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Reade, Joseph Bancroftlocked

  • R. D. Wood

Reade, Joseph Bancroft (1801–1870), microscopist and experimenter in photography, was born on 5 April 1801 at Kirkgate, Leeds, Yorkshire, the eldest of six sons and two daughters of Thomas Shaw Bancroft Reade (1776–1841) and his wife, Sarah (d. 1825), daughter of Richard Paley. His father was a merchant who was active in the British and Foreign Bible Society and author of several Christian pamphlets, and his mother was related to the natural theologian William Paley. He was educated at Leeds grammar school, and also had private tuition at Hull, before entering Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1821, from where he migrated to Gonville and Caius College in the following year. Immediately after graduating BA in 1825, he was ordained deacon as curate of Kegworth, Leicestershire. In the same year, on 25 July at St Paul's Cray, Kent, he married Charlotte Dorothy Farish (1796–1882), niece of Professor William Farish of Cambridge. They had three children, the longest-lived of whom, a daughter, died when she was twenty-one. In 1826 Reade took holy orders, and in 1828 proceeded MA.

From 1829 to 1832 he was curate at Halifax parish church, where began a lifetime friendship with an amateur meteorologist, John Waterhouse, remembered by photographers as inventor of ‘Waterhouse stops’. After a part-time curacy at Harrow Weald from 1832 to 1834, Reade became proprietor of a school at Peckham, south-east of London. In December 1839, under the patronage of Dr John Lee of Hartwell, Buckinghamshire, and the Royal Astronomical Society (who owned the right of appointment), he became vicar of Stone, Buckinghamshire. At the vicarage a small school for about twenty pupils was established and an observatory was built in the garden. After twenty years at Stone, by invitation of Lady Franklin Russell who lived at nearby Chequers, he became vicar of Ellesborough, Buckinghamshire, from 1859 to 1863, and from then until his death rector of Bishopsbourne, near Canterbury.

Reade's first scientific paper, 'Observations and experiments on the solar rays that occasion heat', was read at the Royal Society in December 1836 (Proceedings 3, 1830–37, 457; and manuscript at RS, AP.20. 14). In this paper he proposed the use of two convex lenses adjusted to condense sunlight onto a microscope specimen while defocusing the harmful rays of heat. He was greatly interested in the design of optical devices of the microscope, devising a hemispherical condenser, commonly known as ‘Reade's kettledrum’ (1861), and an equilateral prism (1869).

In several of his earliest papers Reade combined his optical interests with his love of chemistry by carrying out micro-incineration experiments on botanical specimens. His 'Observations of some new organic remains in the flint of chalk', published in November 1838 in Annals of Natural History, contains the first microscopic illustrations (from drawings) of microfossils, then named xanthidia, that more than a century later finally became identified as planktonic dinoflagellate cysts (important in identification of geological strata relating to petroleum). A wide-ranging interest in the chemistry of metal salts led in 1846 to his obtaining a patent for inks.

Reade described his small observatory and telescope at Stone in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1853. His astronomical interests were strongly influenced by his association with Lee and the Meteorological Society at Hartwell House a few miles from Stone. However, his publications in this field are not extensive. Between 1844 and 1850 he contributed a series of observations of comets to the Royal Astronomical Society. He also designed a ‘solid eyepiece’, which received a medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Reade conducted some early experiments in photography, and he is noticed in the histories of photography. It has sometimes been suggested that he may have used photographic preparations of silver salts with oak-galls (gallic acid) and fixation with hyposulphite in 1836 or 1837. However, letters written by him early in 1839 provide evidence that he did not carry out such experiments before that year, and that his use of hyposulphite for fixing photographs followed Sir John Herschel's paper on photography read at the Royal Society on 14 March 1839. At the end of that month Reade used an infusion of nut-galls to make photographic paper more sensitive. This, together with the influence of Herschel, led to the discovery by W. H. F. Talbot that gallic acid developed the latent image. His early use of gallic acid led to the appearance of Reade (but not of Herschel) in 1854 as a defence witness in a lawsuit, Talbot <i>v.</i> Laroche, relating to Talbot's calotype patent, and his part in this case brought him attention in the photographic world during the rest of his life. He joined the Photographic Society in 1855 and as vice-president in the late 1860s often chaired its meetings.

Reade was a life member of the British Association from its beginning in 1831, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1838. In 1839 he was a founding member of the Microscopical Society, in which he was especially active during his last years and of which he was president at the time of his death. The Revd Reade suffered from cancer during his last months and died from jaundice at his home, the rectory, Bishopsbourne, on 12 December 1870. He was buried four days later at St Mary's Church, Bishopsbourne.


  • A. L. Reade, ‘Pedigree XXV: Reade of Leeds, etc.’, The Reades of Blackwood Hill in the parish of Horton, Staffordshire: a record of their descendants (privately printed, London, 1906), 85–102
  • R. D. Wood, ‘J. B. Reade and the early history of photography’, Annals of Science, 27 (1971), 13–83
  • R. D. Wood, ‘J. B. Reade's early photographic experiments’, British Journal of Photography (28 July 1972)
  • J. Millar, Monthly Microscopical Journal, 5 (1871), 92–6
  • R. D. Wood, ‘Straightening the record on Reade’, British Journal of Photography (3 July 1996)
  • R. D. Wood, ‘Latent developments from gallic acid, 1839’, Journal of Photographic Science, 28 (1980), 36–42
  • C. H. Oakden, ‘Joseph Bancroft Reade: his contributions to microscopical science’, Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society (1926), 181–92
  • C. H. Oakden, ‘The photographic work of the Rev. Joseph Bancroft Reade’, British Journal of Photography (27 July–3 Aug 1928), 435–5, 466–7
  • A. Major, ‘Bishopsbourne's eminent (but forgotten) Victorian: the Rev. Joseph Bancroft Reade’, Bygone Kent (March 1989), 171–7
  • Kentish Gazette (20 Dec 1870), 5
  • J. Venn and others, eds., Biographical history of Gonville and Caius College, 2: 1713–1897 (1898)
  • R. D. Wood, ‘Rev. J. B. Reade FRS (1801–1870): a bibliography part 1, works written by Reade’, RS, R63128


  • National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, Royal Photographic Society collection
  • priv. coll.
  • RS
  • AM Oxf., Hope collection
  • CBS, John Lee MSS
  • Wellcome L., Henry Lee collection, Western MS 5392


  • Clarkington, photograph, 1860–69, TNA: PRO, Stationers' Hall Copyright Office, COPY 1/16, fol.1042
  • Maull & Polyblank, photograph, 1860–69, National Museum of Photography, Bradford, Science Museum photographic collection
  • G. C. Wallich, two photographs, 1860–69, MHS Oxf., Royal Microscopical Society collection
  • photograph, 1860–69, Royal Institution of Great Britain, London
  • three photographs, RS

Wealth at Death

under £800: resworn probate, 7 Feb 1871, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Royal Society, London