The Well Head Mansion story – part two

John Waterhouse III was born at Well Head mansion in August 1806, elder son of John Waterhouse senior and his wife Elizabeth Rawson. A delicate boy, in his youth he was subject to occasional epileptic fits, and his parents thought him unlikely to reach adulthood. Yet he was to become one of the most outstanding members of his family.

John was a studious lad. Isaac Newton was his hero, and a bust of this famous scientist stood prominently at Well Head. When he reached maturity, John had two good friends nearby who shared his interests – experiments in early photography, in scientific matters, and his interest in botany and in natural history. One was Solomon Smith, a young doctor who had settled in Halifax; the other was Leeds born Rev. Joseph Bancroft Reade, curate at Halifax Parish Church from 1829. John and Joseph spent much time together at Well Head, exploring new sciences that were opening up early in the 19th Century. When John experimented with a micro¬scope, he came to realise the marvels of the colours of the spectrum produced by light through a glass prism, so he investigated the construction and uses of lenses. Guided by Reade, whose special interest was photography, John produced repetitions of photographs printed from images on glass and paper, and the chemical means of giving permanence to such images – both developments in photography which were then quite new. In this connection, an important invention of John’s, known as the Waterhouse stop, was once in general use; this was an interchangeable diaphragm with an aperture for controlling the entry of light into a camera.

Unlike many, John had the funds to travel, and in 1839, aged 33, he set out to see for himself those foreign countries of which he had read. In those days, such voyages were rare, arduous and hazardous, and against the advice of his family, John set out to voyage around the world.

John visited every continent (except Antarctica) at one time or another, and his adventures in search of rare plants, ferns and flowers, which he sought with true botanical interest, must have been fascinating. And he, the delicate one, survived the most primitive and rigorous conditions during long spells of travel; yet his healthy companion James Riley of Halifax was taken ill and died during the return voyage. Restored in strength, John returned home, alone.

The founding and establishment of Halifax’s Literary and Philosophical Society in 1830 was largely due to John Waterhouse, though the major initial work was carried out by his uncle, Christopher Rawson of Hope Hall. The Society’s new Museum in Harrison Road cost £2,000, and was opened on November 30th, 1835. In due course this benefited immensely by gifts from John Waterhouse of an amazing range and quantity – 150 specimens of birds from India, Brazil and the West Coast of Africa, quadrupeds and reptiles, fossils from Egypt, gold crystals, mummy skulls, poisoned arrows, musical instruments from China, the skeleton and skin of a gigantic crocodile, and many other items.

At Well Head too, were exhibited the results of John’s journeying around the world. Glasshouses had been constructed in the gardens, to receive such rarities in plants and flowers that followed him home after his return; also, there were trees and flowers for the grounds.

Besides John’s interest in botany and natural history, he took a keen interest in geology and astronomy. He designed and erected an observatory with a revolving dome in the gardens at Well Head, to view the heavens through his powerful telescope. Over a period of eight years from 1866, he made detailed observations of the weather and of the night skies from Well Head, which he published in 1874. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, of the Royal Astronomical Society, of the Geological Society and of the Royal Microscopical Society.

John also rendered much public service; he was a Justice of the Peace and a Deputy Lieutenant for the West Riding. Among his educational interests locally was the development of the Mechanics’ Institute, of which he became a Governor, and served as one of its early Presidents. Like many of his family, he was a Governor of the Waterhouse Charities.

During the last few years of his life John Waterhouse became frail, and then his greatest pleasure was to be wheeled around his garden in a bath chair. When he died on 13th February 1879, at the same house in which he had been born, he had reached the age of 72, remarkable for a boy not expected to survive childhood.

John was buried in the Waterhouse vault in Halifax Parish Churchyard, his name being added simply at the foot of a long list of others of his family. Perhaps his greatest surviving memorial is the fine stained-glass to his memory in the east window of Halifax Minster’s Rokeby Chapel.

To be continued…


David’s Speaking engagements this month

at Central Library & Archives, Square Road, Halifax HX1 1QG Tickets (£2) available from Local Studies in the Central Library 01422 392631 or via TicketSource (search Emily Bronte)

Halifax Festival of Words – Branwell Bronte and his friends, an illustrated talk at The Grayston Unity, opp the Town Hall. Date Tues 11th October, 7.30pm and again at 8.45pm. Tickets can be booked at the bar or 07807 136520. £3 pp