“We try to offer a caring, personal approach in practice”

As A J Rawling Opticians in Ipswich celebrates 100 years of business, the co-owners gave OT  a history of the practice, and their strong ties to patients and community

Catherine Sims and Emma Smith stand in the doorway of A J Rawling Opticians, both in patterned long dresses of blue and pink respectively. The practice is in a Tudor-style building, with green walls and long windows
"Our hope is to continue looking after the eye health of the people of Ipswich and the surrounding areas for many years,” the owners of A J Rawling Opticians told OT, as the practice celebrated a milestone 100-year anniversary.

The practice has seen through many challenging times for businesses on the High Street, and was this year shortlisted for the Independent Opticians of the Year 2023 award by Sightcare, the winners of which are announced in January.

Practice owners, Emma Smith and Catherine Sims, are also recognising 30 and 20 years respectively at the practice.

An old black and white photo of A J Rawling Opticians’ original location. A large oval sign hangs above the pavement with a painting of a large eye.
Many patients recall the sign that once hung above A J Rawling Opticians’ original site in the Buttermarket Ipswich

The practice journey

The practice was originally founded in Ipswich by Alfred John Rawling in 1923, as he expanded the portfolio of practices he held in Croydon, Maidstone, and Winchester.

“Opening a business in the 1920s, during the post-war depression, meant the practice struggled to succeed, and Alfred eventually signed the business over to a young optician who worked there, Kemble Williams, for nothing – in the hope that he could make a go of it,” the co-owners explained.

Williams did see the business turnaround as the UK came out of the period of economic downturn.

“He was a well-liked local character, and managed Rawlings for many years until his retirement,” the team shared.

Christopher Sims then took on the practice, modernising and orchestrating a move from its original site at 18 Buttermarket to Northgate Street in 1970, where it remains 53 years on.

“Many of our patients still remember our original Buttermarket practice and the distinctive eye sign that hung outside,” the owners said.

Emma Smith has been a part of A J Rawlings Opticians for 30 years, having joined the practice as a Saturday assistant, becoming full-time while training as a dispensing optician on day release.

“Her knowledge, experience, and warm and caring personality makes her a fantastic dispensing optician and one of the reasons so many patients return year after year to see her,” Sims said.

Sims’ daughter, Catherine, took on the practice in 2004. While initially she had been reluctant to join the ‘family business’, she agreed to a six-month trial, telling OT: “that was 20 years ago.”

The team said of their joint success: “We initially became friends at school aged 12 and went on holidays together as teenagers. Our success at running a business together for so many years is due, in part, to our strong friendship and willingness to support each other.”

Thanusha Soni wears a blouse and blazer and is testing the eyes of a patient, who is positioned in a slit lamp
Thanusha Soni, optometrist at A J Rawling Opticians, with a patient

A changing town, a close network

Ipswich has changed “dramatically” over the years, the co-owners explained: “It was once a thriving county town with many shoppers and visitors and streets full of shops – today it’s sadly a very different picture.”

“As footfall in the town decreases and more shops close, we do not know what the future hods and how much longer we will be able to retain a premises in the town,” they added.

While retaining its traditional appearance, the practice has embraced the latest technologies in eye care.

Despite the many changes experienced by the town, “this independent, family-run practice has survived so far due to its loyal patients, many of whom have been coming for generations, and some for more than 80 years – since they were children,” the team shared.

The team recognises many of the patients that come to the practice and goes above and beyond to provide support, they shared: “We deliver glasses if necessary, and have tried to help with finding lunch clubs or assistance for many of our elderly patients.

“If someone is going through a difficult time, or has lost a family member, we take the time to sit with them and talk. We try to offer a caring, personal approach in practice,” the team added. “We also have a really good relationship with our neighbouring residents and businesses and our community police officers.”

“Every day is different, meeting new people and bringing new challenges, which is a really enjoyable part of the job,” they said.

The draw of the practice isn’t limited to Ipswich however, with the team explaining: “Our hope is to continue for many years looking after the eye health of the people of Ipswich and the surrounding area. Some of our patients come from as far afield as Bangkok and Ecuador. They have moved away, but still want to come to us when they are back in the UK.”

Reflecting on the achievements of the practice, the co-owners said: “We both love our jobs, love Ipswich, and hope to be here for many years to come.”

“Although we have recently had to cope with forced closure due to the pandemic, and then the cost-of-living crisis that followed, we are proud to still be here offering our patients the same level of personal service and healthcare A J Rawling has always been known for,” they concluded.