Telescope family dynasties: Dollond / Ramsden

One evening we entertained my boss and his wife to dinner, at the time in the 1990s when I had just started in my quest to buy some original old telescopes. There were probably five of them on display on one of the dining room walls, so naturally he asked about them. It turned out that one of his extended family worked for Dollond & Aitchison, in the finance department at their Birmingham offices, and that led to hime producing a copy of this 1985 publication about the history of the firm – and also an invitation to visit their factory museum, which had good displays of several examples of most of the styles of Dollond telescopes – plus some from Aitchison as well!

Dollond & Aitchison was later absorbed into the Boots Group – in 2009 – and by 2015 the name of this famous chain of Opticians and Spectacle makers had disappeared from the High Street completely.

What I found of interest in particular was the account of the early days of the Dollond business, which was founded by John Dollond (the first) in 1750. In fact five generations of the Dollond family looked after this business, “steering the House of Dollond through the years of its greatest distinction”, until finally William Dollond sold it to a former employee, J R Chant, in 1871. The family tree presented in “Eyes Right” is shown below.

Of interest in this chart is that Susan Dollond became Susan Huggins, but her sons John and George joined the business, and eventually took over the business leadership…. so both branches decided to change their names back to the Dollond family name.

By the end of the Century the Dollond business had changed significantly, in that production was mainly devoted to field glasses, or binoculars, which had replaced telescopes – except in the Navy. In addition the major markets for Dollond were in Europe, and demand increased when supplying both sides in the Russo-Japanese war. Approaching the First World War the supply of optical glass from Europe became difficult. In 1927 the firm was ‘acquired’, and finally became Dollond and Aitchison. This changed the business emphasis into High Street shops dealing with photographic equipment and spectacles, and the Aitchison binoculars were added alongside the Dollond telescopes.

Jesse Ramsden – and his Successors

Jesse Ramsden, who appears in the Dollond family tree above, was born in Salterhebble, Yorkshire, where his father was an Innkeeper, but came to London and worked for telescope makers like Peter Dollond, George Adams and Jeremiah Sisson: he was also appointed as an associate of Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal. He started business on his own account in 1763 – having been a major part of the Dollond engineering team much of his initial work was probably as a sub-contractor for the Dollond company. Presumably also he had some arrangement that he could use the Dollond Patented achromatic objective lens designs. He married Sarah Dollond in 1766. The Ramsden business also had many notable apprentices, including William Cary. By 1772 he was working at 199 Piccadilly, with a workshop at #196. He was appointed FRS in 1786, and won the Copley Medal in 1792. When Jesse Ramsden died in 1800 his most senior employee Matthew Berge took over the business, and it continued at least until 1851, covering nearly 90 years of operations in total.

Jesse Ramsden 1763-1800

Matthew Berge 1800-1819

Worthington & Allan 1819 – 1834

Nathaniel Worthington 1834 – 1851

There are five stories showing Ramsden telescopes I have been able to acquire, some of which have needed a little renovation to the wood etc. These can be found using the search feature on this website.

Matthew Berge continued Jesse Ramsden’s business, working from the same address of 199 Piccadilly. He labelled his telescopes “Berge, Late Ramsden”, presumably out of respect, but also to trade on the famous name. He was said to have kept Ramsden’s Dividing Engine, but this might not have been true. He had an apprentice, and later an employee, called Nathaniel Worthington. Berge died in 1819, and Worthington took over the business, in partnership with James Allan.

There are many different models of Berge telescopes described in the renovation stories on this website: this reflects the large number I have been able to acquire, presumably because his name is not as well known as that of Ramsden, so the prices are not as high – but the Ramsden quality remained!

Worthington & Allan are recorded as operated as a new business ‘officially’ from 1821 onwards, operating from 196 Piccadilly, which had been Jesse Ramsden’s workshop premises (that therefore had been also in use by Matthew Berge). James Allan had been working in Fetter Lane, London, since 1802, making sextants and dividers, a business he had inherited from his father. This new partnership had the Ramsden Dividing engine, and operated until 1834, as from then the business was rune by Nathaniel Worthington alone.

There is only one story about a Worthington & Allan telescope restoration project on here: see

Worthington continued in this same optical business at the 196 Piccadilly premises, from 1835 right up until 1851, making sextants and telescopes. He therefore had worked there for around 50 years. There is currently no information as to who took over the activity, or if anyone did!

POSTSCRIPT: in one of those fascinating coincidences, the Professor at Lyon in France, called Prof Bruno Berge, was the inventor of the liquid lens technique that enabled iPads and similar devices to create the electronically focussed and “focal length adjusted” optical systems used in the cameras in these devices. No relation! See the story published in 2013 on here,


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