Curators and Volunteers
The men and women who have looked after the BOA Museum collections.
The men and women who have looked after the BOA Museum collections.
For more than a century the British Optical Association Museum has been cared for by a succession of keen individuals, some with great technical expertise and all with a passion for the physical heritage of ophthalmic optics. In 1998 the museum acquired its first full-time professional curator although he is greatly assisted by a network of special subject advisers and other volunteers who provide regular or occasional 'hands-on' help.
John Hamer Sutcliffe OBE FBOA (1867-1941)
Secretary of the British Optical Association 1896-1940
John Hamer Sutcliffe, an ophthalmic optician originally from Rochdale, but who moved to set up an optical practice in Blackpool, was the distinguished founder of the British Optical Association Museum in 1901.
He studied optics at Owens College (subsequently to become part of the University of Manchester) from 1893, later moving to the Manchester Royal Eye Infirmary. When in 1895, his father Robert Sutcliffe co-founded the British Optical Association John quickly became involved, becoming at once its Acting Secretary and its first proper secretary in 1896, remaining in post, almost incredibly, until 1940. Space does not permit a wider account of his administrative career but he was, essentially, the founder of the modern optometry profession in the United Kingdom.
In 1901 the chance gift of some antique spectacles prompted Sutcliffe to establish a museum to sit alongside the new BOA Library. He built this up almost single-handedly by a combination of solicited donations and canny purchases. He was able to promote the collection via the BOA's journal, the Dioptric Review which he edited and which contains an unusually high number of historical articles for a publication of this sort. In the late 1920s and 1930s the Dioptric Review included souvenir prints, produced on the BOA's in-house press and featuring items from the museum or library collection. These are now collectors' items. He also took great delight in the historic buildings that the BOA was to inhabit, doing much to restore the Medieval Cliffords Inn Hall before, sadly, it was compulsorily purchased for redevelopment in one of those pre-Second World War acts that many architectural historians now regard as state-sponsored cultural vandalism.
His contemporary optical design activities have now themselves become represented in the museum, for instance we have an example of his model keratometer, trial frame and solid downcurve bifocal lens. We also care for items from the First World War associated with the Army Spectacle Depot that he established and ran, including the OBE medal awarded when it was all over. In 1932 John Sutcliffe edited an important Catalogue of the BOA Museum and Library. It is a tribute to him that the collection is now too big to contemplate another book of this format. Indeed, even the 1932 volume was incomplete as most of the ophthalmic instruments were not included.
JHS was an active freemason and socialist, standing unsuccessfully for the fledgling Labour party in a Liverpool constituency at the General Election of 1929. As a result of these masonic and political activities he had many contacts across Europe, including the famous collector Professor von Pflugk in Germany.
He spent many months driving round the Continent each year, meeting friends and studying churches, art galleries and collections en route. Via these travels he acquired both further knowledge and more items for the collection. A splendid caricature in the museum shows him motoring at speed through Dubrovnik with his wife Margaret in a scene captured by a local artist. We also hold the Couronne Olympique du Travail and its associated medal awarded to him by the Belgian government in 1937 for outstanding service to a particular profession. Apparently he was something of a linguist and this served him well in his role as President of the International Optical League from 1929.
His overseas links also prompted him to provide a sympathetic reception to refugees from the Continent in the run-up to the Second World War. In later life several of these refugees became donors to the museum which they identifed so closely with their late friend.
Shortly after retirement J. H. Sutcliffe was killed in a road traffic accident during the Wartime blackout, an incident which somewhat ironically emphasised one of his professional interests in life - the importance of adequate illumination.
One of the current museum's public display galleries, which opened in November 2003, is known as the 'Sutcliffe Room' in his honour. On prominent display is the posthumous bust of Sutcliffe sculpted by F. R. Bevan in 1949. The bust was officially unveiled by Mrs Margaret Sutcliffe at 6pm on Monday 16 July 1951 during the International Optical Congress held in London, an event at which items described as being from the 'Sutcliffe Museum' were displayed to delegates.
Edith S. Chittell
The mysterious 'curator' of the BOA Museum
We know more or less nothing about Miss E. S. Chittell other than that she is acknowledged as 'Curator of the Museum' in the 1932 catalogue and the initials 'ESC' appear on some of the museum's indexing records. Was her role as 'Curator' a proper position or a voluntary post? Was she engaged just for the cataloguing project and what happened to her subsequently?
The 1901 census records just two people called Edith Chittell (one with a middle initial 'M'), both in the district of North Wimbledon, one aged four, the other in her thirties. Perhaps more promising, the 1911 Census records a seven-year old Edith Sylvia Chittell living in Chelsea, born in 1904. Is this her? It would have made her 25 or 26 when the Museum catalogue was produced. We would love to hear from anyone with more information.
George Giles OBE FBOA HD FSMC DOrth (1904-1965)
Secretary of the British Optical Association 1941-1965
As the BOA's fourth secretary George Giles was renowned as a hard-working, hard-playing individual, to the extent that it is often suggested that his industry killed him. It is therefore small surprise that, at a time when the administrative burden of running the professional body for ophthalmic opticians was growing ever more complex, he took a hands-on approach to the museum, often answering research enquiries personally. In a sense, the Museum had been orphaned the year before, following the death of J. H. Sutcliffe after the briefest period of retirement and Giles may have felt a responsibility for continuing the collection that went beyond his contracted duties.
His bronze memorial plaque in the museum reads:
Barrister & Ophthalmic Optician / who during his whole career was a / devoted architect of our profession / until he died on September 26th 1965 / at the age of 61 years
As Giles wrote in the preface to his Practice of Orthoptics he was prone to 'living on the job'. At various times he was Senior Examiner of the BOA, Senior Staff refractionist, Senior Orthoptist and Lecturer at the London Refraction Hospital, consultant to a cadet ship - the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College (HMS "Worcester"), Registrar of the Joint Council of Qualified Opticians, Technical Adviser to the London Optical Company, Honorary Secretary of the West and North West London and Middlesex Local Association, member of the GOC, President of the International Optical League, a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry, a Fellow of the Illuminating Engineering Society, Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society and an Ernest Aves Medallist. He also qualified as a barrister of Lincoln's Inn. Giles edited the Dioptric Review and the British Journal of Physiological Optics. He co-designed the Giles-Archer Colour Vision Unit and various orthoptic instruments, many of which are represented in the BOA Museum collection.
Characteristically, his book on the Practice of Orthoptics begins with an historical survey including a discussion and illustration from Bartisch's Ophthalmodouleia, as found in the rare books collection of the BOA Library, and an account of the work of F. C. Donders and Claude Worth. Like Sutcliffe, he benefited greatly from the knowledge and assistance of the BOA Librarian Margaret Mitchell.
Margaret Mitchell MA FBOA (-1993)
Librarian of the British Optical Association 1928-1972
Miss Margaret Mitchell was the great polymath. As BOA Librarian for many years, she served under George Giles and eventually took over the bulk of the day-to-day running of the museum as well. She was greatly respected for her subject knowledge and was responsible for writing several articles about the collections and delivering external lectures that raised the museum's profile on the international optometric stage. In particular, drawing partly on the work of the BOA Fellow, Mr Walter Gasson, she was one of the first to outline the problems with traditional accounts of the invention of spectacles. Both the museum and library collections continued to expand in her time and, consequently, she was the last individual who found it possible to run the museum whilst fulfilling another role at the same time. She was also the BOA's Director of Examinations from 1943.
Miss Mitchell was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the BOA in 1967.
In 1982 Margaret Mitchell wrote a History of the British Optical Association 1895-1978 which includes an entire chapter devoted to the museum.
Margaret Mitchell died in December 1993.
Hugh Orr FCOptom (1905-2002)
Honorary Curator 1990-1996
Hugh Orr, an independent optometrist from Beckenham, was a private collector and in many ways a private man, but when lesser mortals would have retired he revitalised the Museum, being more or less single-handedly responsible for the redisplay of 1990 and for a satellite display at the headquarters of the General Optical Council in Harley Street which lasted until 2003. Appointed Honorary Curator in 1990, having helped with the museum since 1988, he was assisted for a while by Arthur Bennett but subsequently carried on alone once more, until he finally retired in 1996 at the age of 91. For nearly a decade he had supervised public visitors to the museum and his sterling efforts provided the foundation from which the College’s plans to redevelop the museum and library ultimately derived. For this service he was awarded Life Fellowship of the College in 1991.
As a teenager and young man Hugh Orr worked in the optical industry in London. He joined the General Optical Company in 1918 and years later would recall the job of washing surfacing powder. He continued his education in the evenings and qualified as an ophthalmic optician in 1926 (eventually becoming both FBOA and FSMC), going on to open several optical practices in South East London including Forest Hill, Thornton Heath and Streatham. At one time he ran a frame-making workshop and was also involved in optical politics for a number of years.
Hugh retired in the 1970s, having sold all his practices, and then turned his full attention to his long-standing interest in optical history. He accumulated the largest private collection of antique spectacles in the UK and was an enthusiastic founder member of the Ophthalmic Antiques International Collectors’ Club in 1982.
An accomplished amateur historian, he published privately a book on Antique Spectacles which was very well received at the time and has cropped up at a surprising number of public libraries across the world. Unfortunately the very scholarship he did so much to promote has revealed subsequently that this book contains many errors, so it cannot any longer be recommended. Its 25 short features include:
Another book, Old Spectacles and Spectacle-Makers was prepared but was never published. A photocopy of the proof is available for study in the BOA Museum. Amongst others, it covers the following topics:
In 2003 The Hugh Orr Collection was sold at Sotheby's, Olympia in one of the finest auctions of ophthalmic antiques to occur in recent years. Through the splendid generosity of a College Fellow, Miss Kusoom Vadgama, the museum was able to purchase a significant body of items from this collection in memory of its former Honorary Curator. The pride of these objects was an unusual Refraction Unit supposedly patented by E.J. Bruce in 1889 and manufactured by the Automatic Sight Testing Company Ltd, before 1900. We have since had it fully restored to working order by experts at the Science Museum.
Arthur Bennett FCOptom (1912-1994)
Honorary Assistant Curator
A. G. Bennett was one of the most respected names in the world of ophthalmic lenses and his text books are still read today. In later life he was Honorary Assistant Curator of the BOA Museum, concentrating particularly on the lens collections.
Originally a banking trainee, he took an evening course in Applied Optics at the Northampton Polytechnic Institute between 1932-5 before joining Willesden Optical Company as a spectacle lens worker. By 1945 he had joined the technical staff of Stigmat Ltd, partly it seems due that company's stated intention to manufacture contact lenses, where he stayed until 1951 and developed a thorough knowledge of the UK optical industry. His interests included telescopic units for the partially sighted and aspheric lenses. He first became a part-time lecturer in 1937 and a full-time senior lecturer at City University in 1962. In 1947 he redesigned an offset zonal scleral contact lens. As Senior Technical Officer in the Inspectorate of Medical Supplies at the Ministry of Health (1951-62) Arthur was the pioneer of British (BS) Standards work on ophthalmic lenses and the BOA Museum owns the trial case he used in his investigations. He wrote over 200 papers and seven books including Optics of Contact Lenses (1949) and Ophthalmic Prescription Work (1st edn 1963). With Ron Rabbetts he co-wrote the classic Clinical Visual Optics and, as an historian, edited the first English translation of Isaac Barrow's 17th century Lectiones Opticae in 1987.
Arthur Bennett's work in sorting and classifying the ophthalmic lens collection was, sadly, left unfinished at his death, but his papers are in the possession of the museum and one day it may be possible to glean significant information from these.
Neil Handley MA AMA FRSA
Museum Curator, The College of Optometrists
Neil Handley is recognised as one the UK’s principal historians of spectacles, vision aids and opticians. He has been curator of the British Optical Association Museum at The College of Optometrists in London since 1998 and is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers.
The Curator is available for lectures and informal talks off-site as well as guided tours of the museum gallery and College Meeting Rooms. Considered to be an authority on ophthalmic history he can also advise on items on optical and optometric heritage including their identification and dating. He has been awarded the medal of the Ocular Heritage Society of America on several occasions.
Neil was awarded the Associateship of the Museums Association in 2002 and was one of the first 17 museum professionals in the country to gain the AMA+ qualification in May 2007. He now serves as a Museums Association Mentor for younger curators.
Neil was elected Chairman of the prestigious London Museums of Health and Medicine (2011-14), widely considered within the profession to be one of the most dynamic and go-ahead museum specialist networks. During this time he oversaw that organisation's first strategic review for fifteen years. He is also a past Vice Chairman of the Scientific Instrument Society and became a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA) in 2012.
Neil has published articles on spectacle frame design, the history of opticians, artificial eyes and facial prosthetics. He has contributed to a number of books on the history of the subject, including a chapter on artificial eyes for the book Devices and Designs (2006) and the major German publication Treasury of Optics (2012). He spent much of 2009 and 2010 writing a book on Cult Eyewear, the first serious analytical study of the historical development of branded fashion spectacle frames, published by Merrell on 27 September 2011. He also co-authored, with David Cartwright, the second volume of the College History, The College of Optometrists: A History 1998-2015, published in October 2015. He has also written articles for journals as diverse as Optometry in Practice, Contact Lens and Anterior Eye, Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, From the Master and Wardens (newsletter of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers), Ophthalmic Antiques, Gewina (Dutch Journal for the History of Science), Antiquarian Horology and Pharmaceutical Historian.
Contact the Curator by email
Or follow him on Twitter @neilhandleyuk
William Barker OBE FBOA (1883-1950)
Thomas Court (1868-1951)
Paul Fairbanks FBCO (1917-1984)
Ronald MacGregor FCOptom
Frank Barraclough FCOptom
Frank Barraclough has been a constant source of advice and knowledge contributing particular expertise on opera glasses, scissor spectacles and optical fans as well as acting as our field agent for the South Coast and assisting with group visits to the museum.
In this picture, taken in 2003, he is helping to list the ABDO collection on behalf of our fellow professional body at the Godmersham Training College.
Frank was honoured by the College with its Life Fellowship in 2002.
In 2009 the London Museums Hub declared Frank a runner-up in the 'Long Service' category of the London Volunteers in Museums Awards.
Richard Keeler HonFCOptom
Frank Norville HonFCOptom
Mike Ling FCOptom
Douglas Thomson (1929-2016)
Robert J. Fletcher FCOptom DCLP DOrth (1925-2019)
Norman Bier FCOptom DCLP DOrth (1925-2009)
Philip Freeman FCOptom
Timothy J Bowden FADO(Hons)CL FFDO (1952-2017)
Andrew Gasson FCOptom DCLP
Paul Stokes, a retired medical librarian, formerly of the Charing Cross Hospital, began a general cleaning/housekeeping project on our rare book collection in February 2012. He went on to produce an invaluable index of obituaries to be found in Optician and similar optical journals and has listed some of our printed press photographs. His most recent project has been to collate the records of NHS frame codes from the 1940s and 1950s.
John Dixon Salt FCOptom
The Museum is always interested to hear from College members, students or members of the public interested in volunteer opportunites, work shadow placements or unpaid work experience, however some knowledge of ophthalmic or dispensing optics or previous experience of museum work is usually required. Over 18s only.