My 2x Great Grandfather was Robert H Mason, born in 1858 in Romsey, Hampshire to Robert Mason & Ann Pearce. He came from a reasonably poor family where the majority of his siblings and cousins either followed in the footsteps of their parents as Agricultural Labourers or moved to London and mostly became Cab/Coachmen. Robert however, at 22 years old in the 1881 Census was working as a "Philosophical Instrument Maker" in Lambeth, England. He is listed on my great grandmothers birth certificate as "Scientific Instrument Maker" as well as in a probate record for him. Maybe he showed some sort of aptitude for this sort of thing in his early years and was inducted into an apprenticeship?

He married Milly Bungay in 1883 and had two children, Elinor Kate (1884) and Madeline Annie (1886). He died in 1890 aged 32 of "Phthisis" or more likely T.B contracted in London.

I've contacted Lambeth Archives but never received a reply. I'll try again after writing this.

Perhaps there are apprenticeship records or similar guild records?

My question is: Where can I look for records relating to this profession and this man?/Can you find any other records of him relating to his time in work? And what kind of work would he have been likely to be doing at this time?

EDIT: I know he might have been a malnourished child and would probably have not fully matured so might not have been a very useful Labourer. This is a newspaper transcript of his fathers death, he was found dead in a river the younger brother mentioned by Henry Mason is Robert H Mason.

Robert Mason Newspaper Clipping


Probate Record

Probate record (Search Mason, 1890, on page 14/20 - Probate Search


1881 Census - FamilySearch Record

2 Answers 2


Firstly, Phthisis was the old name of tuberculosis, so your suggestion on that is correct.

In the 1800s, what we now always call science was more commonly known as natural philosophy. So a scientific instrument and a philosophical instrument would have been the same thing.

Such instruments at that time would almost certainly have fallen into one of three forms:
Mechanical instruments, requiring skills similar to a watchmaker.
Glass instruments, requiring glassblowing skills.
Medical instruments, requiring glass and metalwork skills.

While I don't believe there was a specific guild for instrument makers, you could try looking at records from these other areas.

  • 1
    Thanks for that I'll keep looking into it, It would be nice to see an ancestor that had a highly skilled trade for once!
    – Danny B
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 19:33

The basic principle in studying family history is always to start what you know and work outwards from there in small increments. If you have a street address from the 1881 Census, or at least a district, the first thing I would do is look into the history of London street re-numbering -- I would not assume that any historical address that I found could be dropped into Google Street View.

If you can find a period city directory or London newspapers close in time to the 1881 Census, see if you can locate companies that might have made instruments in London (comparable to The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company). Advertisements or catalogs might give you an idea of what sort of goods were manufactured there, and you might be able to find photos in auction catalogs.

By searching on Google, you can turn up history of science works such as Julian Holland's "Historic Scientific Instruments and the Teaching of Science: A Guide to Resources" or works such as Gerard L'Estrange Turner's Scientific Instruments, 1500-1900: An Introduction (check WorldCat.org for a copy in a library near you).

If your 2Great-grandfather worked for an individual researcher rather than a business, you might get a 'lucky dip' in a manuscript collection of that person's papers, or perhaps if he worked for a well-known firm, some business records might survive.

The National Archives (TNA) suggests looking in local archives. Museums that have collections of period scientific instruments might have research guides and finding aids.

This is the kind of problem where you have to go at it from multiple directions at once -- it's not likely to be a simple case of looking him up by name. But it can also be a lot of fun, learning about what instrument he might have created, even if you can't find out for sure.

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