This article has originally been published online on the Spitalfields website on June 10th 2011, and is republished with permission.
By: The Gentle Author, @thegentleauthor, author and researcher of Spitalfield Life, a website dedicated to the area of the same name in London’s East End.
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.
(Side note: Algha Works – Algha is a composite of “from Alpha to Omega”)
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.
Spectacles made at the Algha Works are sold under the “Savile Rowe” and “Just in Time” brands.