, this was not the end of the business. In fact, the brewery was apparently run by Joel and his son Joel Jr. until 1850. This is testified by The London Gazette of May 1850, announcing the dissolution of their partnership.


Figure 8 Excerpt from The London Gazette, 1850

Joel Gardiner Jr. in 1850 married Charlotte Kingston Allen. They had a child, Frances, in 1851. Unfortunately, Joel died quite young (see below).


The Cathay Brewery definitively closed in 1864, a few years before Joel Sr.'s death, as reported by the auction advertised on The Bristol Times and Mirror of 22 Oct 1864:

"To Brewers, Manufacturers, And Capitalists. Desirable Properties Bristol And Valuable Life Policies. George Standee Will Sell Auction, At The Thereabout, Situated Cathay In The Parish Of Bedminster The City And County Of Bristol, In The Occupation The Proprietor, Mr. Joel Gardiner. The Property Being Well Situated Near To The Railway Termini, And Abounding With Never Failing Supply Water."


It is interesting that the auction of the brewery happened in the same year when James started his business as an optician at 2 Clare street. It is possible that the brewery closed because of financial hardships, hence James eagerly took the welcome opportunity of stepping into the optical business of his father-in-law, even if he had no previous experience (as far as we can say). 

The Bristol Times and Mirror of 20 Feb 1869 advertised an auction of the land properties of Joel Gardiner (aged 74), apparently to pay his creditors. This may further suggest that James Blake did not receive ample means of subsistence as a legacy from his father. Joel Gardiner Sr. died the same year.


Thanks to surviving documents, we can also glimpse at another sour event concerning the Gardiner's family.

An obituary published in The Western Daily Press of Sept. 19 1877, reads: "Sept. 18 the residence of his brother 7, Guinea Street, Joel, eldest son of the late Joel Gardiner, of this city, aged 52."

The UK City and County directories testify that James Blake Gardiner was living in Bristol, precisely at 7 Guinea Street (one block away from to St. Mary Redcliffe Church) in 1879. Thus, the deceased named in the obituary, was Joel Gardiner Jr. and the brother mentioned was James Blake. We can assume that James was caring at his home for his brother, likely in the event of a terminal illness of some sort, where he eventually died in 1877.


After 1881, the name of James Blake Gardiner simply disappears from local sources such as Bristol Parish, Census and Poll Registers and Street Directories.

However, his name surfaced a few years later in London.

      The London Census mentioned a James Blake Gardiner as living in 13 Gore-Road Hackney (London), from 1891 to 1907.

In addition, the 1891 and 1901 censuses recorded James Blake Gardiner as a “glass bottle manufacturer-employer"” in Hackney, London. He, thus, owned a facility. His eldest son Francis is qualified as "traveller for the glass bottle manufacturer", likely as a selling agent, and the other son Herbert is listed as an "assistant". James' wife Harriet is not listed anymore in the census of 1891. Thus, she probably passed away between 1881 and 1891. Actually, the demise of a Harriet Gardiner is reported in the England Deaths Registration, as occurring in Hackney, London in 1888. However, since no relatives' names are indicated, the attribution is uncertain.

In the last entries (1908-9), Gardiner's address is registered at 26th St. John's mansions, Hackney.  A picture of the St. John's mansions today is shown below.


Figure 9. St.John's mansions, Hackney South, London.

James' son Herbert C. Gardiner, is registered by the English Census Register as living in Hackney (London) from 1891 until 1901. Moreover, an Ada Beatrice Anstey Gardiner (matching the name of James' daughter) is still present in the Hackney phone directory from 1945 up to 1959. If she was, as it seems, the daughter of James B. Gardiner, that interval corresponds to an age between 72 and 87 years old.

The reasons for Gardiner's moving are not known. However, as mentioned above, the family of Harriet originally came from London through her grandfather John King Sr., so it is possible that she still had some relatives there. If Harriet passed away in London in 1888, her demise could have been one of the reasons of the transfer from Bristol to London. Maybe she was severely ill and was assisted at some relatives' home in London. We will probably never know.

     The England Death Registration reports the death of a James (Biaks) Blake Gardiner born 1836, in Hackney (London), in 1909. He was aged 73.

It is difficult, if not impossible, due to the paucity of available sources, to really know how the life of James Blake Gardiner was. From the little we know, however, he certainly lived a full life. He went through some hardships, surely, but apparently in the end he died quietly with the comfort of his family.

It must be noted that many retailers of optical instruments were branding their names on instruments made by others. This, however, seems not likely to be the case with Gardiner, based on three established facts:

1) His father-in-law, operating his business at 2 Clare street was himself a renowned scientific instruments maker.

2) Gardiner advertised his business qualifying himself as a "manufacturer" not a "retailer".

3) In the bankruptcy notice (Figure 2), Gardiner is also qualified as a "maker". Among the trustees assisting Gardiner, it was also named George Bendon of the renowned Keyzor & Bendon scientific instruments makers shop, operating in London between 1855 and 1873. Thus, it is likely that Gardiner was himself an optician who had relationships with Bendon.



       As far as we can tell, the instruments made by James Blake Gardiner were not particularly innovative or valuable, even though they were elegant and well crafted, nor his work as an optician left a significant mark in the history of scientific instruments making. Nonetheless, I do not regret the time I spent in gathering information about this forgotten optician.

To me, an old microscope is more than a contraption made of brass and glass. Regardless its scientific or technical value, it is always the product of skilled craftsmanship and of long hours of labour. Behind each instrument, there is the story of the person who made it. So, an old microscope is also a sort of portal, through which the curious mind can travel in space and time, visiting places and meeting people of the past, in one word: learning.



(a). The difference between the year of birth on the christening and marriage certificates (1832 vs. 1833) can be explained by the fact that christening was on 28 th Dec. 1832, so it is possible that the registration of the birth certificate occurred a few days later (in 1833), not uncommon at those times.



I am indebted to Julian Lea-Jones of the Bristol Science Club for his help in researching Gardiner's business in Bristol. I am also very grateful to Brian Stevenson, curator of the site, for his help and information about John and Thomas D. King and on the later business of J.B. Gardiner. I also thank Oronzo Mauro and Paolo Brenni of the Scientific Instrument Society and Melanie Reedman of the Royal Microscopical Society, for their help in my quest for information about Gardiner's instruments.


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