Washington Teasdale (1830-1903)
Civil engineer, pioneering photographer and astronomer

Washington Teasdale (1830-1903) In the great Victorian age of scientific discovery, innovation and exploration, Leeds did not lag behind. New societies were formed to bring local people together to discuss, research and experiment with the new ideas and technologies of the time. Prominent in this bubbling cauldron of ideas and activities was an engineer and amateur scientist, Washington Teasdale. After years working far away in India he returned to his home town of Leeds in the 1870s and threw himself enthusiastically into the rich life of the town, joining all the forward-thinking groups and playing his part in local initiatives and research, particularly in photography, microscopy, and astronomy.

He was born in Brunswick Place, Leeds, in 1830, in the house of his maternal grandfather, Christopher Heaps. His own father, John Teasdale, was a London commercial agent, who died when he was only eight, so he and his two younger siblings were brought up by their mother Mary in their grandfather’s comfortable home. Christopher Heaps, a Leeds Councillor, ran a prosperous plumbing and glazing business, and had shares in the major project to provide Leeds with fresh water. By the 1840s he could afford to move his family away from the smoke and grime of town to a fine new mansion in beautiful grounds on Headingley Hill – ‘Rosehurst’ in Grosvenor Road. This became Washington Teasdale’s home (and early in the next century was briefly the home of the Nobel Prize-winning physicists William Henry and Lawrence Bragg).

From boyhood Washington was fascinated by science and technology and in this age of great public works he decided to train as a civil engineer, though he still found time for his scientific hobbies. One of his early passions was photography. When he was only 22, he presented a carefully tabulated paper to the Philosophical Society on one of the new experimental photographic processes. He joined the fledgling Photographic Society and was briefly active in photographic publishing. But as a civil engineer he looked for other challenges.

Around 1855 he took up a post in India working on the development of the first railways linking Bombay with other cities, a major engineering project initiated by the Stephensons. He immersed himself in the culture and language – it was said that he went on thinking in Hindustani for the rest of his life! But his years in India were marked by personal tragedy. In 1857 his fiancée from Leeds, Elizabeth Fretwell, the daughter of a Leeds grocer, embarked on the long voyage to India to join him, and they married in Bombay Cathedral. A year later she died in childbirth, and his little daughter, brought back to Leeds by his brother, died here aged two. He never remarried.

Around 1870 he retired and returned to Leeds, to Rosehurst. Now he had wealth and leisure to pursue his personal passions across the sciences – microscopy, meteorology, geology, geometry, mechanics, and especially photography and astronomy. All were explored with enthusiasm and delight. He belonged to all the learned societies in Leeds and travelled often to London, where he was a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. He gave lectures, illustrated by his own slides using his innovative equipment; presented learned papers; experimented and investigated; and was regarded in Leeds as the expert on everything scientific. He enjoyed the company of a wide circle of like-minded friends, active in art and music as well as the sciences and the natural world.

In later years he moved to a smaller house, 255 Hyde Park Road, where he collected a treasure-trove of scientific apparatus, curios, and works of art. He continued his pioneering work in photography (some of his work features in the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford) and was the driving force behind the reestablishment of the Leeds Astronomical Society in 1892. Under his presidency the Society was revived, its telescope, originally constructed under Sir John Herschel’s supervision, set up on the roof of the Higher Grade School in Woodhouse Lane, and regular meetings established with papers, discussions, observations – even a controversial visit from a speaker for the Flat Earth theory! Ladies were warmly invited to join. The Society remains active today, after more than a century.

He died in 1903 while away at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, aged 73. He has been described as the archetypal Victorian scientific amateur: Leeds was all the richer for his contribution to its intellectual life.

Eveleigh Bradford
December 2014