Great British Cameras:
the VP Twin
E Elliott Ltd and The British Optical Lens Company: a brief history
By David Gardner
(these are the detailed notes for the article "The Stuff of Legends" published in Photographica World No 108, the magazine of the Photographic Collectors Club of Great Britain)
Keen to go to school, at the age of 3½, Edwin Elliott enjoyed school, where he was regarded as a clever child both artistically and academically. At the age of 12 Edwin joined his brother Harry as some of the first pupils at Bridge Street Seventh Standard School, in the old Cadbury factory in the heart of Birmingham. This was a relatively new experimental technical school, set up by George Dixon an ex-Mayor of Birmingham, where Edwin developed his understanding of maths, applied maths, machine and technical drawing. At the age of 14 Edwin was taken out of school by his father to start work (it was normal practice at that time for children to leave school at 14) although he could, and probably should, have stayed on for another two years which might well have led to higher education.
Edwin Elliott's first job was at H.W Ward Ltd, an engineering company, a job which he left when he found another boy at his lathe after returning from taking time off (quite reasonably I would have thought) with a suspected broken nose and two black eyes sustained when he was hit in the face by a cricket ball. The foolishness of his employer in replacing Edwin was fortuitous because without it Edwin would not have made the move into the jewellery trade which was to set him on the road to forming his own company and eventually owning six factories. This second job was working for Hyde's at Warstone Lane, assembling brooches, but he was 'let go' after only 6 months when they found he needed glasses for the fine work that was involved in assembling small beads on brooches. Staying with the jewellery trade, he then became office boy for the import/export firm of Eckardt, Bendorf & Peine, at 16 Vyse Street in the Birmingham jewellery quarter, where he was involved in sourcing and pricing quotes for goods made locally (like cheap pearl cufflinks) which were supplied to Hamburg for resale, and he delivered goods which came the other way for customers in Birmingham. He made many German and Austrian friends and learnt German to help in this trade. This was to stand him in good stead throughout his business life and led to him being appointed Consul for Austria in Birmingham from 1925 - 1938 (Birmingham Mail 2.8.66).
In 1903 he left Eckardt, Bendorf & Peine , to become agent for C. Aug Schmidt of Gablonz in Bohemia, who made imitation stones which he marketed to jewellery makers in Birmingham. Mr Charley S Wildman and Miss Florence Nicholls joined the business (respectively as Traveller in 1907 - retired in 1970, and Messenger in 1908 - retired in 1959) and were with him all their working lives.
In 1909 Edwin Elliott left the employment of Schmidt's, but kept the agency to deal in their stones at his own prices, and in 1910 he founded the firm of E. Elliott at 55 Frederick Street to import and manufacture imitation precious stones and merchandise for the jewellery and fancy goods trade (this work was still part of the company's business at least into the 1950s).
In 1910 some workman from a Sheffield optical firm [DG – an outside possibility they were from Robinson Optical in Sheffield – need to check] started a factory for the manufacture of spectacle lenses,. This became the British Optical Lens Company first registered in 1911, in Key Hill Drive, [DG - need to find out who registered the name]. Mr Elliott and Mr Wildman had the agency to sell these lenses, and in 1912 they bought the business and Harry Elliott (EE's elder brother) joined the firm as manager, and he was an excellent engineer who reorganised and modernised the plant. The business grew and moved to Regent Street, Smethwick. The Company also produced hand-coloured miniature photographs for use in jewellery, broaches, pendants etc. These were bought-in as sheets, like stamps, and hand-coloured by Louisa (Lu) Collins, Edwin Elliott's sister.
BOLCo First entry in Kelly's Directory of Birmingham was in 1912, as optical glass makers, Regent Street, Smethwick.
Kelly's Entry in 1914 was as British Optical Lens Co at 56/57 Frederick Street, Birmingham and Regent Street, Smethwick.
In 1914 with the outbreak of war the import of imitation stones and jewellery from Germany was cut off. So Elliotts diversified their range of photographs to include generals, army crests and other military objects. They also got a major War Office contract grinding and polishing green glass for goggles used by troops in the bright sunlight of the Egyptian desert.
Frederick Street works were also developed as a machine shop for the manufacture of Vegetable Ivory goods such as buttons. They also had the agency for Galalith, a casein material for manufacture of knife handles and buttons. This was a German product and when supplies were cut off, it was replaced by Erinoid, from the English Company, Erinoid Ltd who had begun production in 1914. This was used to make studs and bushes for the electrical trades.
In 1916 the Company moved to Warstone Lane, bringing both sides of the business together in enlarged premises to meet the growing demand.
In 1918, when the war finished they went back to making spectacle lenses, a business which had only limited success until they secured a contract from F W Woolworths (Woolworths were prevented from importing cheap spectacles when the Key Industries Duty was introduced after the war.) This was the foundation of the success of BOLCo. Spectacles were sold in 14 strengths, each strength being listed on a card display with text of diminishing sizes to indicate, when a particular size of text could not be read, the strength of spectacles that should be purchased.
In the early 1920s the company entered into the bakelite moulding industry at their Warstone Lane factory by installing new presses to make radio parts and in particular to capitalise on the potential of coloured powders becoming available to make 'beetleware' (Elliott's did not themselves make 'Beetleware').
In 1927 the business outgrew the Warstone Lane factory and moved to larger premises in Brearley Street, where techniques and machinery were continually developed and modernised and it was here that they installed some of the first machines for injection moulding, which enabled more delicate and intricately designed items to be produced.
It was on 25th January 1927 that Trade mark 477,037 for "Goods in
class 50, made wholly or mainly from Phenol and Formaldehyde products
or from Casein Products or Wood, and not included in other classes, viz.,
....Frames for Reading Glasses and for Pocket Magnifiers,........Clothes
pegs and Pins.....Shoe Lifts......Cups, Saucers, ......Beads, .....Picture
and Photograph Frames and Stands" of a capital 'L' superimposed on
a sailing yacht was registered to Edwin Elliott, trading as E. Elliott
17-18 Warstone Lane, Birmingham; Manufacturer.
Kelly's Street and Trade Directories at the beginning of the 1930's list the company (E. Elliott) as "Manufacturer and Merchant" at 126 & 128 Brearley Street , Birmingham
During the 1930s the Coronet Camera Company was adjacent to Elliott's Victoria Works (Summer Lane) and the owner, Mr S J Pettifer, was a friend of Edwin Elliott. Elliotts did some sub-contracting of body mouldings and lenses for Coronet cameras, who made the metal parts and shutters and marketed the cameras under their name. [DG – need to find out more about these links]
The VP twin was made for Woolworths - no doubt building on links made through making spectacles for them. It was sold by them from 1935 until the outbreak of the 2nd WW. Post-war austerity measures meant that the camera did not appear again on Woolworth's shelves until Christmas 1950. In Woolworths they were 1s 6d (7.5p) before the war, 3s (15p) at the start of the 1950s and 7s 6d (37.5p) at the end of their run in the late 1950s. Elliott bought-in the shutters from Coronet and assembled the cameras. In the early days the camera was sold in three parts by Woolworths to meet their promise that nothing on the shop cost more than 6d; of course an investment of 1s 6d had to be made to have a working camera! To enable the camera to be sold in pieces, one camera in each case supplied by Elliott's was sent in 3 pieces.
Elliott's made bakelite and plastic bodies and parts for many of the Coronet cameras, including the Midget and Vogue, and BOLCo made many of the lenses. Coronet made the shutters and assembled the cameras.
Edwin Elliott was a keen amateur photographer and cinematographer who joined the Birmingham Photographic Society, took documentary films of Birmingham life in the 1930s and eventually became the President of the Society. Some of these films went to the BBC - Bob Geoghegan - for a TV documentary "A Tram to the Bull Ring" which first went out in 1974. [DG - where are they/this video now - BBC?] Films of the factory are with Michael Royce, Miss Elliott's cousin, at Quatford House, Quatford, Bridgnorth.
Head Office and Works: Victoria Works, 315 Summer Lane, Birmingham 19
1938 circa Elliott established a new works at Bescot Crescent, Walsall
to manufacture switches
In 1939 with the outbreak of the 2nd WW the company again moved into war work, producing millions of anti-gas eyeshields for army use and a 12 ft periscope (designed by Frederick Archenhold) for amphibious tanks, which was also adapted by the American forces for their tanks.
During the war Edwin Elliott was made county film officer for the Birmingham Home Guard. He showed training films and made documentaries of famous visitors to the region, eg Monty. In 1939 he had travelled to the West Coast of America and he often showed this film to entertain the troops on gun-sites and balloon stations.
1940, 22nd Nov, optical department in Brearley Street, Birmingham received a direct hit with incendiary bombs, and was largely destroyed, what could be salvaged was moved to Bescot Crescent to resume production. The business of the British Optical Lens Co was moved to Bescot Crescent and eventually these works became the property of the Company.
1941, 9 April, Summer Lane was bombed again, this time more seriously and 18 men were killed. The majority of factory records were lost, including orders and outstanding invoices. Edwin Elliott had encouraged staff to take company stationery home with them in case they factory was bombed and this paid off when as a result of the bombing staff were able to work in Mr Elliott's house in Meadow Road Edgbaston until factory rebuilding could be completed. These were very hard and difficult times for all involved with the firm and it a testament to their dedication and sheer hard work that the company came through and prospered.
1948 - The introduction of benefits for glasses through the newly formed National Health Service (established 5 July 1948) led to a growth in the business of BOLCo.
1949, 25th March, The Company bought Eldon Works, Eldon Street, Walsall (floor area 17,216 sq ft) from Kathleen Elliott and John Edwin Elliott.
1950, E. Elliott Limited, incorporating The British Optical Lens Company "Manufacturers of Mouldings in Plastic and Optical And Industrial Lenses and Appliances" became a public limited company. The Company employed 480 people. The Directors were:
• Edwin Elliott, Chairman and MD (founder of company)
Company Secretary, Florence Nicholls (worked with E Elliot since 1908).
Before the shares were put on the market, Mr Elliott made a list for the stockbrokers of the names and addresses of relatives and friends who he thought might be interested in buying some, and letters were sent out to all of them. It was gratifying that many people who knew and trusted Mr Elliott decided to invest in the company. Anybody who bought shares in 1950 did very well financially out of the company, even though in the longer term the company failed.
On the 18th April 1958 the Registration of Opticians Bill was passed by MPs, despite Edwin Elliott sending a pair of ready to wear spectacles to all the MPs to demonstrate their effectiveness and to encourage them to vote against the bill. This was potentially disastrous for Elliott's because it prohibited the selling of ready-to-wear spectacles by chain stores like Woolworths, in favour of registered opticians. To overcome the loss of this business Elliotts diversified into the production of other lenses, in particular for slide viewers and projectors.
195? The VP Twin was sold in the USA, by the Edbar International Corporation (the camera box has this printed on it). Edwin Elliott was a business acquaintance of Alex Weinstein, the founder of Ed-Bar International Corporation, Peekskill New York. The company was named after Alex's wife (Edna) and daughter (Barrie), who met Edwin and Margery Elliott at the Worlds Fair in 1939.
1966 Edwin Elliott retired, aged 88. He had 6 factories making plastic
and optical items.
British Optical Ltd is part of the International Optical Group Ltd, with factories in UK, Hong Kong and China, making high quality optical components, including multi-element lens assemblies for LDC projectors, optically polished prisms, moulded parabolic and aspheric reflectors and Boro-lux® heat-resistant glass.
A recent meeting with Miss Margery Elliott, and subsequent conversations and email exchanges with her have contributed greatly to the accuracy and comprehensive nature of this document. I am extremely grateful for her very generous help.
Information has been extracted from a written record of the personal recollections of Mr Edwin Elliott and Mr Charley S Wildman, and from the transcript of a taped interview with Miss Margery Elliott (EE's daughter) taken by Pete James of Birmingham Central Library. These materials are held in full in the Local Studies section of Birmingham Central Library, and I would like to put my thanks on record to the Library staff for their patient help in putting this article together.
It's by Corfield it must be good...., John E Lewis, Ericsen Lewis (Publications), 1985, ISBN 0 9510211 0 9
Remembering Woolworth's, Karen Plunkett-Powell, St Martin's Press Griffin
Information on company name changes has been obtained from the Companies House website (http://www.companieshouse.gov.uk/)
Sir Kenneth Corfield was kind enough to share his recollections of his friend Edwin Elliott and the VP Twin with me at the recent PCCGB AGM.
I am indebted to Lynn Bradley, of British Optical Limited the successor company to BOL Co, for the detailed information on the recent history of that company. I hope one day the economics might be favourable to them producing another British made camera!
The unofficial archivist at Woolworths has provided me with sales information, and I wish him well in rebuilding the Woolworth's archive lost during successive take-overs.