British binoculars from the 1950s and 1960s

A selection of British binoculars from 1946 to 1975
A selection of British binoculars from 1946 to 1975: (Top to bottom) Barr & Stroud CF18 (1946), Ross Stepruva (1957), Ross Solaross (1975), Ross Enbeeco (1960).

British made binoculars from the 1950s and 1960s are the best kept vintage secret. At the time firms such as Ross, Barr & Stroud and Wray struggled to compete against Japanese imports. They turned out well-made binoculars which were just too expensive in the highly competitive market.

Today, collectors focus on military binoculars or German made Zeiss binoculars. British made civilian binoculars from this era are largely ignored. Most benefit from coated lenses, a significant advance over pre-war glasses, and can offer top quality optics at bargain basement prices.

Bird watchers and amateur astronomers are starting to realise this and forums are beginning to buzz with questions about Ross Stepruvas or Barr & Stroud CF18s.

Grab yourself a bargain now, whilst they are still cheap!

Brief history

In the war years, UK binocular manufacturers concentrated exclusively on making military equipment. After the war they quickly switched back to civilian production. Most produced slightly updated version of pre-war models.

At the time, British made binoculars were an important part of our export drive and a Barr & Stroud binocular, the CF18, was chosen for the Britain Can Make It Exhibition in 1946. Unlike other exhibits, the Barr & Stroud binocular was not a new product. The company first introduced the design in 1929.

Barr and Stroud CF18 binocular, 1946
Barr and Stroud CF18 binocular, 1946

In the late 1940s British manufacturers enjoyed a modest boom as other countries, particularly their main competitors in Germany, were not in a fit state to market products effectively. The market-leading German firm of Zeiss found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. However, American soldiers helped some Zeiss personnel to escape to the West before new boundaries were drawn. Two rival Zeiss firms set up in business, one in the GDR and one in West Germany.

The British firms, Ross, Wray, Barr & Stroud and Kershaw concentrated, as they always had, on the top end of the market, producing high quality binoculars with prices to match.

They did little to push home their advantage over Zeiss and for the most part continued with pre-war designs. One modification they did make was to upgrade old designs with coated lenses. This was a Zeiss invention from 1939. It reduced unwanted reflection in the binocular and allowed the maximum amount of light to reach the eye.

In the 1950s and into the early 1960s binoculars were an exclusive and expensive product. In the 1960s only 0.2% of families had a pair (1). Whilst 20% of families had cameras, 20% had telephones and more than 75% had televisions.

There were some attempts to widen ownership by British firms. Both Ross and Wray launched cheaper ranges in 1957, the Ross Solaross and the Wray Wrayvu. Both ranges started at around £20. Before then you needed to pay much more for entry level binoculars by the top UK firms.

New owners of the Solaross got quality optics and a luxury velvet lined leather case. The binoculars were lightweight with more plastic parts than other Ross models.

Ross Solaross binoculars introduced 1957
Ross Solaross binoculars introduced 1957. Solaross was an attempt by Ross to get into the cheaper end of the market.

Both Ross and Wray benefited from these new models and saw sales and profits rise. There was clearly a demand for cheaper glasses. In the 1950s and early 1960s this demand was met by French imports and by MOD surplus binoculars.

Barr & Stroud and Ross competed against their own products on the military surplus market. Glasgow-based retailer Charles Frank offered ex-military Ross 7x50 binoculars for £16 to £21. Frank stocked the civilian version of the same binocular, the Steplux, for £55 2s 4d.

The Consumer's Association Magazine, Which?, reviewed binoculars twice in the 1960s; in 1960 and again in 1969. In both reports they concluded that quality was proportional to price. British manufacturers were getting the quality right. Which?, never made allowances for home produced products, but praised the Wrayvu and Solaross in 1960 and gave the Barr & Stroud CF18 and CF24 binoculars best buy status in the most expensive category £35 to £50.

However, the sweet spot in the market was at the £20 level. With the growth in leisure and foreign travel, more and more people wanted binoculars, but could not afford British products. What the UK market wanted was slightly lower quality optics for a much cheaper price. In 1965 British consumers got their chance when the UK Government lifted restrictions on the import of Japanese binoculars.

The Japanese binocular industry had risen from nothing in 1945 to a world class standard by 1965. The Germans had been less worried about Japanese imports, but by 1963, 82% of all binoculars sold in West Germany were made in Japan. UK makers did not stand a chance.

Japanese made glasses were good quality. The Japanese Government carefully controlled the quality of exported goods and only those which earned the 'JL' symbol of quality were allowed to export. A favourable exchange rate also helped.

Initially Japanese binoculars were sold anonymously as 'Binoculars from Japan'. You could get an 8x40 binocular made by a good Japanese maker for £17 17 6d in 1966. No quality UK glasses were anywhere near this price. By the end of the decade names like Swift, Asahi Pentax, Canon, Yashica and Tasco were well known to British consumers.

One by one British manufacturers went out of business. Barr & Stroud ceased the manufacture of binoculars in 1971, preferring to concentrate on defence contracts, Wray also bowed out in 1971. Ross soldiered on until 1975, when the factory in Clapham finally closed.

The main reason why British manufacturers did not succeed was that they failed to provide the quality the market wanted at the price it wanted to pay. This does not mean that they did not make not excellent binoculars.

Today you can buy vintage British binoculars from the 1950s and 1960s at rock bottom prices. There is little interest from collectors, but bird watchers and amateur astronomers have already realised the potential of British made binoculars from this era.

If you are after top quality optics at reasonable prices then search for Ross, Wray, Kershaw and Barr & Stroud products on eBay. You might still find them going for just a few pounds at a car boot sale or charity shop.

Manufacturers and retailers

UK manufacturers

Wray was a subsidiary of Dollond & Aitchison until 1962 when it was sold off. Wray was originally set up to manufacture binoculars for Aitchison, which had contracts with the UK military in World War I. Aitchison merged with Dollond in 1927 to become Dollond & Aitchison.

UK retailers

Retailers, as well as manufacturers, added their brand names to binoculars in the UK market.

Dollonds

Dollonds was the photographic arm of the opticians Dollond & Aitchison. It was a major retailer of photographic equipment in the 1950s and 1960s. They had their own brand 'Dollond' binoculars. In the 1950s and early 1960s 'Dollond' binoculars were probably manufactured by Wray, which was a subsidiary. Dollonds sold binoculars from other makers including Zeiss, Ross, and Barr & Stroud.

Denhill

Denhill was the brand name of J A Davis & Sons Ltd of Denmark Hill, London SE5. The name came from the address. Denhill was an importer of European-made binoculars. The binoculars were made in France and Germany. They were branded Denhill and sold in the UK. The well-known sports commentator, Raymond Glendenning, put is name to Denhill's advertising.

Read more about Denhill binoculars

Dixons

Dixons started as a photographic studio before the Second World War. In the 1950s Dixons started to sell photographic equipment by mail order. They mainly sold binoculars under the Prinz brand

Charles Frank

Charles Frank from Glasgow was another large UK retailer of binoculars. They stocked a whole range of binoculars from some of the cheapest Hong Kong-made imports and ex-military binoculars, to the most expensive models. In the second half of the 1960s Charles Frank imported binoculars from Japan under the brand name Frank-Nipole.

Binoculars from Japan

From being almost unknown to the British public in 1965, a large number of Japanese manufacturers were selling binoculars by the end of the 1960s. The following list is of Japanese makers selling binoculars in the UK in 1969:

Source: Which? published 5 June 1969 and contemporary advertisements.

Read more about vintage Japanese binoculars

Values

Binoculars in working condition, free from major faults and good cosmetic condition:

Shop on eBay for:

Top tips

Avoid binoculars with optical faults

Avoid binoculars with any of the following problems:

Many of these faults are listed by eBay sellers; I would avoid these and look for binoculars with no faults. These faults will be expensive or impossible to fix, unless you are an expert.

Read more

References

(1) The Times, March 1967

By Steven Braggs, May 2014

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David Astill
I have purchased a pair of Scope custom 10 x 50. Model no: 3912 No: B- 450179. Optics are excellent. Can anyone tell me about this company... when this pair could have been made? Thanks David
William Angel
Hi I have a pair of binoculars says British made on one side the other is vismax 8x30 Can you tell me what metal their made of and the year please Very clear lenses what's the value please Thks William Angel
William Angel
Hi William, Sorry this isn't a brand that I've seen before. Look at a few pictures on google I would say they are made in the 1950s. I guess it's an alloy case. Zeiss used an aluminium alloy on WWII German binoculars and they are very light. The weight might be a clue. As to value probably £20 to £30. best regards Steven
William Angel
Hi William, Sorry this isn't a brand that I've seen before. I've had a look at a few pictures on google. I would say they are made in the 1950s. I guess they have an alloy case. Zeiss used an aluminium alloy on WWII German binoculars and they are very light. The weight might be a clue. As to value probably £20 to £30. best regards Steven
Robert Baxter
I have just purchased an "As New" pair of Greenkat Kestrel 8.5 X 50 Bak 4 Prism binos. on the bottom hinge cover it is marked Japan J-B133 W9957 Tripod Mount, they are immaculate! Can anybody tell what year they were made from this info please?
 
 

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