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Howarth, Alexander Ritchie (1909–1999)

by Peter Howarth

In 1932 he was appointed manager of OPSM's first branch, at 235 Macquarie St, Sydney, and gave the next 48 years to the company which now has more than 250 branches in Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Alexander Howarth had died at the age of 90.

Because of the impact which Howarth had on the company's growth, success and management, he became known as Mr. OPSM.

Alexander Ritchie Howarth was born at Lismore, in northern NSW, of north English and Scottish parents. The family moved to Sydney in 1929.

To survive during the Depression, while he was studying to become an optometrist, Howarth dusted shelves in Spicers' warehouse in Woolloomooloo.

When he graduated in 1932, he intended to open his own business in Newcastle, but was persuaded to take the position of manager of OPSM's first store.

Immediately before 1929 Australia was quite prosperous. However, even though the cost of material used for spectacle frames and lenses had fallen as the result of improved techniques developed during and after the war, optometrists maintained high prices which the public had grown to accept.

Gordon Champion, an optometrist who owned a wholesale optical business, and Darcy Williams, an ophthalmologist, decided to work together to establish an efficient dispensing optical service. OPSM grew out of the need to offer the public quality and service at a competitive price.

Howarth was prevented from serving in World War II because OPSM's employees were classified as being in a 'reserved occupation'.

The company was making lenses for range-finders for Australian land cruiser tank guns, landing lights for aircraft, and had contracted with the US Navy to carry out all its optical equipment repairs in Sydney. It also made and repaired spectacles for US and Australian servicemen. (These spectacles had to be designed to fit under gas masks.)

Work was never far from Howarth's mind, even on holiday. With marriage and a family of his own, the family's Surfers Paradise holidays followed a regular route from Sydney via the New England Highway, with the return trip along the Pacific Highway, so that Howarth could visit as many OPSM branches as possible along the way.

As well, Howarth had attended The Southporth School, in Queensland, and he always insisted the family had to visit the school in the course of the holiday.

Then he would reminisce about when he and his schoolmates had rowed across to Surfers Paradise before the bridge was built from Southport, and how they had swum nude on the 'deserted' Surfers Paradise beach.

Howarth was a keen tennis player, as was his wife Dottie, and they played regularly at White City for 50 years or more. He was also an enthusiastic surfer at Bondi, where he had lived when he first arrived in Sydney. But without doubt his great hobbies were literature and classical music and he possessed a vast knowledge of both.

A keen investor on the stock market, Howarth was a self-made man. He never borrowed money and was careful how he spent what his hard-earned labour had produced. This didn't prevent him from supporting numerous charities with donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars over recent years.

Howarth is survived by his son Peter, daughter Suzi, six grandchildren, and one great-grand-grandaughter. Dottie, and a son, Robert, predeceased him.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September 1999

Citation details

Peter Howarth, 'Howarth, Alexander Ritchie (1909–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/howarth-alexander-ritchie-22923/text32304, accessed 17 November 2019.

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