Lawrence Jenkin, Spectacle Maker
Algha Works – where Lawrence Jenkin 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 a 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
Lawrence Jenkin by Tom Bunning
Alone in the cavernous basement of the Algha Works in Hackney Wick, I found Lawrence Jenkin hunched over a pair of spectacle frames, entirely absorbed in his work attending to the fine detail of their manufacture. Apart from some modern machinery, it was a sight that evoked Huguenot John Dollond, who was born in Spitalfields in 1705 and created an optical workshop there in Vine St with his son Peter, becoming optician to George III, Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington – founding Dollond & Aitchison, the celebrated company of opticians which persisted until recently.
Lawrence has some equally distinguished clients whom discretion prevents us naming and, like John Dollond, his is also a family business in which he has worked with his two brothers, who jointly took over from their father who ran it before them. Yet perhaps we may equally extrapolate backwards from Lawrence’s delight in his work and its methodical processes, to get a glimpse of John Dollond in his workshop in Spitalfields in the eighteenth century?
“My father, Arthur Jenkin, became the breadwinner at only thirteen after his father died, so he got into binoculars and became a businessman. Working as ‘Primatic Instruments,’ he serviced and repaired binoculars for the British & Canadian forces in World War II.
Our family business is the Anglo-American Optical Company, which my father bought in 1946 but which had been going since 1883. Originally, the company was in Southfields near Wimbledon but it was bombed out and when he bought it - as a virtually bankrupt optical business - he moved it to beautiful large old building on the edge of Hampstead Heath.
I am an optician but I always wanted to design and make spectacles. My father said to me, ‘You’re going to have to learn the business and someone else’s expense.’ I qualified in this country and in the United States, where I got the New York and American certificates too. In those days, all opticians sold the same frames but I wanted to create and manufacture my own designs. I was lucky enough to work in an optician on Third Avenue in New York where the owner asked me what I wanted to do and, when I told him, he asked me how much I needed. So I said, ‘Ten thousand pounds’ – that was twenty-four thousand dollars – and he said, ‘Here’s a cheque, go and do it.’
I came back in 1968 and started designing. I was influenced by the National Health Service frames, they had a good basic shape and good designs but they were poorly made. My frames came in more sizes and were made of better materials and components. That’s where I started from.
My father had a factory in Hampstead and he converted the offices into a place to live, so I was fortunate to have a place to manufacture, and my brothers Malcolm and Tony worked with me. I had people making the frames for me in the factory but I was the designer of the collections and I always made the first samples. We called ourselves Anglo American Eyewear.
In 1996, I left and now I just make bespoke frames for clients. It’s a slow process. If I get four pairs done in a week I’m doing well, whereas a commercial frame maker would expect to produce two or three in a day, but I try to make them extremely well. Unlike most other hand made frame makers, I keep a record of each frame and the lenses I have made. If my client wants a replacement or duplicate, it can be re-made accurately from my drawings and records and sent quickly anywhere in the world.
I make glasses for Roger Pope of New Cavendish St who is Optician to the Queen and I have six or seven other clients in Germany, Holland, Japan and United States. Mostly, I make acetate frames but I can make metal frames too although I takes longer, so I have to charge more for it.
Unfortunately, there’s no industry left in this country but there’s a lot of interest from young people in learning how to make frames so I do bit of teaching. It takes a long time to learn. I’m training a couple of people and there’s a huge revival now – it’s such a wonderful thing. So rather than making, I am more interested in passing on my knowledge.
I’ve been in it all my life. My father never forced me or my brothers into the business but we all chose to do it. It’s a nice business. I love it, I love making frames. I wish I was ten years younger because I’d like to make more frames.”
Photographs copyright © Tom Bunning
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