OUR story towards the end of last year about the demolition of the former Vickers or Cooke’s factory in Haxby Road prompted two former Vickers workers to get in touch.

Alan Pennington, who started as an apprentice at the firm in 1953 and left in 1963, sent a wonderful photo of the inside of the machine shop. The machine shop foreman at the time he was there was Bob Young, he recalls. He also worked in the tool design office with Noel Close.

Meanwhile, Martin Dawson did two stints at the factory – the first between 1975 and 1980 when it was Vickers Instruments, the second from 1990 to 1992, when it was Bio-Rad.

Martin, who now works as an instrument technician for the army in York and who also looks after the 4” telescope at the York Observatory, admits to being disappointed at the way York’s tradition of optical instrument-making was allowed to wither.

“Both the management at Vickers Instruments and Bio-Rad did not do enough to create work,” he writes.

“The Haxby Road works was built on a great foundation of history (Thomas Cooke’s large telescopes, Captain Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910-11, The Shackleton-Rowett Expedition 1921-22, the great Primary Triangulation of Great Britain Survey of the 1930s) but after the 1970s, it was allowed to decline and wither away.

“If the likes of Carl Zeiss in Germany could survive, Vickers Instruments could have as well. I was sad at the demolition of the old works, but it did not just happen in 2008, it started years ago.”

York’s connection with optics goes all the way back to the astronomer John Goodricke who, in the 1780s, made his famous observations about variable stars – suggesting that the reason the distant star Algol varied in brightness may have been because a planet surrounding the star was eclipsing it periodically as it went round.

Then, in 1837, Thomas Cooke, a self-taught optical engineer, founded in York his own scientific instrument manufacturing business T Cooke & Sons. In 1855, he built a factory in Bishophill, where he made everything from spectacles and telescopes to sundials and clocks.

Cooke’s was bought by Vickers in 1915, although until 1963 it continued to trade as Cooke, Troughton and Simms. From 1963 to 1989, the firm was known as Vickers Instruments.

When Martin started with the firm as an apprentice in 1975, it employed 550 people. But looking back, he admits: “I feel my intake was at the end of an era.”

It wasn’t quite the end then, but as we have seen, it was not too far off.