Were blind children the ‘preferred figures of disability in the Victorian imagination’ as Martha Holmes argues? Depictions in art such as The Blind Girl by John Millais, 1856 (below) suggests that representations of blindness did generate widespread Victorian sentimentality and pity, which in turn led to the establishment of specialist institutions for blind children and adults. The Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool was the first institution of its kind in Britain when it was founded in 1791 by Edward Rushton. By the end of the nineteenth century there were over 50 such institutions, which educated, employed and relieved over 1,000 people.
Pity was not the only motivating factor; it was feared that without suitable education and employment blind children could grow up to be a drain on the poor rates and dependent on the state. This poem, written in 1887, captures these motivations well:
Lonely blindness here can meet
Kindred woes and converse sweet;
Torpid once can learn to smile
Proudly o’er its useful toil.
‘Useful toil’ for blind people in the Victorian and Edwardian period (and beyond) generally meant the ‘Blind Trades’. This included basket weaving, brush making, rug weaving and piano tuning. Former Labour cabinet minister David Blunkett was apparently told the best career he could hope for was a piano tuner. Anne Borsay argues that blind and deaf Institutions ‘depressed the expectations of all their pupils’, but I wonder whether their expectations were depressed by society before any specialised education.
My research into pauper children in Swansea has revealed that the guardians of the poor paid for many blind pauper children to attend the Swansea and South Wales Institute for the Blind. Founded in 1865 as a society for teaching and helping adult blind people, a permanent home was established in Swansea in 1873. By 1884, the annual report related that there were 37 men, women and children either ‘learning some handicraft, working at their trade, or being educated in the schoolroom’.
Moses Rees – ‘a foundling’
Moses Rees was born blind, around 1873, and was abandoned by his mother as a baby. However, unlike many other orphans at that time he was not brought up in the workhouse or in cottage homes. The Swansea Guardians paid for him to be ‘boarded out’ or fostered with the Heffron family in Landore, a working-class area of Swansea. Happily, in the 1881 census, he was described as an ‘adopted son’ and his name was recorded as Moses Heffron Rees. He was one of eight children (5 boys and 3 girls) living at home ranging in ages from 26 down to 6. His adopted father was an engine driver in the nearby Hafod Copperworks.
Two years later in 1883, he became a boarder at the Swansea and South Wales Blind Institution. The Swansea Union paying for the necessary clothes and all tuition and boarding fees. An inspection of 1900 by Swansea guardians said that ‘too much cannot be said as to the necessities of this institution and we trust it will receive the support and encouragement that it merits. The public can help by buying baskets and mats. We may mention that we always buy for the Union’.
Below, from the Report of the Royal Commission on the Blind, the
Deaf and Dumb, &c., of the United Kingdom. 1889
Trades employed by institutions for the blind across the UK
Apart from his studies it is difficult to ‘reconstruct’ the life Moses would have led. I hope he would have enjoyed the annual picnic, when the children would join those from the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf (To be featured in a future post). In 1879, The Cambrian newspaper recorded that around 80 children were taken to the Gower Inn in Parkmill where they enjoyed a break from what was rather patronisingly described as their ‘somewhat monotonous life’. Music and singing were apparently popular pastimes in the institution for both children and adults. It was also thought that memorising hymns in particular would ‘cheer them in their affliction’. It is possible that Moses was a member of the choir as he must have shown some musical aptitude as in 1892 the Swansea guardians were asked to increase their contribution for Moses from 7 shillings to 11 shillings a week, to enable him to complete his musical training at another specialised institution.
Moses was sent to the Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind in Upper Norwood, South London. As the fees for the college were £60 a year it is likely that he was awarded a scholarship. In 1899 it was reported that several pupils had won scholarships to Norwood, leading to one becoming a teacher in South Shields and another teaching in the Swansea Institution. Moses went to Norwood to train as a piano tuner.
I’m not really sure whether Moses did earn his living as a piano tuner. Although both the 1901 and 1911 census gave his occupation as a pianoforte tuner, the annual reports for the Institution record him as being employed there as a basket maker and still living in Landore in 1912. At an inspection of the institution by the guardians in 1900, they reported that he was consumptive and was unable to earn much; his pay at that time was 3 shillings week and he also received four shillings a week from Swansea Union. This was increased to 6 shillings in 1907 after he had broken his leg.
Was Moses a ‘passive and grateful recipient’ of education for the blind as John Oliphant argues? He appears to have been offered opportunities, albeit ‘blind trades’ ones. He travelled to and spent time in London learning a new skill and he seems to have been considered as a son by his ‘adopted’ family. Unfortunately, his health was not too good, but he does appear to be among family when at home and with friends in the institution, while also earning money on his own account.
Swansea and South Wales Institute for the Blind Annual Reports can be consulted at Swansea Central Library.
Swansea Guardians’ minutes of meetings are available to consult at West Glamorgan Archives Service, Swansea.
Anne Borsay, Disability and Social Policy in Britain Since 1750: A History of Exclusion, Houndmills; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Martha Holmes, Fictions of Affliction, Physical Disability in Victorian Culture, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.
John Oliphant, ‘Empowerment and Debilitation in the Educational Experience of the Blind in Nineteenth-Century England and Scotland’, History of Education, 35: 1 (2006), 47-68.
Gordon Phillips The Blind in British Society: Charity, State and Community, c.1780-1930, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.