Cardiff - Welsh CAT and UWIST

Studying optometry in Wales.

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The Ophthalmic Optics department, within the Physics department at the Cardiff Technical College was founded in 1935, at the request of the British Optical Association, under principal Mr T. S. P. Tuck (1911?-1999), together with the Head of Applied Physics since 1925, the New Zealander Mr W. Somerville Vernon (1895- ). There were five staff, five students and just three rooms. The College had its origins in the Cardiff Arts and Science Classes begun in 1866 but at this time had no direct link with the university college in the city, which had been founded in 1883.

A full-time course lasting two years was the only option offered and early classes were taken with the help of local practitioners such as Percy Randell (1886?-1966) and James Ashe (1878-1954). The maximum intake was only ever ten students, a figure deemed sufficient to meet local demand.

Welsh CAT letterhead 1965

Welsh CAT letterhead 1965

After the Second World War the facilities on the Cathays Park campus, and the fact that hostel accommodation could be offered, meant that the student life was more akin to that of a university than a technical college. Mr Somerville Vernon (by now also the Vice-Principal of the College) retired in 1959. By the 1960s the Section of Ophthalmic Optics lay within the Department of Applied Physics of the Welsh College of Advanced Technology, always known as 'Welsh CAT'. Cardiff students were particularly active in student politics and had been prime movers behind the formation of the British Optical Students Association (BOSA) in 1962 although as the Optician journal commented, 'this association is more concerned with educational than political is mentioned because from students will emerge tomorrow's opto-politicians'.

An item in the museum collection:

The 'Minutes of Committee Meetings, of the Welsh CAT Optical Society' contain entries dated between 1961 and 1974 and the tone is not always as formal as might be expected from such documents. For instance, a minute from December 1968 reads: 'Social Sec's report: Miss Martin absent [naughty girl]'. In May 1970 it was recorded that: 'The minutes were taken as read, which was just as well as Mr Bowen had not written them up'. One committee member is recorded as having been absent due to nappy rash. In May 1972 the meeting 'was opened by Mr Sandhu, with a pint glass in his hand'.

UWIST Optical Society minutes

The students discuss where to hold the annual dinner dance. The first was in the Student Refectory, but a non-university venue would be favoured later because it would impose no time restrictions. In 1967, for example, the committee determined that 'the dance should not end before 2am'. They also rejected a request from the Law Society to hold a joint dance. Prizes for the accompanying raffle in 1971 were divided into male and female prizes, including a wallet, biro and cufflinks for the male students and a handbag, perfume and (interestingly) an ash tray, for the female students.

There are also details of bowling matches against the staff and the Pharmaceutical Society. Tony Round told the committee that 'sandwiches were not essential at a skittles match', but in 1968 they did budget for £5 to be spent on food. The same amount was spent on catering for the Fresher's night in 1970. Menu items were often discussed. At one dinner it was decided to include peas for the vegetables, for 'chromatic' reasons. Further entries relate to the arrangements for the Rag Week float (including police warnings, in 1966, that no missiles be thrown from the lorries), and the purchase of a mascot for the Society (what was it, and does it survive?). Ties and scarves were commissioned in the early years, leading to some disputes as to who was responsible for paying the bill. As the Seventies casual era dawned, Mr Dyall said he would write to the tie makers 'and tell them to forget about it'.

A proposed Summer 1963 trip to Stratford-upon-Avon had to be cancelled when Mr Tuck vetoed the use of Society funds to subsidise the cost. In 1967 a suggestion to visit the Pilkington Brothers works in Abergavenny was 'thought to be quite a good one', but Ian Hunter said that 'people would not come if they had to pay money from their pockets'. Nevertheless visits were organised to numerous optical companies, preferably those that handed out free sunglasses, and to tourist attractions such as caves near Swansea and the Brains Brewery. A trip to London in 1974 was subsidised so that each student only needed to contribute 75p.

In 1965 students from the Welsh School of Orthoptics were invited to join the Society as associate members. Relations with BOSA were also frequently discussed, including a complaint that the BOSA magazine was being monopolised by London students and, in 1973, a protest at having to dissect rabbits in Year Two. Among the interesting ideas were a proposal from the students at Aston, seconded by Cardiff, that the British Optical Association (the professional qualifying association) and the Association of Optical Practitioners (the professional representative body) should establish a 'Final graduated partnership scheme' and that the professional bodies should announce their examination resutls on the same day. They also discussed a proposal from London students that:

...if the Society of Opticians is worried about attracting students into the Profession, the answer lies in its own hands - namely by improving the status of the Profession in the eyes of the public; for instance by the abolition of neon signs and window displays, to remove the present shop-keeper image.

Some events offer period detail, for example a talk arranged by a bank manager to explain decimalisation and a speaking invitation to rugby player Gareth Edwards that went astray due to a postal strike. There is deliberate flippancy such as a rejected suggestion that Mr Tuck be asked to speak on 'My School Days with Isaac Newton'. On April Fool's Day 1973 the committee meeting was disrupted moments after it had begun when 'Mr Douthwaite asked if we would leave as he wanted to lock up the clinic. We therefore continued outside in the corridor'. There are also moments of poignancy: a mix-up over sending a wreath to the funeral of George Giles, a 'true friend', and an urgency to gather money in response to the Aberfan disaster.

A past student remembers:

Colin Fowler applied to Welsh CAT in 1965 at the suggestion of his local chemist-optician in Stamford.

I had A-Levels in Chemistry, Physics and Zoology. One person got in by saying at the interview that they had studied two A-Levels - but omitted to mention that they had only taken one exam! We started off with thirty in my year, of whom only six were girls. The course in Cardiff had gone through rapid expansion, to put it mildly. When we started there were sixteen in the second year and only eight in the final year...the course also became attractive because all of the exisiting optometry programmes were going to be up-rated to universities (except Glasgow) and hence award their own degrees. I think Welsh CAT was the last CAT to be awarded university status as there were lengthy discussions about how this new college status would fit in with the rest of the Federation of the University of Wales. At one time it was going to be a separate university of technology, but it was eventually made part of the federation as the University of Wales Institute of Technology in 1967. Perhaps five or six were the sons or daughters of opticians.

I still have the invoice for my first year's tuition fees which came to £84 and seven shillings. Two pounds of this was a 'caution deposit' from which laboratory breakages were deducted. We all bought ophthalmoscopes and retinoscopes out of necessity rather than choice. I was lucky in that I got an equipment grant from my local authority. They cost 15 guineas each and a trial frame (which I still use) £3.17.6. The head of the ophthalmic optics section was Mr T. S. P. Tuck who was a physicist with an excellent lecturing style. He taught us physical optics and always lectured without notes. Biological subjects were taught by Mr Williams and Mrs James from the Biology Department.

Ron Williams 1967
Ron Williams 1967

Ron Williams was a somewhat flamboyant, but good, lecturer. Mrs James' lectures (on anatomy) were very boring. As she used to wear reading glasses and could not see past the front row, the back rows were somewhat crowded with students playing cards and catching up on their correspondence. A local optician Mr O'Conner-Davis taught us ophthalmic drugs in the final year and was the only person to give any form of hand-outs in lectures. These later became the basis of a book published by Butterworths. Ophthalmology lectures were given by Bill Rees who was an extremely charismatic individual and a very good lecturer, accompanied by 35mm slides (as opposed to some lecturers who actually dictated or simply read from text books). We were not happy, however, with the lecture time which was from 4.30-6.30pm on a Monday evening, so one of our number persuaded him that the Autumn term in 1967 finished three weeks earlier than it actually did. We thought we had got away with this till we returned in January 1968!

Arlbee House
Arlbee House, Cardiff

Much of the basic teaching was in the Physics and Biology departments, where the facilities were excellent. The ophthalmic optics teaching equipment was rather rudimentary and took place in an office block in the middle of Cardiff called Arlbee House. We only had one slit lamp microscope that actually worked, for example. The library was OK but did not have many books for loan, so you had to buy your own. We went off-site for two activities. To give us refraction practice we went in groups to the local Salvation Army hostel, supervised by Mr Sayward. We also went to a number of local hospitals in South Wales...some of these were memorable for the fact that the consultant ophthalmologist smoked during the outpatient clinics, even while examining patients!

Cardiff Optics Society meeting 1966
Optics Society meeting 1966

For the first term I lived in digs, with the widow of a dispensing optician in north Cardiff. In January 1966 I got a place in the newly opened wing of the Traherne Hall. A number of my fellow optometry students lived there. There was an extremely active social life...we had the Welsh Optical Students Association which arranged lots of events, dances (Eye Balls), bowling, talks by visiting speakers and sporting events with other ophthalmic optics colleges.

Still from Pirate Optician film 1966

Still from the 'Pirate Optician' 1966

Our year also produced an 8mm film 'The Optician's Nightmare' [a copy has been deposited in the BOA Museum] produced in two parts and shown at the 1966 and 1967 dinner dances. This featured one staff member, Gerald McGinty, as the 'Pirate Optician'.

I graduated in July 1968 and this was the first degree ceremony held by UWIST so there were students present from previous years who had completed the course and passed the 'graduateship' examinations, but who had had to wait for the grant of university status. For my Pre-registration year I obtained a position at Oxford Eye Hospital where I received a very good training under the guidance of the senior optician, Edward Allen.

During 1970-1971 the Section of Ophthalmic Optics became a separate department in its own right with Tuck as Senior Lecturer. In September 1974 Dr Michael Millodot came from the University of Montreal to become the first Head of Department, take occupation of the first university chair in Ophthalmic Optics and begin work on research into accommodation responses and refractive error. At this point the department had five full-time academic staff and 85 students. A second chair was established in Experimental Optometry and the number of undergraduate students rose to 92.


Did you Know? When, at Professor Millodot's instigation, the department adopted the name 'Department of Optometry' in August 1975 this was the first official use of the term 'optometry' in the United Kingdom. The City University was the next to follow suit three years later.  

Cardiff sheds 1970s

"The Sheds", 1970s

Although now an optometry department in name, the facilities had some way to catch up. In the 1970s the insalubrious accommodation at UWIST, three huts, was popularly known as the 'sheds'.

A past student remembers:

When Roger Anderson from Ulster arrived as an undergraduate in Cardiff in 1983 he was worried:

Being a naive young boy from Northern Ireland, a place with a very bad press at that time, I wasn't sure how I would be accepted on 'The Mainland' but there was no problem; it was all the Celts against the English!

In fact most of his class mates seemed to be English, close to half of them female, a fact which surprised him. His personal tutor was Maggie Woodhouse, "one of the best teachers I ever had and someone who was equally at home in a scientific conference or a student night out".  He enjoyed studying ocular anatomy and "understanding what a complex and unique organ the eye is. I'm still discovering". Facilities were good for the time though computers didn't really figure in the course anywhere and that was something he had to teach himself at a later date. There were times, however, when his class tried to avoid difficult work:

Richard Earlam scared us all to death, paricularly in oral exams. His great passions were welding and kit cars; if you could get him onto one of those topics the exam period passed without any questions actually being asked.

UWIST 1985-2007

UWIST department premises 1985-2007

The department at UWIST, 1985

A new Department of Optometry at what was now the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) was opened in 1985, occupying some 1100 square metres over four floors and housing an Eye Clinic on the ground floor. A Laboratory of Experimental Research took a quarter of the new space. The British College of Ophthalmic Opticians held its 4th Annual General Meeting and conference at the new department.

UWIST merged with the University of Wales, Cardiff in 1988. The department is now the School of Optometry and Vision Science at Cardiff University and is the only optometry 'School' in the UK. By 2006 it was taking seventy new students a year. It moved again, this time into new purpose-built premises on Maindy Road, costing £20 million, in Summer 2007.

Cardiff celebrated its 75th anniversary of optometry teaching in 2010 with a major loan exhibition of material from the British Optical Association Museum.

Remember this is an historical article. Find out about studying optometry at Cardiff today.