John H. Sutcliffe

The founder of the British Optical Association Museum.

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John H. Sutcliffe
A classic portrait of
'JHS' in the 1930s

John Hamer Sutcliffe (1867-1941) 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.