125 Years of Independent Eye Care

Posted: Thursday 23rd January 2020

2020 marks Rawlings Opticians 125th anniversary and so this month, Richard Rawling, our Managing Director has written a guest blog about our history. Richard is a qualified Contact Lens Optician and is our founder Alfred Rawlings’ great-grandson. He is as passionate and enthusiastic about our business now as Alfred was 125 years ago! Along with the other Directors, he has ensured that the family business ethos of continuing clinical excellence, professional expertise and individualised customer care  remain and we have recently been recognised for the modern approach to these traditional values with a Gold Award from Investors In People:

“Back in 1895 when Alfred Rawling first opened his shop on 18th September 1895 in Croydon, little could he have imagined that his company would continue to be in business 125 years later, with 8 branches, over 80 staff and his family still working in, and running the business.

Alfred grew up in Coulsdon, Surrey as his mother was the Matron at Reedham Orphanage but had moved to Wisbech, Cambridgeshire to be an apprentice to his uncle as a watchmaker and jeweller. Returning to Surrey, he borrowed money from the family of his future wife (Hilda Oldfield) and named the shop Rawling & Oldfield.  Situated in the newly built YMCA building, he lived in the shop, using the YMCA for meals and recreation. Later he would move to a home in Croydon but his dog, Jock would continue to live in the shop overnight to discourage burglars!

In addition to selling and repairing jewellery clocks and watches, early sales also included spectacles, & spectacle cases. His interest in spectacles led him to train as an Optician and he purchased sight-testing equipment in 1903 passing the examinations of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers in 1904. His diploma still hangs on the wall at the head office in Purley. He was one of the earliest opticians in the country at that time to qualify and he became a Liveryman of the Spectacle Makers Company in 1927.

Over the coming years, Alfred’s children would all be involved in optics and he opened further branches in Hampshire and Surrey with his sons taking over management of these branches and eventually the business.

Alfred was a true entrepreneur with a flair for the dramatic and was one of the earliest opticians to use advertising to find new customers. In the 1920s he advertised with a lantern which shone a picture of an eye on to the centre of the road in Winchester. Unfortunately this had to be stopped as it frightened the horses going up and down the street!

The business continued to grow through the first and second world wars and the company archive has letters about supplying spectacles to soldiers in France, providing special frames to fit inside gas masks and urgent repairs for glasses damaged in enemy action. Through the introduction of the NHS in 1948 the business grew further as people were often taking the first opportunity to have their vision tested and receive NHS glasses to help them see.

The third generation continued the entrepreneurial spirit and were early adopters of new technology in the 1960s when contact lenses starting to become available to the public and this specialty has continued through to today with Rawlings being recognised by the contact lens industry by being actively involved in research and having early access to new products.

As we go in to the new decade and our 125th year we are the oldest family optician in the UK and one of the oldest of all opticians in the country. Four generations of the Rawling family have put the company in a position where we are at the forefront of the profession and are embracing the latest technology and advances in clinical practice. We do hope some of you will be able to join us at our celebratory events during 2020 - keep an eye on our Facebook page and the branch pages on our website for dates and further details. You can expect fizz, nibbles and competitions galore!


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