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Lawrence Jenkin, Spectacle Maker

August 1, 2016
by the gentle author

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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At The Algha Works

7 Responses leave one →
  1. August 1, 2016

    Signed – readers – also see & sign this important petition about the same area https://www.change.org/p/save-hackney-wick-stop-the-demolition-of-a-community

  2. Mem permalink
    August 1, 2016

    I wear hand made frames and have had them for many years , They are a bit unusual and have become part of my “trademark” . They are very comfortable and I love them . Perfect strangers stop me and ask where I got them . I love the way glasses can tell the world a little of who you are which is a great thing when one reached a certain age and becomes invisible to many .
    I am so glad to hear that the making of frames is of interest to the young . All power to you sir and I hope you get to pass on your skills for many years to come .

  3. Ros permalink
    August 1, 2016

    Great piece. Thank you. I hadn’t realised Dolland was a Huguenot name. Nor had I thought of having bespoke spectacle frames, but maybe I should, enlisting Mr Jenkin or his trainees to design some for me…..

  4. Alison Ashfield permalink
    August 2, 2016

    Oh my. I have worn glasses since I was 14. Some frames have been more successful than others, aesthetically. I trained as a nurse at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and registered at the optician nearest to where I lived.
    ‘Hodd, Barnes and Dickens, Cheapside’
    Was the salutation from the cheery receptionist on each and every telephone call she answered. I can still hear the lift at the end of the phrase. A mild interrogative, to suggest that help was available, always.
    My optician was Mr. C. Dickens for years.
    I used to wonder if he was any relation to Charles Dickens, who may have walked the pavements of Cheapside, in another century.
    Happy City memories.

  5. August 2, 2016

    Another wonderful story.

  6. Gioconda permalink
    August 4, 2016

    In the U.S. we have a vast choice of frames, but little science in the fitting of them. As I have a strong prescription, the slightest maladjustment causes difficulty. I find myself demanding more accuracy in my frames, which the large commercial chains have trouble supplying. At this moment, I’m pushing my glasses up to see what I’m typing.
    Made-to-order frames sound like they could solve my problems. Unfortunately, Americans value speed and style over precision. I hope Mr. Jenkin can carry his trade well into the future. Perhaps I will be lucky enough one day to have his company make me a pair!

  7. Tim Bowden permalink
    January 22, 2017

    Hello

    I am the editor of Ophthalmic Antiques, the journal of the Ophthalmic Antiques International Collectors Club. I read this article with great interest as Lawrence is a member of the club and also the club would also be very disappointed if the Algha works weer to close.

    Our next edition is due out on the 1st April (deadline 21st Feb) and I would very much like to include your article above if that would be ok with you?

    Cheers
    Tim

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