The Vickris-Hyam spectacles

A special pair of spectacles with a family history.

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The Vickris-Hyam spectacles with unique spoked terminals

In April 1945, as Hitler sat forlornly in his bunker, and the bulk of the BOA collection was still in safe storage in a Welsh cavern, the museum was negotiating the purchase of a particularly fine pair of spectacles. It was the museum's most important acquisition since the death of its founder, John Sutcliffe, four years earlier and, put simply, it is one of the most beautiful pairs of spectacles in the world. By way of added mystery it bears the name of two (undoubtedly beautiful) women on its sides. We'd just love to know who they might have been and maybe, thanks to the reach of the Internet, we have now found out.

The spectacles are of solid gold with an unusually ornate bridge and round terminals to the sides with an apparently unique curving spoke design. It was initially thought that they were 'Early Victorian' and that the bridge was probably made by a jeweller, not a spectacle maker. On further study and with half a century of increased knowledge to draw upon, we now dispute this idea believing that they are earlier in date, circa 1780-1800, and undoubtedly made by a specialist spectacle maker working to a private commission.

On the right side is inscribed the name ELIZA VICKRIS and on the left ANNE HYAM. Whilst  a female maker cannot be ruled out since there were some, mainly widows, who carried on their husbands' businesses, it would be unusual both for a woman to use her own name (as opposed to that of the husband) or to place it in full in this position. Most maker's marks on spectacle frames of the period consist of initials only, placed on the inner surface of the side. Most likely the names were of significance to the male wearer of the spectacles and they were afforded one side each. Is this the optical equivalent of a girl in every port? When this item appeared as our object of the month for May 2006 we wondered whether perhaps an amateur genealogist would like to try and trace them for us? Then one got in touch...

Sandra Adams of Ottawa, Canada is a family historian and a descendant of Elizabeth (Bishop) Vickris, who had a daughter Anne (Vickris) Hyam. She obtained a copy of Elizabeth's will from the Public Record Office in which she leaves her 'Gold Spectacles' to another daughter (also, confusingly, called Elizabeth).

Elizabeth Bishop was born in Bristol in 1655, the daughter of a prominent quaker and granddaughter of the city's mayor and thus a member of a controversial yet locally powerful family. Elizabeth married the Quaker writer Richard Vickris in 1672 and raised eight or nine children at Firgrove, the Vickris estate in Chew Magna, Somerset.
 
Her daughter Anne Vickris was born on 22 Jan 1687/88 at Chew Magna. She married Thomas Hyam, a London Merchant, on 13 Oct 1715 at Claverham, Somerset, and the Hyam children were all born in London. When Anne died on 30th January 1749/50, she was living in the London parish area called St. Botolph without Bishop Gate. When her husband Thomas Hyam died on 17 May 1763, he was living in the parish called St Dionis Back Church.  

Elizabeth (Bishop) Vickris' will, written a year before her death, is dated 6th September 1723. Elizabeth's husband Richard Vickris had left all things in their house to his wife for her use during her lifetime, and then directed her 'to dispose to my children as she shall think fit'. Hence the great detail in Elizabeth's will. Elizabeth leaves her gold spectacles to her daughter Elizabeth Taylor. At the time of the will, Elizabeth (Vickris) Taylor was the widow of James Taylor, a Cheapside Linen Draper who had died in 1716 in London.
 
Could it be that we have misjudged the date of the spectacles in the museum? There are various problems:

1. Why would Elizabeth have the name of her daughter Anne on them but then give them to a different daughter?

2. A pair already in existence in 1723 would have been unlikely to have had sides since the invention of sides is normally felt to date only from circa 1727 - but we don't know this for certain. Certainly the design of the side terminals is practically unique. That might denote an early date.

One theory that presents itself is that the younger Elizabeth, i.e. Elizabeth (Vickris) Taylor, had the spectacles from the will engraved in honour of her mother and sister at a later date, or perhaps she had a new pair made and engraved in their honour after her sister Anne Hyam's death in 1750. That would mean these are not the spectacles named in the will but it would still be interesting to note the existence of two pairs of solid gold spectacles in the possession of one family. Maybe, even more imaginatively, the museum spectacles began life as nose spectacles and were updated to include sides in the 1720s or later. That would make them a unique transitional design. The elder Elizabeth, author of the will, died in 1724.The possibilities are intriguing, the certainties are few and far between.

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