Matthew W. Dunscombe

The World's First Great Collector of Antique and Unusual Spectacles

gold medal for Dunscombe's collection (front) gold medal for Dunscombe's collection (back)

(Photos above courtesy of Peter Dunscombe, great-grandson of Matthew W. Dunscombe.
Pictures of Matthew W. Dunscombe's collection are reproduced below.)

His Life

In 1629 the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers in London were given their charter by King Charles I. Then by the 18th century, London began to take the significant lead in spectacle making with the establishment of several well-respected opticians, including Edward Scarlett, Benjamin Martin, and James Ayscough. In Bristol, Mr. Jackson founded his business in 1797 and sold instruments including telescopes, magnifying glasses and even spectacles manufactured in his own lens workshop. He was joined by his son-in-law, John Braham and on the death of Mr. Jackson, the business passed to Braham. In 1855 he took on a 14 year-old apprentice named Matthew Dunscombe.

Matthew William Dunscombe was born in Clifton, Bristol July 6th 1841. Shortly after beginning work as an apprentice, he went to London to work in the Braham family’s wholesale and manufacturing business. Soon his name became associated with fine quality and reliability, and thus he earned the high respect of patron and trade customers alike. Dunscombe gained many qualifications throughout the course of his life, including the Cambridge Local Certificate in 1858, and a further certificate for French at Kings College, London. When John Braham died in 1863, his sons and nephew took over the business, but by 1874 Matthew Dunscombe was able to acquire the Braham optical business. Once in charge, Dunscombe continued developmental work with spectacles and lenses. He combined scholarship and research with sound commercial sense. In 1875, he published “Vision and Spectacles”, which included a description of the workings of the eye, and also defects such as hypermetropia and myopia. He also wrote a catalogue on visual aids. “The lenses used by MW Dunscombe are of the finest quality optical glass and Brazilian pebble”. The spectacles are “unsurpassed for utility and moderate price”. At the bottom of every page was the slogan “The only Spectacle Manufactory in the West of England”.

Dunscombe was able to extend the influence of his business beyond Bristol while also reassuring existing customers that the level of quality and reliability would always be maintained. His product range expanded substantially and soon included photographic equipment, microscopes, colored glass protectors, barometers, thermometers, surveying equipment, and “magic lanterns”. He studied amateur meteorology and became a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. Initiated into Freemasonry, he achieved high rank in many of the crafts.

Matthew Dunscombe achieved prominence as an optician and was invited to the preliminary meeting that resulted in the formation of the British Optical Association, becoming one of its founder members in 1895. He became a Freeman of the Spectacle Maker’s Company in 1898 and the President of the West of England Optical Society in 1913.

His was a family business and two sons joined the business in 1887 and 1895 respectively. His oldest daughter became the first woman to pass the examinations of the British Optical Association in 1899 at the age of 32. The photographic side of the business began to flourish and the firm published a monthly journal for amateur photographers, Photographic Chat. In 1905, Dunscombe founded the Kryptok Company in conjunction with Borsch of Paris and Meyrowitz of New York, creating a company which specialized in fused bifocals. The design of the Kryptok lenses was considered to be ahead of its time and involved 17 manufacturing steps in their production. The two segments of the lens were fused together instead of being glued which supposedly led to a better quality product.

By the time of his death in 1918, Matthew Dunscombe had achieved a high standing in his community both as an astute and successful businessman and as an optologist who was well respected by his peers nationwide. The company continued to operate after his death under the care of his sons. In 1935, they opened a miniature Cinematograph Theatre to cater to those interested in home movies, showing both amateur and professional films. Today, the Dunscombe business is managed by the G C Bateman Group and has four practices in and around Bristol, at Westbury on Trym, Clevedon, Kingswood, and 7 St. Augustine’s Parade.

His Collection

From an early age, Matthew Dunscombe was a keen collector of historical and contemporary spectacles. In 1861, at the age of 20, he purchased Braham’s celebrated collection of spectacles. This collection of around 50 spectacles had won a Bronze Medal at the Great Exhibition in 1851. It was exhibited at the Exhibition of 1862 where it received an Honorable Mention. By the time the collection was exhibited at the Victorian Era Exhibition in 1897, it had grown to 250 objects. There it received a Gold Medal, and the catalogue explained that the spectacles are displayed “to illustrate the progress made in Art, Science, and Manufacture during the reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.” His catalogue also stated that “this is believed to be the only collection of the kind now existing.” The collection was very extensive and contained many unusual, interesting, and unique designs. Also on display was the bronze medal received by John Braham at the 1851 Exhibition to demonstrate the prestige and history of the items in the collection itself.

By 1910, the collection had grown to contain 285 items and it was exhibited at the International Exhibition at Brussels where it won another Gold Medal. Tragically, the Exhibition was devastated by a fire that swept through the buildings and the prize-winning collection was completely destroyed. After the dramatic loss of his prized collection, Dunscombe appears not to have been discouraged and immediately started to build up a second collection which grew to over 160 items within just three years. In April 1921, three years after the death of his father, Osmond Dunscombe offered the second collection (287 spectacles and 93 lenses) as a loan to the Science Museum, ready mounted on a silk mounted pyramidal base, to be displayed in Room 34 on the first floor in the section dealing with Optics. There it was photographed on March 10, 1924. After being evacuated to the country at the start of the Second World War (along with other items from the National Collections) the collection was returned to the museum and in 1947 became a permanent component of the Optics Collection. It has been somewhat broken into various elements and some items are now in storage. The only item to survive from the first collection is the Bronze Medal awarded to John Braham in 1851.

Matthew William Dunscombe achieved great significance during his lifetime, both as a member of the Bristol society and as an eminent practitioner and innovator in the field of Ophthalmology. He was a successful and astute businessman, as illustrated by his expansion of Braham’s optician’s company into the emerging field of photography. Many of his children and grandchildren became involved with the family business, and all became well-respected in their own fields of expertise. In 1971, Dunscombe Ltd. Passed out of family control but it still trades out of four establishments under the family name. This is evidence of the firm’s reputation with its customers and suppliers throughout many years it has been trading. Dunscombe was an avid collector from an early age, building up two major collections within his lifetime. The first was internationally acclaimed. The second has been used by the Science Museum for accurate dating of other items, and it is a valuable resource to researchers and the public alike. There can be no doubt that Matthew William Dunscombe was far more than just a Bristol optician.

Adapted, with permission from a 1997 article by Catherine Gater of the Science Museum, London.

Images of Dunscombe's collection reproduced below are from original 10"x12" glass negatives shot in 1924. Permission for publication on this website was granted by the Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library, South Kensington, London, UK.

Matthew Dunscombe's Collection Matthew Dunscombe's Collection Matthew Dunscombe's Collection

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