John Thomson's early life, 1837-1862

John Thomson was born in Edinburgh in 1837, the son of William Thomson, a tobacco spinner, and his wife Isabella. In the early 1850s he was apprenticed to a maker of optical and scientific instruments, probably James Mackay Bryson, the proprietor of a well-established business with a shop on Princes Street, in Edinburgh. During his apprenticeship he not only became familiar with the scientific principles of photography, but he found himself working for a man closely connected to the leading figures in Scottish photography.

Whilst an apprentice he attended evening classes at the Watt Institution and School of Arts, a mechanic's institute in Edinburgh (the forerunner of Heriot-Watt University), from which he 'graduated' with good qualifications, and won a prize for English. In 1861 he became a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, a leading organisation concerned with the development of science and technology.

By 1862, however, he made the decision to join his brother William in Singapore, and like many other Scots,make a new life for himself in the Far East, where opportunities were good for ambitious young men.