Victorian optician’s token

A copper alloy token issued by J Gargory, an Optician and mathematical instrument maker in Birmingham

This Victorian token was issued by J Gargory of 41 Bull Street, Birmingham. The front face of the token details the address, and the obverse depicts a pair of oval-rimmed spectacles with the text ‘Distinct Vision’ in capitals. Two of these 19th century optician’s tokens have been reported to The Portable Antiquities Scheme. One was discovered north of Redditch, Worcestershire and the other from near Barton on the Warwickshire/Worcestershire border; possibly indicating that people were prepared to travel into the city for a pair of new spectacles! Or did James Gargory or his staff visit the local area with a travelling sample case perhaps?

This was a period that saw a rise in spectacle makers due to an increased medical knowledge of the eye and new awareness of the importance of vision testing to assist with vision correction. More children began wearing glasses in schools due to widespread education being available and by those wishing to take part in the fashionable pursuit of reading for leisure and faster locomotive travel.

James Gargory was first listed as a working optician and mathematical instrument maker at 4 Bull Street in Robson’s Birmingham & Sheffield Directory dated AD 1839. The directory paints a picture of a bustling inner city commercial destination. Gargory’s neighbours include boot & shoemakers, straw hat makers, watch & clock manufacturers, pearl button makers and sellers of furs. No 93 Bull Street was inhabited by the founder of Cadbury’s. Mr John Cadbury’s tea dealers sold tea, coffee and drinking chocolate and the premises next door was ran by his brother the linen draper and silk mercer. In AD 1839 no 41 Bull Street is listed as The Rose & Punch Bowl. Sometime between 1839 and 1858 the tavern closes and Mr Gargory takes over the premises from around 1858 until 1889. You can still visit the premises today which is now called The Peace Hub, an organisation ran by Quakers.

Portrait of Thomas Wright Hill, 1831 By Mary Martha Pearson

This portrait of Thomas Wright Hill from Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s collection offers a visual guide for the style of spectacles that James Gargory may have been producing in the period. Thomas and his son Rowland Hill founded Birmingham’s Society for Literary and Scientific Improvement. Rowland himself famous for inventing the modern postal service, which in turn led to the first postage stamp being produced in AD 1840 ‘The Penny Black’.

Although the Portable Antiquities Scheme standard policy is to record objects dating to over 300 years old. We will continue to record any local tokens offered as they provide a fascinating insight into changes in society, fashion, commerce, and advancements in scientific thinking all within the context of a bustling thriving city.