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Save The Algha Spectacle Works!

July 31, 2016
by the gentle author

Algha Works is the only historic industrial building still in use in the Fish Island Conservation Area and Britain’s last hand-made spectacle factory, but it is now under threat as the owners have applied for single-storey extension to convert it to luxury residential use, forcing out the spectacle makers out.

Londoners need workspace and employment as much as they need homes, so I encourage readers to click here and sign this petition to SAVE THE ALGHA WORKS

Between Victoria Park and the Olympic Park lies Fish Island, a narrow stretch of land 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 is where they were manufactured. The heart-shaped sunglasses for Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” and 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.

Glasses manufactured at the Algha Works are sold under the trade name of Savile Row Eyewear

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

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The Modest Wonders of Hackney Wick

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert Green permalink
    July 31, 2016

    I regularly walk past this building every week but am surprised to hear the workforce now number just 15, my partner worked at Algha in the 1970s when it was a very busy factory but even though their business appears to have contracted considerably it would be sad to see them forced out of this building, however on a wider issue parts of Fish Island may have been designated as a conservation area but from my observations very little regard for preserving many of these historic remnants from our industrial past is evident, in recent years most of this area has become a magnet for groups of squatters who play their usual cat and mouse game of waiting for eviction and then relocating to the next alternative site nearby and this has included a number of the disused former factory buildings, now a large adjacent area of more recent industrial development has been demolished to make way for an enormous new housing development that is already underway, there needed to be a proper plan to preserve the buildings of historic importance in this area with a vision for their long term use in keeping with their stature or sure enough as with Algha these buildings will all fall prey to the relentless pursuit of the faceless property speculators who will relish the opportunity to convert them into “luxury urban apartment conversions” and then sell them off to Chinese investors who will buy then on the basis of a picture in a glossy sales brochure that they spend less than 10 seconds looking at, want to try to stop them ? ? = SIGN ABOVE.

  2. July 31, 2016

    Sad to hear that another well run and functioning business is endangered for luxury flats. I hope the protest will stop the closure. Valerie

  3. pauline taylor permalink
    July 31, 2016

    Having worn glasses since I was 18 months old I am sure that I must have had many frames which would have been made here, and they were virtually indestructible, many is the time they have had to be bent back into shape for one reason or another but it was always possible and my mother never noticed.

    I know what it is like to be forced out of premises by new landlords who want to convert their property into ‘luxury’ flats, we had notice of such an intention by our ex-landlords exactly two years ago today. Fortunately for us we were eventually able to find new, and better, premises, and the new owners of the old premises have not been able to sell the ‘luxury’ flats, one of which still seems to be empty now and the other one was eventually let on a short lease, thus depriving people, who were to all intents, crooks, from making a profit at our expense!!

    I hope that there will be a good outcome from all of this for the Algha Works as well but I sympathise with all the stress and heartache that is being caused meanwhile by such unscrupulous landlords.

  4. James L. Sims permalink
    July 31, 2016

    Briton, America and Europe are losing our manufacturing ability and almost all of our skilled crafts. I was a camera repairman, and my shop included the machine tools to fabricate almost any part that I would need to repair any kind of camera. Camera repair, like other intricate repair work required skill, patience, and a thorough understanding of mechanical circuits. I have no doubt that the Algha Works is one of the last, if not THE last, example of skilled craftsmen and unusually intricate machines combine to fabricate beautiful and delicate things for all to admire.

    To destroy an institution such as Algha Works would be a tragedy, and very likely a crime against all those who worked there for so many years! It is as important to preserve our skilled crafts as it is to preserve art.

  5. Ellen Whittle ( neé Bland ) permalink
    August 1, 2016

    My father started his own practice as an optician in 1960 and I joined him in practice in 1976.
    We always had a few Anglo- American frames that we prescribed and in those days they were usually G/F ( gold filled ) , very occasionally S/F ( silver filled ) .They never tarnished and most patients had new lenses fitted to their frames time and time again. No wonder we never made lots of money! I seem to remember we even had frames from Max Wiseman.

  6. Shawdian permalink
    August 1, 2016

    A disgrace. Signed petition and keep hopeful.

  7. August 2, 2016

    So that’s where the round glasses I wore from 3 years old would have been made!

    Of course thus area had a legacy before the Olympics came. That must be protected, celebrated and saved from the developers. Thank you Gentle Author again for bringing this to wider attention.

  8. Dave Hawnt permalink
    March 5, 2017

    I have a pair of gold Algha Savile Row specticles, stylish, light, strong and never tarnish; so I am a lifelong fan. This Algha Works has to be preserved as part of our indutrial heritage… surely planning permission is required from local planners to proceed with this? Make it clear to them that this is a step to far…

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