Family history is important to me. I have cherished objects which hold stories, historical events and so many memories.
Optometrist with Honours
My father was an optometrist, then referred to as an optician or an ophthalmic optician. I am the proud owner of his Certificate, gained when he passed his exams, with honours, to become part of this esteemed profession.
A lovely man, the local optician in our village of Hurstpierpoint, Sussex, in the south-east of England close to the South Downs, he was respected by his patients and loved by his family.
This framed certificate now hangs in my house, a constant reminder of what a worthy, kind and honest man he was.
My memories of him include us walking over the Downs, he always with a camera, of which he owned several. Photography was a passion that never left him, and one he handed down to me. Full of fun, a skilled artist and writer, he was a huge influence in my life.
Tools of the Trade
Work around Sussex
I recall these objects in the house, part of my life since I was very young. Sadly, the trial case and frame in the picture is not his. He sold it after he retired but it was just like that one.
A large portion of my younger days was spent in Sussex, right up to leaving school. Dad's first job there was with an established practice in Hove (next to Brighton), then he had his village practice in a small room at home, later moving up the road to be closer to the centre of village life. Later still he had his own larger practice in the cliff-top town of Peacehaven, just east of Brighton, on the Channel coast.
Of course, my Dad tested my mother's and my eyes, every two years. I was always fascinated by his trial case; the rows of lenses, thin and thick, as well as the trial frame which rested on my nose, heavy enough to leave a red mark when my eye-test was finished. He would use the case also to go to those who couldn't come to him.
The lenses would be slotted into the frame, accompanied by,
"Is it better this way," – quick horizontal flick of the lens – "or this way?"
The twizzle of another lens, and so it would go on until he'd gauged my sight to perfection. The intense light close up to each eye, the red and green on a projected box, the letter card, starting with gargantuan letters, retreating to minute characters I strained to recognise, all fused to give a magical result.
I wore glasses when I was still at primary school, but only for 'close work'. I was told to wear them all the time in class. This lasted only a year or so, then Dad said I didn't need them any more as they'd done their corrective work. Years later, I confessed to him that I didn't wear them as often as I should have and his response, with a gentle smile, was,
"Well I knew you wouldn't so I told you to wear them all the time so that you'd wear them for long enough."
He'd certainly got the measure of me, then, hadn't he?!
An Unexpected Request
One day, at the house closer to the village, there came a ring on the bell and, fifteen years old, I went to the door. It was later in the day and all patients had gone. An old man stood there, with a brown paper bag in his hand. He said,
"I know your Dad's an optician but I was wondering if he could look at these,"
and he handed me the bag. Expecting to see some broken specs, I looked inside.
Looking up at me from inside was a pair of dentures! I was taken aback and, trying hard to suppress a giggle, I excused myself and went to get my Mum, as Dad had gone out. She could tell there was something strange afoot because I was giggling, and when I explained she dealt with it as best she could, explaining,
"I suggest you take these to the dentist. Mr Carr can't do anything about those, I'm afraid. It's not within his expertise."
She was gracious, though only just managing not to laugh, and the man accepted her explanation and went on his way. We both collapsed in a pile of giggles and Dad was most amused when he got home, though quite glad to have missed being put on the spot.
When I told my mates at school, they gasped in horror - how did I manage to keep a straight face?! To this day, I have no answer to that. I hasten to add that secondary school was a long way from the village so nobody would have known the gentleman concerned.
My Favourite Optician
Saving People's Lives
My father often referred to his 'mentor', an older optometrist named Bill England, who was wheel-chair bound. I never met him but Dad often spoke of him and I recognised even at a young age that he had great respect for this dear friend.
Dad was born and grew up in Yorkshire, likewise his friend. When my sister had some sight problems, Bill England was called to examine her and he diagnosed meningitis, just in time as it happened. So not only was he a good friend but a life-saver. When I was told this story I understood why my father held him in such high esteem.
I learnt that opticians can recognise certain patterns or symptoms in the eye that can suggest other medical problems. Twice in his career, Dad sent a patient to the hospital with a suspected brain tumour. Both times, the early diagnosis resulted in longer life.
An historical document not only holds memories but can divulge incidental information. I already knew of some of the places my father had lived, information valuable to me to be able to follow his path through life before I knew him. This document furnishes an address of which I had not been aware before I read this carefully. 10 Grosvenor Avenue, Pontefract, was occupied by my father in March 1939, the month and year he became 21. Did he live there for long, was he there alone and what other details could I find? It's something I continue to pursue.
Any historical object can evoke emotions. It can also offer a provocation to continue delving into the information it provides, revealing nuances to shift the focus of history, to bring clarity, add a deeper knowledge to our perspective and maybe change our vision.
I'd like to thank Mr Neil Handley, Museum Curator at The College of Optometrists, for kindly giving me permission to use the photo of the trial frame above.
© 2021 Ann Carr