William Watson (1815-1881)

William Watson was born in Middlesex about 1815. Although the advertisements for his eventual business claim that the business was founded in 1837, in the 1841, 1851 and 1861 census returns, Watson described himself as a general or miscellaneous dealer, both euphemisms for a pawnbroker or second-hand dealer, possibly in guns and silver. For the rest of his life he described himself as a gunsmith and optician.

The business was first established as “William Watson” at 74 City Road in London. Their optical products seem to have been mainly magic lanterns, slides and associated equipment. At some time between 1861-1868, they moved to their long-term address at 313 High Holborn. In 1868, the name of the company was changed to W. Watson & Son. Before he died in 1881, William had made 3 of his sons (Thomas, George and Charles) and his nephew (Thomas) partners in the company and its name was changed to W. Watson & Sons.  From 1870, the business was described as “gunmakers and suppliers of mathematical, surveying and astronomical instruments”.

In the late 1870s, they started selling photographic equipment, of their own manufacture and imported from others. Microscopes also appeared in their catalogue at this time, and telescopes, x-ray machines and other optical equipment also appeared in turn. A couple of the brothers left the company between 1875 and 1885 to form “Watson Brothers, Gun and Rifle Manufacturers”. In 1900, W. Watson & Sons purchased John Browning & Co., and in 1908 became W. Watson & Sons Ltd. Their 1912 catalogue lists a remarkably diverse range of microscopes and associated equipment.

The company celebrated its centenary in 1937, but in the mid-50s part of it was sold to General Electric. The optical/camera division continued until 1968.