An object I love at Castle Ward: Mary Ward’s microscope

Published: 23 January 2020

Last update: 23 January 2020

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This blog post is written by Frances Bailey, Lead Curator Frances Bailey Lead Curator
Mary Ward's brass microscope with mahogany case and lenses

Frances Bailey is our Lead Curator for Northern Ireland. One of her favourite objects in the collections she helps care for is the 19th-century microscope Mary Ward of Castle Ward was given as a teenager. Not only does it remind her of her own childhood gift, but the microscope had a profound influence on Mary and her future achievements, as Frances explains.

An inspirational gift

On my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a microscope. It came in an orange cardboard box, with glass slides and three lenses. I remember my fascination looking through it at a fly’s wing, flakes of skin and the cells of a leaf. It was only a simple microscope but even with its low magnification I was entranced by these extraordinary visions.

Ninety years before I was born, 18-year-old Mary King had been similarly entranced by a birthday microscope given by her father. Mary’s splendid top-of-the-range brass model came in a mahogany box. It was made by Andrew Ross, the leading maker of microscopes and lenses in London at the time. Sir James South, founding member of the Astronomical Society of London and a family friend, had suggested the gift to her father after he saw her studying insects with a magnifying glass.

The lenses of Mary Ward's microscope

Mary Ward's top-of-the-range brass microscope came with a variety of different lenses.

Mary Ward's microscope slides

Mary made her own slides, sometimes from ivory with mica instead of glass, labelling them carefully in her strong, clear hand: ‘Hair of a Sardinian Dog’, ‘a Fly’s Eye’, ‘Fish’s Scale’, ‘scales of Ghost Moth’.

Born in 1827, Mary was the daughter of the enlightened Rev. Henry King of Ballylin in the Irish midlands, and both her parents had encouraged her early interest in the natural world. The study of science ran in the family. Her cousin, the Earl of Rosse, was an avid engineer and astronomer and in the 1840s he built the world’s largest reflecting telescope (72 inches in diameter), dubbed ‘Leviathan’. 

Mary’s achievements

Mary made more focused use of her microscope than I did of mine. I went on to become a curator, a job which enables me to explore the beauties of human creativity, only occasionally through a lens. Mary’s microscope went everywhere with her as she spent her life studying the natural world.

She became a highly skilled scientific illustrator and writer of books for children and adults, including 'A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope' (1858) and 'Telescope Teachings' (1859). Her books are full of practical tips to show how even simple lenses can be used to help reveal the excitements of the natural world.

Mary's microscope, illustrated in her microscopy book
Illustrated plates from Mary Ward's book on microscopy
Mary's microscope, illustrated in her microscopy book

Her accurately observed and elegant illustrations were commissioned by several leading scientists to grace their latest scientific publications, including Sir David Brewster FRS of the Royal Society of Edinburgh for his acclaimed biography of Isaac Newton (1855).

Her own beautifully illustrated books were on subjects as diverse as toads of Ireland and the transit of Mercury in 1861, and she corresponded with many of the leading scientists of the day.

Hand drawn illustrations by Mary herself in her book on microscopy
Illustrations from Mary Ward's book on the Microscope
Hand drawn illustrations by Mary herself in her book on microscopy

So highly regarded was she that Mary became one of only three women to receive the Transactions of the Royal Astronomical Society, which included transcripts of learned papers read at the Society meetings. Mary was also given special dispensation to visit the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1862 – a time when women were strictly prohibited.

Mary’s family life

When she was 27, Mary married Henry Ward, the younger son of Viscount Bangor of Castle Ward. In 1881, Henry succeeded as 5th Viscount Bangor, but he had very little income and during their married life they and their growing family were accommodated by relations.

Oil painting of William Ward

Mary's husband, Henry William Ward, 5th Viscount Bangor (1828-1911), the younger son of Viscount Bangor of Castle Ward.

Mary Ward, scientist and author

Mary married Henry Ward when she was 27. They went on to have three sons and five daughters.

Alongside the many books that she wrote, Mary also kept a diary. The pages record the hurly-burly of family life and expeditions to explore the wildlife of Strangford Lough and Castle Ward, where they stayed for some weeks each year.

Mary and her family made many expeditions to explore the wildlife of Strangford Lough at Castle Ward, County Down
Strangford Lough at Castle Ward, County Down, Northern Ireland
Mary and her family made many expeditions to explore the wildlife of Strangford Lough at Castle Ward, County Down

Her tragic early death

Visiting Birr Castle in 1869, Mary and her relations climbed onto a steam-powered road engine, built by her cousins, to go for a run into the village. A sudden turn, a pothole in the road, and Mary fell beneath the wheels of the vehicle and was killed. She was just 42.

If Mary had not died at such an early age, what more might she have done to promote the teaching of science, the love of the natural world and to establish women as worthy members of the scientific community?

Mary Ward’s story and her microscope and drawings, on show at Castle Ward this year, inspire me to look at our natural world with a renewed sense of wonder.

" Mary Ward’s story and her microscope and drawings ... inspire me to look at our natural world with a renewed sense of wonder."

This blog is adapted from 'An object I love' by Frances Bailey which appeared in the spring 2020 issue of the National Trust Magazine.

Visitors at Castle Ward, County Down, Northern Ireland

A celebration of Mary Ward's life 

Learn more about Mary Ward in a celebration of her life and achievements at Castle Ward on 14 March. There’ll be talks by our experts, an opportunity to tour the rooms where Mary’s belongings are displayed, and tea and scones in the theatre.

Castle Ward 

Mary spent much of her time at Castle Ward, an eccentric 18th-century mansion of Gothic and Classical architecture, looking out over the tranquil waters of Strangford. Mary’s microscope and drawings will be on display there this year so you can see them for yourself.

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