Curators and Volunteers

The men and women who have looked after the BOA Museum collections.

Share options

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.

Curators and Honorary Curators

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.

John H. Sutcliffe in the 1920s

'JHS' in the 1920s

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.

Yugoslavian caricature of John H. Sutcliffe

Caricature of 'JHS'
in Dubrovnik, 1933

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.

Bust of J. H. Sutcliffe from 1949

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.

The George Giles Memorial Plaque

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.

Hugh Orr business stationery
Hugh Orr's business stationery from the 1930s

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.

Hugh Orr book on antique spectacles
Hugh Orr's rather
esoteric book, 1985

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:

  • The Rise and Fall of Benjamin Martin 1704-1782
  • The Making of Early Spectacle Lenses in London
  • Scissor Spectacles ('Binocle d'Incroyable')
  • Early Advertising by Opticians
  • Hallmarks on Spectacles and Abuses

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:

  • Who Invented Spectacles and When?
  • The Stormy Life of James Mann 1660-1730
  • The Turlingtons and the Spectacle Makers Company
  • Robert Bretell Bate - Optician and Master Mariner
  • The Transition from Gold, Silver and Steel Spectacles to Rolled Gold
  • Thomas Ribright c.1710-1780, Optician to HRH George, Prince of Wales
Bruce Refracting Unit

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.

Front cover of the book Cult Eyewear 2011

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)

W. B. (Bill) Barker helped John H. Sutcliffe with many aspects of the museum and journeyed with him to view historic optical collections on the continent, such as that of the German Professor Von Pflugk. His portrait by Dugdale is the only significant portrait of a former President hanging in the building. We prefer portraits that relate to the subject matter of optics, not just the great and the good of our own profession.

Thomas Court (1868-1951)

The distinguished historian T. H. Court was J. H. Sutcliffe's adviser on rare books and was responsible for identifying and sourcing many of the historic library acquisitions in the 1920s. Court is most famous for his work on the history of the microscope co-written with Reginald Clay in 1932 and for his donations of microscopical items to the Science Museum, South Kensington. With Moritz von Rohr of Jena he also co-authored an important article 'On the development of spectacles in London from the end of the seventeenth century', which appeared in volume 30 of the Transactions of the Optical Society in 1928.

Douglas Wagstaff

In the 1960s a Mr Wagstaff produced the first listing of the ophthalmic instruments in the collection. His handwritten notes are still useful. There is some confusion, however, as to who this Mr Wagstaff was. Was it Mr A. Wagstaff (1917-1967) or Mr Douglas Francis Wagstaff (1915-1990) known as 'Waggy' to generations of students at the Northampton Polytechnic Department of Ophthalmic Optics where he worked 1947-1977? We think the photograph is of the latter Mr Wagstaff. Douglas Wagstaff was certainly involved with the museum after his retirement.

Paul Fairbanks FBCO (1917-1984)

Paul Fairbanks, known to his friends as 'Fairy', researched vast swathes of the subject, particularly in the 1970s, and left especially useful notes on silver spectacles and eskimo snow goggles. His handwriting is very distinctive and easily identified. Clearly he often advised private collectors too as identifications in his handwriting have been found amongst their papers in recent years. He sourced many of the photographs we possess of items in other museum's collections and was an adviser to the Wellcome Collection.

Ronald MacGregor FCOptom

Ronald J. S. MacGregor, our adviser in Scotland,has been responsible for identifying the significance of some of our most important items, most notably for confirming the authenticity of our Scarlett-type spectacles and for repairing and restoring a number of pieces such as Storer's Syllepsis glasses. He is the author of well-received pamphlets on Collecting Ophthalmic Antiques and Restoring Ophthalmic Antiques. A former adviser to Christies, he also performed the valuation of the collection for insurance purposes in 2000. He subsequently revised the important introduction to the subject Spectacles, Monocles and Lorgnettes, originally written by Derek Davidson and published in the Shire series.

Frank Barraclough FCOptom
Museum volunteer

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
Museum volunteer

Richard Keeler has been the museum's primary adviser on ophthalmic instruments since the mid 1990s. He contributed the section on ophthalmoscopes for this website. As Honorary Curator of the collections at the Royal College of Ophthalmologists and historical adviser to Moorfields Eye Hospital he also provides a subject link with the medical eye professions. Richard was honoured by the College in 2007.

Frank Norville HonFCOptom
Museum volunteer

Frank G. Norville HonFCOptom has provided a wealth of help and advice concerning optical manufacturing and ophthalmic lenses. For several years, from 1999, he stored certain large items on behalf of the museum whilst we rationalised the storage space in our own Craven Street building. He served on the College Heritage Committee from 1998-2003 and was honoured by the College in 2002.

Mike Ling FCOptom (1938-2021)
Museum volunteer

Ralph Michael (Mike) Ling FCOptom provided general help with the inventory project and was particularly helpful over the identification and dating of new acquisitions. He served subsequently as the museum's field agent in East Anglia. In retirement Mike had a particular interest in optical aids that had been mounted to walking sticks such as spyglass canes. He was also of great assistance in identifying masonic symbolism, of which a surprising amount is to be found in ophthalmic antiques.

Douglas Thomson (1929-2016)
Museum volunteer

Douglas Thomson, an ophthalmologist from the South West, gave considerable help with identifying the museum's collection of diseased eye models and correlating the surviving objects with the earlier lists and photographs. He enjoyed collecting ophthalmic antiques himself until, ironically, deprived of his eyesight in later life.

Valerie Mellor
Museum volunteer

Valerie Mellor, a retired languages teacher from Middlesex, has offered general help and special aid in listing the antique prints as well as an occasional French and Italian translation service.

Henri Obstfeld
Museum volunteer

Henri Obstfeld, a retired lecturer in optical dispensing from the City University, provided help and advice concerning ophthalmic lenses and sunglasses and has occasionally assisted with translation to and from the Dutch language.

Robert J. Fletcher FCOptom DCLP DOrth (1925-2019)
Museum volunteer

Professor R.J. Fletcher, a former university head of department and President of the British Optical Association, was always readily available with general advice to the museum, especially concerning colour vision tests and lanterns. As Britain's first fully fledged Professor of Optometry, he was also a mine of information on the history of optometric education. An accomplished prosthetic technician and amateur sculptor, some of his busts of optical personalities now grace the museum.

Norman Bier FCOptom DCLP DOrth (1925-2009)
Museum volunteer

The late Professor Norman Bier provided help in the early days of the inventory project relating to contact lenses. You could show him an old lens and he would instantly recognise its pedigree. Unfortunately the collection of his own innovations was offered to the museum in the 1980s when the museum's lack of staffing and inadequate accommodation prevented its acceptance. It was displayed for several years within the library at City University and subsequently in a corridor of the Department of Optometry, but was eventually transferred to this museum, as originally desired, in 2014.

Philip Freeman FCOptom
Museum volunteer

Philip Freeman offered general help with both the object collections and the archives, particularly in the early days of the museum documentation project circa 1998-2003 when he assessed the optical powers of many a pair of antique spectacles. He was also a substantial donor to the collections including the important papers of his brother Harry.

Timothy J Bowden FADO(Hons)CL FFDO (1952-2017)
Dispensing optician

The late Tim Bowden was an independent dispensing optician and contact lens practitioner in Kent. He was married to an optometrist and was the College of Optometrists' specialist co-adviser on the history of contact lenses from 2003-2017. His substantial book Contact Lenses: The Story was published in 2009. Tim was also the editor of the quarterly Ophthalmic Antiques from 2009-2017.

Andrew Gasson FCOptom DCLP
Museum volunteer

Together with the late Tim Bowden, the optometrist Andrew Gasson has made a massive contribution as special subject adviser to the Contact Lens Collection since the early 2000s. He has been instrumental in helping to expand the museum's existing holdings in this area and solicit additional acquisitions in an attempt to obtain a near comprehensive collection.

Lawrence Jenkin
Museum volunteer

Lawrence Jenkin has been a wealth of knowledge on the manufacturing and dispensing of spectacles and has done some sterling practical work for us with a drill and a screwdriver. In the 2010s he lined our pull-out drawer system with plastazoate, an inert foam that cushions the objects without risk of chemical leaching.

Walter Berwick
Museum volunteer

Walter ('Wally') Berwick, a frame maker and one of the last remaining skilled workers in real tortoiseshell has polished a number of our items in real tortoiseshell, including a complete example of a Hawksbill Turtle. Polishing is not just to make items look their best; it is essential for preservation of the objects as antique shell items may otherwise start to disintegrate naturally.

Paul Stokes
Museum volunteer

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
Museum volunteer

JDS, an independent optometrist from West Sussex, has been the lead volunteer for some years now at the College's annual 'Open House' event. As Chairman of the Ophthalmic Antiques International Collectors' Club he is also forever on hand to assist with historical enquiries...or to pose a few of his own!

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.