Skip to content

At the Algha Spectacle Works

June 10, 2011
by the gentle author

Between Victoria Park and the site of the 2012 Olympics, lies a narrow stretch of land known as Fish Island, filled with a crowded array of dignified old brick industrial buildings. Most are turned over to artists’ studios now, but standing amongst them at the corner of Smeed Rd is the world famous Algha Works, home to Britain’s last metal spectacle frame manufacturer, operating from here for the past century.

In this early steel frame building of 1907, the gold National Health Service spectacles that once corrected the sight of the population were made by Max Wiseman & Co, founded in 1898. Think of any of the famous gold rimmed glasses of the twentieth century, from Mahatma Gandhi to John Lennon, to every bank manager and headmaster, and this where they were manufactured. The heart-shaped sunglasses for Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” and, more recently, Harry Potter’s geeky specs were also made here.

You might say that Max Wiseman was a visionary in the world of spectacles. “As a young man of nineteen, I was inspired and tremendously enthusiastic at the possibility of ‘goldfilled’ being the future of spectacles.” he wrote breathlessly in the fiftieth anniversary edition of “The Optician” in 1941, and the rest was history. “Goldfilling” means coating the  frame with a sleeve of gold which extends the life of the spectacles by preventing corrosion. Cheaper and lighter than solid gold, resistant to corrosion and longer lasting than gold plating, fourteen carat goldfilled spectacles from the Algha Works were universally available on the NHS in this country for forty years.

“They manufactured two and a half million frames a year here, when two hundred people worked in this building,” Peter Viner, the current managing director told me,“they lived next door and the building opposite was a school.” And he gestured back in time, and towards the window of his office on the top floor with views back across the East End in one direction and to the Olympic stadium in the other. When Peter came here in 1996, there were over fifty employees and today there are just fifteen, yet the ghosts of the past workforce linger in this light and spacious utilitarian building with its magnificent tiled stairwells and toilets.

Before 1932, Max Wiseman imported his frames from Germany, but the disruption of the First World War and inflation of the nineteen thirties led him to buy a complete factory in Rathnau, Germany and transport it to Hackney Wick along with ten optical technicians. When the Second World War broke out, these technicians found themselves interned in Scotland, but the machinery they set up remains in use after all this time. Efficient, serviceable and sturdy, the complete German plant for manufacturing metal spectacles from the nineteen thirties is used to make all the frames at the Algha Works today – one place were you can truly say, they still make them like they used to. In other words, where the purpose of the manufacture to is to create something of the highest quality that will last as long as possible, without built-in obsolescence.

“The black art,” as Peter terms it, describing the swaging, pressing, bending, notching, crimping, burnishing and other means of folding, that comprise the one hundred and thirty operations which go into making a pair of metal frames – including seventeen bends for the bridge alone. Protective of his unrivalled spectacle works, Peter restricted what might be photographed lest his Chinese competitors should garner trade secrets, yet he could not resist taking me to the manufacturing floor and showing off the heart of his operation, which gave me the opportunity to meet some of his proud spectacle makers.

Nirmal Chadha, who had been there twenty-four years, showed me the device that creates the “Hockey” end, bending the “temples” – as the arms of the spectacles are known in the trade. She put in the straight temple, pulled a lever and out came the temple crooked like a Hockey stick, as you would recognise it. Indi Singh, who had been there twenty-two years, demonstrated an elegant machine that spins different wires together to create the tensile arms for spectacles much in demand by sportmen – and curled into a “Fishook” so they can be secured around the ear.

Meanwhile Matt Havercroft, who had been working there just six months, was screwing temples to frames at the other end of the production line. He told me he was completely absorbed in all the processes and devices that are involved in the art of spectacle making. And after doing casual work in a bar and telephone sales, he was delighted to have found an occupation so engaging. Finally, I was proud to shake hands with Raymond Miller who had worked there thirty years and whose mother also worked there before him.

The shared endeavour at the Algha Works is a unique cultural phenomenon that has miraculously survived here in the East End, in spite of the withdrawal of free National Health Service glasses and the flood of cheap imports sold under designer labels which dominate chains of opticians today. So, if you want a pair of handmade classic spectacles that will last the rest of your life, you know where to go.

Algha Works – Algha is a composite of “from Alpha to Omega.”

Max Wiseman founder of Max Wiseman & Co in 1898, leading manufacturers of spectacles.

Nirmal Chadha has worked here twenty-four years.

Matthew Havercroft joined six months ago and intends to stay for the rest of his career.

Indi Singh has worked here twenty-two years.

Raymond Miller has worked at Algha Works for thirty years and his mother worked there before him.

Spectacles made at the Algha Works are sold under the “Savile Rowe” and “Just in Time” brands

You may also like to read about

Drakes of London, Tiemakers

Watson & Co, Gunmakers

At Persaud’s Handbag Factory

At James Ince & Sons, Umbrella Makers

At Stephen Walters & Sons, Silkweavers

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Christopher Scopes permalink
    June 10, 2011

    There is still quite a lot of manufacturing industry left in the East End. Small companies like Algha could be the source of future employment and I believe, like a phoenix from the ashes, a fountain of economic growth. People just need encouragemnet to invest in manufacturing industry, it has provided me with a living for 37 years.

  2. jeannette permalink
    June 11, 2011

    Raymond Miller has worked at Algha Works for thirty years and his mother worked there before him.

    in the beautiful old building, with the new young man who is devoted to all the processes.

    none of this, including the national health service glasses, the survival of the building and the ’30s machinery, would happen in america.

    thanks again. it makes me happy to think this is happening, people dedicated to doing a good job on something good and beautiful.

  3. DAVID CHRISTIE permalink
    August 1, 2011

    Good to see the name M WISEMAN&CO STILL GOING as i used to work for same company when they had afactory in MAUCHLINE, AYRSHIRE ,SCOTLAND,making spectacle frames and lenses for the NHS and PRIVATE SECTOR the factory is still there but sadly is now derelict since it closed in 1987.

  4. Martin Lund permalink
    November 22, 2011

    Interesting and charming story.

    I live in Denmark where Algha has been marketed for many years but unfortunately not anymore. My present Algha spectacle frames are bought in Berlin!

    I have been told by a danish optician that Algha was the preferred frames in England during WWII because they could be used in connection with gasmasks. Can this be verified?

  5. Bradley Taplin permalink
    November 30, 2011

    Found an old pair of gasmask glasses in a flea market, sent them of in a jiffy bag online and had new lenses put in (only cost £20). These are marked Algha across the inside of the bridge and came with instructions on how to use with a gasmask- the arms are sprung steel so they sit alongside the contour of your face.

  6. Josip Ljubas permalink
    February 6, 2013

    Since my childhood I really endorsed those frames. They have soul, after i come over this page i just ordered one gold filed Pantos.

  7. David Lawton permalink
    June 6, 2013

    Did not know you could still obtain such quality. I had a set for sport 40 years ago and now intend to replace.
    Fantastic

  8. D C Mayes permalink
    June 7, 2013

    Discovered Algha spectacles in 1964 as special offer at an opticians in Bradford. Been repaird twice to my great frelief, but now learn that the frames, or parts thereof, are no longer available. Your aritcle disproves this claim made by my Dutch optician and would very much appreciate the postal address of Algha to which could hopefully apply for new complete frame.Thanks in anticipation .
    Dennis

  9. Jill Anne Risdon permalink
    August 1, 2013

    My father, F Bruce Risdon, worked for the Optical Information Council in Aldwich until the mid to late 1960s. In 1962 he wrote an article NOTES ON THE MAX WISEMAN MEMORIAL FUND LIMITED, which can be found under ‘Optometry and Vision Science – OPTOMETRY VISION SCI’ on a site by Wolters Kluwer. I’ve not read it as the site required a signon and password.

    I imagine that he knew the company, if not Max wiseman himself, very well. I wonder what the fund was for and if it still exists today.

  10. Paul T. Castle permalink
    August 7, 2013

    I’ve worn the large round silver specs for 40 years and they are excellent ,trouble is I need a new pair so where do I write to ?

  11. Helen B permalink
    August 9, 2013

    I just wanted to say what a fantastic article, thank you for taking the time to write about the Algha factory. The website for those of you asking about contacting the factory or spare parts is http://www.algha.com

  12. Dr Susanne Swanwick permalink
    September 28, 2013

    I used to work for UK Wiseman Ltd at the Algha Works, I’m thrilled to discover it still exists, I heard a piece on Radio 4 this morning and decided to do a web-search. At the time I worked for the company, in the late 70s early 80s, there were over 200 other employees. I was employed as a training officer, training staff to use the different machines, I enjoyed teaching the use of the induction soldering jigs. When the company had some difficulties they reduced the employment programme, advisors were brought in and I became the production controller responsible for increasing the speed of turnaround between order and delivery. Every optician sold these frames, the rims for the test lenses they put into the heavy frames while testing vision were all made in the factory as well. It is now many years since I have seen any of these frames in an opticians and have had to use flimsy poor quality frames that lose their colour.

  13. Annette Isserlis permalink
    September 29, 2013

    Max Wiseman was my Great-Grandfather (known as “Great-Grandpa”), and although I was extremely young, I remember him as being a very kind man with a great sense of humour. We used to visit his Kensington apartment fairly often. He and his wife Thyra had five children, and several grandchildren at that time, but I was the first of the next generation, and just made it into the extended Family Portrait, which must have been taken in 1954.

  14. Peta Grimes (nee Wiseman) permalink
    September 30, 2013

    Max Wiseman was my grandfather. I never knew about Algha, but I did sometimes work at the head office in Kings Cross during the summer holidays. I was one of about 6 (female) clerks, supervised by a (male) head clerk who entered by hand all the invoices and payments into huge ledgers. It seems incredible today.

  15. Annie Creswick-Dawson permalink
    January 19, 2014

    I was so fascinated to come across this wonderful Factory as my great great grandfather Edward Creswick was a spectacle frame maker in Sheffield in the early 1800s. I am sure the spectacle frames he made would have been less of a mechanised process but they must have looked similar. Edwards son started lifehis working life as a knife grinder and became with the help of John Ruskin a sculptor, he trained his son as a sculptor but also a bronze founder silver smith and metal worker and practically grew up in my grandfathers studio and love a workshop environment. I think the factory looks so much like somewhere I would have loved to work had I known about it .
    Thank you so very much for putting up this wonderful website.

  16. March 27, 2014

    I want very much to have a pair of glasses made at the Wiseman Co. LTD. Where do I go to order them. Thank you in advance.

  17. June 10, 2014

    Several people have asked about having frames made at the Algha Works factory.
    Please email savile.row@algha.co.uk or telephone 020 8985 5466 with enquiries.

    Best

    Jason Kirk
    Business Development Director

  18. Revd John Butterfield permalink
    January 22, 2015

    Dear Mr Kirk,

    If I intended to buy your frames are you able to inform, please, of an Optician(s) who would be able to supply them in the Chesterfield/Sheffield area. Alternatively, can you supply the whole thing ie lenses and frames from my eye-sight prescription?

    With best wishes and thanks, Revd John Butterfield.

  19. Peter Davis permalink
    September 22, 2015

    My Great Grandmother worked at Wiseman’s optical company in Leather lane. I assume that was the same company.

    I wonder if there are any photographs of those early years?

    I have a few photographs of a staff outing which I would guess was taken in the mid 1930′s. Apart from Great Grandmother Jane Bown, it would be nice to identify the other people in the pictures and exactly when and where the pictures were taken.

  20. Mr C.Pilcher permalink
    January 20, 2016

    No longer do Algha fit or repair their frames – I had a reply today offering a list of optician who will ???? Something to do with having been taken over by Saville Row Ltd

  21. Dieter Dangel permalink
    May 10, 2016

    20 years ago, I found a framless Pair of glasses from my grandmother. I brought it to my optician to get new glasses for my strength. Some years ago a young optician told me the producer: algha
    The frame was bought from my grandfather in the 1920′s in the near of Brünn Czecheslovakia. Since this time it was used all time. Some years ago I orderd some new parts and got them without any problems. This is my understanding of quality!

    Dieter Dangel
    Germany

  22. p pettifer permalink
    December 18, 2016

    were fishhook templers (ear hooks)ever fitted to later styles of glasses e.g. engineers, sportsmen doctors,surgeons alike.Can they still be obtained

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS