Hugh Orr

The first Honorary Curator.

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Hugh Orr demonstrating an eye shade

Hugh Orr, FCOptom (1905-2002) 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.

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