London - The Northampton Institute and City University

The principal course in London...not in Northampton!

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London was the first centre for optometric training in the UK, dating back to 1898. This should not be a surprise. Since around the same date it has also been the home of the professional examining bodies and since even earlier times home to the bulk of the British optical manufacturing industry. It remains one of the principal centres.

Northampton Institute

The Northampton Institute was not in the town of Northampton but, in fact, a college in Clerkenwell, London, built in 1894 on land presented by the Marquess of Northampton, very close indeed to the centre of the British manufacturing optics industry. It opened for classes in 1896. Its first principal was Dr Robert Mullineaux Walmsley (1854-1924), an electrical engineer with a keen interest in optics and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers (SMC). A point of personal interest is that he lived in the next road to the notorious Dr Crippen. In August 1898 the Northampton was the very first institution to provide systematic educational courses in technical optics.These were:

  •     Optical and scientific instruments (Mr C. V. Drysdale)
  •     Applied optics and heat and its applications for opticians (Mr C. V. Drysdale)
  •     Visual Optics (Mr Lionel Laurance)

Mr (later Dr) Charles Drysdale (d..1961) was Head of the Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering Department whilst Laurance was 'Official Instructor' to the SMC, to which body Drysdale would also become an examiner. The first two years of courses were supported financially by the SMC which had, of course, just introduced it own professional examinations scheme and diploma. Thereafter assistance was provided by James Aitchison and by the members of the Optical Society which had been formed in 1899 with Mullineaux-Walmsley as one of the founders (and its President from 1905).

In 1900 R. J. Gage and C. Smith introduced Optical Workshop instruction. This was run for many years (1906-1939) by the long-serving workshop instructor T. M. Rose.

In October 1901 the Society also appointed an Educational Committee to review the teaching at the Northampton Institute and advise on the feasibilty of establishing classes on that or an alternative model elsewhere in London and the provinces. It was to report on 'the best methods to be adopted for the training of opticians in practical and theoretic optics generally'. In 1902 it recommended:

  • The creation of a central opto-technical school. This never came about even though a building was actually constructed for it after the First World War.
  • Mr S D Chalmers

    Stephen Chalmers

    Students be required to 'give the whole of their time for two or more years, to a thorough grounding in optical work, both theoretical and practical'. The Technical Education Board of the London County Council agreed and met half the salary of the Australian-born Mr S. D. Chalmers (1877-1919) as head of the new Department of Technical Optics (October 1903). In 1905 Chalmers was researching 'Theory of symmetrical objectives' and a year later he was be the co-inventor with Herbert Ryland of a well-known practice eye.

The first courses in sight-testing date only from this time. Even now the emphasis remained on applied optics, instrument making and optical dispensing. The driving force behind this was a fear that the German optical industry posed a significant threat to the prosperity of British design and production. Over 80 students enrolled and additional afternoon classes in visual optics had to be laid on. Full-time day courses were first offered in 1904-5 (the first intake numbered two students) alongside the part time and evening courses.

Dr and Mrs Ettles in their carriage 1913
Dr and Mrs Ettles
in their carriage

Dr William Ettles (d.1918), an ophthalmologist committed to the education of opticians, started classes in physiological optics and ophthalmic instruments and was later appointed Lecturer on the Physiology of Vision. Though an ophthalmic surgeon, his interests extended into many other fields. He was President of the Optical Society, a member of the Society of Illuminating Engineers and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers. He was elected Vice-President of the Institute of Ophthalmic Opticians in 1910 and after his death at the early age of 49, the Council of the IOO decided to commemorate one who had done so much to 'further the legitimate aims of the sight-testing optician', by instituting an annnual William Ettles Memorial Lecture. (The first was delivered by Lionel Laurance. This was later run by the AOP). In his obituary it stated 'It is very much to be doubted whether any ophthalmic surgeon was held in such high esteem by the opticians of this country. No man more than himself foresaw that it was to the combined interest of the patient, the surgeon and the optician that the ophthalmic surgeon and optician should work together in friendly harmony'.

Northampton Institute certificate 1908

Certificate of attendance for classes in Physiological Optics (Intermediate course), Visual Optics and Optical Workshop during the session 1907-8, including the award of First Prize in the Visual Optics section of the Technical Optics Department. Signed by Mr Mullineaux Walmsley, Principal and E. Claude Taylor and Herbert S. Ryland, teachers.

In 1905 Dr Mullineaux Walmsley presented a paper at the Optical Convention describing the state of British optical education. He noted that the Northampton Institute was now also involved in research. The topics included:

  •     Curvature measurement
  •     Design of prism binoculars (Dr Drysdale)
  •     Testing the angles of prisms
  •     Measurement of the refractive index of lenses
  •     Theory of symmetrical objectives (Mr Chalmers)
  •     Trichromatic photography (Mr Bull and Mr Jolley)
  •     Photometry (Mr Bull and Mr Jolley)

This was the makings of a specialist department. The high number of applicants necessitated a move to three floors in the adjacent building of the Horological Institute in 1906. The 1907-8 session was planned with an emphasis upon 'first principles', abundant 'exercises', rigorous supervision and full reference to what happened 'in practice'. The lecture room was gas-lit and the regular collapses of the leaky roof could disrupt the teaching programme. New classes included:

  •     Spectacle lenses (1907) - This course was targeted at local firms
  •     Tools and Workshop processes (1907)
  •     Kinematography (1907) - This course lasted until 1914
  •     Spectacle frame making (1909 Mr Green)
  •     Microscope making (1909 Mr Shields)
  •     Practical sight testing (1911 Dr McQueen)
  •     Abnormal ocular conditions (1913)

By 1910 'craft' students were outnumbered four to one by those devoted to 'professional' subjects.

During the First World War normal education was suspended. Staff were active in the training of optical glass workers, mainly (some 320 of them) women, of the Optical Munitions School based at the Institute. In 1916 the department returned from the Horological Institute to the main building, ready, in 1919, to inherit the state-of-the art munitions workshops.

The Northampton Polytechnic Institute was now overseen by a Technical Optics Committee which also oversaw the optical classes at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, South Kensington. In 1919-20 there were 14 full-time day students and 129 taking evening classes. New courses introduced in the inter-war period included:

  •     Anatomy of the eye (1922 Mr E. F. Fincham)
  •     Costing and Estimating (1922 Mr Emsley)

H. H. Emsley was 'Associated Head' of the Technical Optics Department from 1919 with Professor Cheshire of Imperial College. There was some discussion as to the department's role and title - 'Optical Engineering and Applied Optics' was suggested - whilst Professor Cheshire recommended that it might one day play a role in ophthalmological research. The full-time day course was for ophthalmic opticians whilst you could also train for this profession by three years of evening classes. Emsley took over complete charge of the renamed Department of Applied Optics in 1926. That year his correspondence with Imperial College contained a new word: 'Optometrist'.

An early class of staff and students 1927-1928

An early class of staff and students

A two year course for optometrists was proposed. It would be run along the lines of a BSc degree (but without the award) and there would be a fast track one year course for those in a hurry to 'qualify' though at this point in time there was still no formal qualification standard to be met for entry to the profession (as opposed to the optional membership of a professional body). In 1929 the Advisory Committee for Ophthalmic Optics agreed, belatedly, on a 'standard' two-year course with scope for an optional third year, however from that year a full-time one year course was offered to students over 21 who could not commit to two years.

An improved optical workshop was opened in the new Connaught building (1932). The syllabus also took on greater emphasis on instruction in ocular disease and drugs.

There was rapid growth in the attendance of evening classes in this period with numbers close to 300 a year in the early 1930s. Day students, of whom there were about fifty, were encouraged to stay on for another year to do research. Harry Freeman the future inventor and international course provider was one such student.

Finalists 1943
Finalists 1943

Although the Northampton course met all the criteria for Fellowship of the various optical examining bodies, it was by no means necessary to take such a course to sit for a BOA or SMC diploma. During the Blitz evening classes were suspended once again. Students were offered full-day courses at weekends instead. With a smaller number of students the departmental staff devoted significant time to the war effort contributing to research in flying vision and radar.

In 1946 the Department of Ophthalmic Optics was formed. The courses concentrated now on what might be classed as 'clinical practice' and in the immediate post-war years there was a large number of ex-Servicemen to train through expanded full-time and evening classes. Significant heads of department included W. Swaine (1951-60) and John Walton (1960-64) who emphasised the subject of binocular vision. Postgraduate courses and research work were greatly expanded under the headship of Professor R. J. Fletcher (Acting Head 1964-66. Head from 1966) who, in 1966, was awarded the first chair in optometry in a British university, the first in any country outside of the USA.

Walter Fincham
Walter Fincham
John Walton
John Walton
Robert Fletcher
Robert Fletcher







A past student remembers: Gordon Turner FCOptom, from Sutton (born 1925) had been employed as a glazer by the Holborn Optical Company in Clapham in the late 1930s. After war service in the Fleet Air Arm he returned to his former employer, working in a basement workshop off Holborn Viaduct. The proprietor Mr Basser, who had no formal optical qualification himself, encouraged Gordon in 1947 to join the evening class at the Northampton, a short walk away through Clerkenwell.

This was a four-year course held some four or five nights a week...that was after working 9-6 all day at a full-time job! Saturdays were a half day for me and on Sundays I had to do my course homework. On class nights I'd have a meal at the refectory, which was subsidised of course, and very welcome, before classes started at 7pm until 9 or 9.30pm. My tutors were the head of department Mr Redding and the Fincham brothers. There were no more than twenty in my class, including two girls, one of whom lived in Ewell and with whom I sometimes shared the bus ride home. Her father had a practice in Peckham....indeed almost all my classmates were already connected with optics. The Fleming brothers were in my year too. We spent one night a week at the London Refraction Hospital with Mr Mitchell and Mr Francis, concentrating on the clinical aspects. I don't remember having to pay any sort of fee. Was it state-funded? I enjoyed the hands-on aspects of the course - I felt I already knew some of it from my job, but found studying drugs and anatomy more like hard work. I never found the latter topic quite so useful. Obviously we needed to know something about the structure of the eye but in those days ophthalmic opticians were less involved in the diagnosis of disease, but then again we trained in other activities such as the removal of foreign bodies and artificial prosthesis extraction and cleaning. I studied a bit of orthoptics and chose to pursue that further at a later date under Bill Meakin at the LRH where I also started helping out at the Friday night clinic.

There was no student social life to speak of. We all just went home after classes and I think my certificate was sent to me in the post. The course was well worth doing however. It prepared me for my SMC Diploma (which I took because it had the reputation as the most practical of the available diplomas) and at work it meant that I could move upstairs to the consulting room. I had literally gone up in the world! Mr Basser got several years professional service from me before I started my own practice on 17th January 1955.   

A three-year course was introduced in 1949. Alternatively you could study for four years in the evening then complete a one-year full-time course. Clinical training was provided on a contractual basis by the London Refraction Hospital.

William Swaine

William Swaine

The 1950s syllabus, overseen by William Swaine (1894-1986), included new subjects such as occupational, perceptual and contact lens studies. The nature of the course was not entirely in the control of the Polytechnic but governed by the recommendations of the Joint Advisory Board (1948) and the interpretation of its pronouncements by the professional examining bodies. Henceforth for example only 12% of a students time was to be spent on theoretical and practical work on lens and frame dispensing whilst 18% of their time was devoted to ocular anatomy and physiology.

A past student remembers: Frank Barraclough FCOptom (born 1929) was one of the intake of 1949, the first set of students to take the new three-year course. He is second from the left on the back row of this photograph.

Class of 1949
Class of 1949

This was a precursor of the full degree course that was eventually introduced some fifteen years later. I enrolled at the suggestion of my own optometrist who told me during an eye examination that the newly introduced National Health Service was proving a financial goldmine with the provision of free spectacles. Unfortunately, by the time I qualified, charges had been brought in and the gold mine had emptied...but that was still in the future. The course started with over sixty students, male students forming a majority of more than five to one. Maybe 60% came straight from school at the age of 18 but I would say that 40% of them were ex-servicemen ranging from twenty up to thirty years old. It turned out to be a vintage year. My fellow students included a future Professor of Optometry, three AOP councillors including a Chairman and two council members of the British Optical Association.

There wasn’t much time for student socialising in austere Post-War Britain, but there was an ‘Initiation Ceremony’ for new students held at the sports ground which was trumpeted as being ‘The Big Occasion’ and no one was allowed to miss it. It turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax and my main memory is of one of the female students walking around, absolutely furious, with dried flour all over her face.  She had been told to dunk for apples floating in a bowl of water and then, wet faced, been pushed into a bowl of flour. With no washing facilities anywhere to be found, she was not at all happy!

The City University (TCU)

TCU branding in 1970s

Example of TCU institutional branding
in the 1960s and 1970s

The Northampton Polytechnic, subsequently the Northampton College of Advanced Technology,  became The City University in 1967.

H C King at the blackboard

H. C. King at the blackboard

From henceforth dedicated training in dispensing optics was transferred to the new City and East London College (now City and Islington College). The new university concentrated on optometry courses for both the trainee and the established practitioner. The trainee intake, who now all had A-Level qualifications, embarked upon a three year honours degree course. With the growth of other university courses in optometry City's share of the national annual total of students fell from 50% in the 1960s to around 25% in the mid 1970s.

Gerald Dunn
Professor Gerald Dunn

Gerald Dunn, who had been Secretary of the British Optical Association from 1965 moved to become Professor of Optometry at City in 1971. He died in the department in August 1986, the day after William Swaine.

After a few years in the 'Cranwood Annexe' near Old Street, the City University Department of Optometry and Visual Science began its move to new premises, a former school the Dame Alice Owen Building between John Street and Goswell Road in 1977. The building included 'open clinics' with a separate entrance. On the third level was a wing exclusively for contact lens subjects. As a conversion job rather than a new-build there was always some dissatisfaction with the building which was deemed inaccessible. One person complained that the university refectory was 'some six minutes walk away'.

The general trends of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were:

  •     A decrease in the number of lectures, greater emphasis being placed instead on the availability of private reading matter.
  •     An increase in the number of female students to about 65%.
  •     A greater scientific role for the department. The first BSc degrees in Physiological Optics were awarded in 1972 but this course was later discontinued and study with industrial applications was confined to postgraduate students.
  •     An extension of in-house clinical facilities.
  •     Increased connections with the Moorfield Eye Hospital including the greater involvement of ophthalmologists (e.g. Montague Ruben) and orthoptists in course provision.
City University branding in use until 2016
Example of City University
institutional branding in use
until the autumn of 2016

After 23 years in the Dame Alice Owen Building, the Department of Optometry and Visual Science was finally relocated in September 2000. In a refurbishment programme costing more than £5 million, the department moved to two sites - the offices and laboratories to level 4 of the Tait building on the main university campus, and the clinics to Bath Street.

The new 'Fight for Sight Optometry Clinic' was officially opened by Dame Betty Boothroyd. It boasted state of the art consulting rooms in a completely refurbished building close to Moorfields Eye Hospital and the Institute of Ophthalmology. The Tait building now housed undergraduate laboratories and clinics and extended facilities for the Applied Vision Research Centre.

City, University of London

City joined the University of London federation on 1st September 2016. The University of London was founded by Royal Charter in 1836. City changed its name to 'City, University of London' to reflect this change, its logo including the strapline 'Est 1894'. In January 2017 it was announced that The College of Optometrists had accredited City, University of London as a provider of its professional certificate in paediatric eye care (joining Cardiff and Ulster).

Remember this is an historical account. Follow this link to find out about studying optometry in London today.