11 July 2019

Charles Baker, optical and surgical instrument maker, 244 High Holborn

Earlier this week, whilst hunting for something else in amongst my suitcases of collected bric-a-brac, I rediscovered my small collection of opera and field glasses.
Oh what a distraction!
Beautiful little pocket-sized binoculars made of brass (and other metals) and/or bakelite, many with mother-of-pearl, leather or shagreen embellishment. And most of them still in their perfect little pigskin pouches. OK, that was just for alliteration – I mean carrying/protective cases.
Someone recently suggested to me that they were not worth much, that they had no value, and asked me if I used glasses at the opera these days. A bit of a daft question as I rarely go to the opera! And also daft because one could say that Chinese tea caddies and Victorian children's dresses are also not used these days but that doesn't mean they aren't worth anything. I believe what he meant was that these are just collectables; they aren't top dollar items. Certainly not worth insuring.

Nevertheless I thought I'd do a bit of research on them and the pair that I found to be the most intriguing, for me as a Londoner, is the pair that when the centre wheel is at full twist, letters can be seen inscribed into on the shafts that read; "Sold By C. BAKER, Optician" on the left side, and "244 High Holborn, London" on the right.
Silver metal with hinged centre and mother-of-pearl inlay on the handles 

I at first wondered if this Chas Baker was the same person/company as the gentlemen's outfitter a further along High Holborn. After all, an optician simply sells eyewear, such as frames and other accessories; the optometry being carried out elsewhere. Therefore, I considered that the optician's shop might well be a branch of that large company. But it appears not.
Kelly's – just up the road

Intrigued by many of these things, I got got to googling. 
It seems Charles Baker was listed as a company as early as 1765 and by 1854 they had moved from premises at 51 Gt Queen Street, to 244 High Holborn, listed as an "optical and surgical instrument maker".  Interesting that the engraving reads "Sold by" rather than 'Made by". Hmmmm. Ponder, ponder.
My Kelly's Directory of 1895 shows that Mr Baker was at No.243 with his instruments and also at No.244 as an optician. By 1915 there are five companies listed at No.244 address including another optician.
The 1939 directory shows that 242-243 has become The Holborn Empire music hall with Baker at No.244 listed as a scientific instrument maker, sharing the premises with Ascot Gas Water Heaters. 
At this time, ads show that Baker is making full use of the theatre next door as a signpost. I like to think he would have had a display of opera glasses in his shop window ready to catch the eye of passing theatre-goers who had left theirs at home.
Moving forward quickly... in 1963 the Vickers company acquired C.Baker Ltd's microscope factory which later became Vickers Instruments
It's all here on Grace's Guide if you want to read it for yourself.

Of my other binoculars, the ones that also interest me are my two compact late-20s/early-30s Bakelite pairs made by A. Kershaw & Son of Leeds. I am particularly fond of the ones made in bright colours such as teal, emerald green or ultramarine. In 1920 the Kershaw company had various premises across the UK including offices/shop at 3 Soho Square. They had previously claimed to produce "the World's first cinematograph projector". By 1964 the company was swallowed up to the Rank Organisation.
And I also have some diddy little opera glasses made by Colmont of Paris; a company that I am told was one of the best French companies of this type back in the day. Ooh. 
More research needed.

In the meantime, I am hoping to be able to get a group together to visit the marvellous British Optical Association Museum in Craven Street, Charing Cross, where they may have more info about Charles Baker.


  1. I have a monocular that’s stamped “C. BAKER 1917 1004”. It may have once been half of a small set of binoculars. How can I find more information about it?

    1. Thanks for sharing. But everything I have found out thus far about this company is written here. You could try old magazines, directories, or there’s the marvellous Society of Optemetrists in Craven St. They have a marvellous archive and a small museum which is open on request.

    2. To reiterate... I have added the info for the museum into a paragraph in the main piece, but here it is again and you might be able to get some more info by contacting them directly: https://www.college-optometrists.org/the-british-optical-association-museum/visiting

  2. Just thought you might be interested in that I have a small book on microscopy by Rev Wood 1861 in which he thanks Mr Baker for allowing him to make use of his stock of microscopes and slides in the production of the book. At the back of the book, amongst other things is a list of the opera glasses he sells, they range in price from 1 to 3 pound and are all made on the premises by 'superior workmen'.

    1. Oh how lovely. If you take some pics of a few pages I'll be able to add them to the story. The Bank of England's inflation calculator tells me that £3 back then would be £294 today – wow! That's comparable to an iPhone!


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Thanks, Jane