National Trust Seeks Glass Eyes For Back To Back Project In Brum

By David Prudames | 12 February 2004
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Shows a photo of lots of glass eyes in a box with pink dividers.

Photo: glass eyes possibly made in Liverpool and acquired by Henry Wellcome before 1936. © Wellcome Library, London

The National Trust is on the lookout for glass eyes to help recreate a 19th century family home at the Back to Backs restoration project in Birmingham.

Part of a conservation programme to restore the city’s last surviving block of back to back housing, the trust is hoping to tell the story of Herbert Oldfield, who made glass eyes at the site on Hurst and Inge Streets for 40 years.

Built between 1802 and 1831, back to backs were designed to accommodate the rapidly increasing working population of Britain’s expanding industrial towns.

The surviving court is due to open to the public in July this year and with the help of Birmingham Conservation Trust has been restored to tell the stories of the people that once lived in there.

Shows a black and white photograph of a narrow alleyway with brick walls on either side. About halfway down the passage there is a black rubbish bag propped up against one of the walls.

Photo: built between 1802 and 1831, the Back to Backs of Inge and Hurst Street are Grade II listed and make up the last surviving courtyard of these kind of buildings in Birmingham. © Birmingham City Council.

"We’ve chosen four individual families, real people who lived in the court at that time. One of those was the Oldfield family," Keith Robinson, Learning and Interpretation Officer for the National Trust in the West Midlands, told the 24 Hour Museum.

Herbert Oldfield moved into the court in around 1860 and, according to Keith, lived there with his eight children, earning a living through making glass eyes for dolls, soft toys and humans.

One of the family’s three rooms would have been set aside as Herbert’s workshop and the trust is now appealing for information on glass eye making in the 19th century.

"What we’ve found is there is a lot of information on glass making, but nothing as specialist as this," said Keith.

Shows an aerial photograph looking down at a row of houses. These are the back to backs before the restoration began.

Photo: the Back to Backs on Inge and Hurst Streets, Birmingham before restoration work began. © Birmingham City Council.

However, Keith is convinced that there must have been plenty of call for glass eyes back then, "because he was working in it all his adult life, so it certainly kept him in business."

From tools and photographs to real glass eyes, the organisation is hoping to get hold of artefacts to help create an exhibition that shows what Herbert’s workshop would have been like.

Neil Handley, curator of the British Optical Museum, told the 24 Hour Museum that while not much is known about glass eye making in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was certainly an active profession.

"The subject is one which is largely under-researched. We know a lot more about the London makers rather than the regional ones," he said. " The London-based ones were still quite small and it wasn’t uncommon for them to combine it with other tasks."

Shows a black and white photograph of of how the back to back houses used to look. At the bottom of the image there are two cars parked on a road that is split by tramlines. In the background there is a tall tower with a minaret style point at the top.

Photo: the Back to Backs in the 1950s. © Birmingham City Council.

According to Neil, glass became the main material for prosthetic eyes from around the 16th century, although the concealing of eye injuries goes back a lot further.

"They were made out of blown glass, so it was quite a skilled art to make them," he said.

Using hand tools, makers would prepare a stock of glass eyes on behalf of an optometrist, so that when a patient had been dealt with by an eye surgeon they could go along and have one fitted.

"When they were ready," said Neil, "they would choose the right one and if necessary grind it down a bit and then choose the right colour."

If any of our readers know anything about glass eye making in the 19th century, click here to drop us a line and we'll pass the information on to Keith.

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