‘Disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent from the histories we write’ observed Douglas Baynton in 2001. Of course, since then historians have begun to fill this lacuna and disability history has burgeoned, especially here at Swansea University.
Baynton’s argument that disability is everywhere in history carries particular resonance for me as throughout my research into the poor laws between 1834 and 1910, I have encountered numerous allusions to disabilities. Women defined as prostitutes were ‘diagnosed’ as feeble-minded and the possibility of ‘troublesome’ and ‘incorrigible’ workhouse inmates being admitted to a lunatic asylum was discussed. One child had been sent home from school because her teacher described her as ‘an idiot’ and a boy with epilepsy was removed from the poor law’s cottage homes as he required more attention than the home felt they could provide. Roman Catholic girls with physical or mental disabilities were regularly sent by Swansea Union to live in Nazareth House in Cardiff.
For the final chapter of my PhD thesis I have been exploring disability explicitly via the lives of children sent by the Swansea poor law union to the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Swansea and South Wales Institution for the Blind.
Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb
The education of deaf children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was dominated by the use of the ‘oral’ system, or training deaf children to speak and lip-read. This ‘triumph of Oralism’ had been endorsed in 1880 by the International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan and consequently sign language, also known as the manual method, was regarded as crude and inefficient. A Royal Commission in 1889 revealed that the manual system was used in 22 institutions, a combined system in 48, but the oral system was used in 507 institutions across Britain.
However, maybe because Benjamin Payne the principal of the Cambrian Institution was himself deaf, the oral system did not dominate teaching to such a degree. A report written in 1909 stated the Cambrian’s position: ‘oral teaching is given merely as an accomplishment, the authorities having no faith in its value as a means of communication’.
In 1868, a poor law inspector said of the Cambrian: ‘I consider that the institution though limited in its sphere and unambitious in its pretentions is well conducted, well superintended and likely to conduce to the happiness and advantage of the inmates’. What sort of future could a former inmate of this establishment expect? Evidence given by Benjamin Payne to the Royal Commission on the Blind and the Deaf & Dumb in 1889 (below) suggests that although tailoring for boys and dressmaking for girls headed the lists of occupations, there appears to be a wider range of career possibilities. As you can see there appears to be rather more for boys than for girls, which suggests that career prospects for deaf girls were as gendered as those of hearing girls.
One girl who became a dressmaker was Beatrice Isaac. In January 1893, William Isaac had applied to the Swansea Guardians for a grant to enable his 9 year old daughter Beatrice to become a boarder at the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.
In 1891 Beatrice was one of five sisters and one brother. The family would grow over the years and by 1911 a further four daughters had been born. William Isaac was a copper smelter and his wife Eleanor did not work (apart from looking after 11 children). They were not paupers, yet Beatrice’s time at the Cambrian Institution was subsidised by the Swansea Union. This was because new legislation in the Elementary Education Act of 1893 had extended compulsory elementary education to blind and deaf children.
Adelaide Perkins, one of Swansea Union’s ‘Lady Guardians’, inspected the Cambrian Institution in 1898 when four girls funded by the guardians were living there. She wrote a very favourable report about the institution and also mentioned that Beatrice was doing well in her studies. Adelaide Perkins talked specifically about the emphasis on sewing: ‘they do all their own needlework and help make their dresses, they are also taught fancy work, knitting and weaving’, but she was also highly complementary about the academic work of the children.
Many of the annual reports of the Cambrian Institution contain compositions and letters written by the pupils, although these sources need to be read with caution and are unlikely to be unmediated, they can help us build a picture of Beatrice’s life. A composition in the 1894 annual report by a 12 year old girl talks about girls going to the park and how Annie and Beatrice went to town and took pairs of boots to a Mr Wilson, probably a cobbler. This suggests that pupils could experience life outside its walls and, for me at least, it paints a picture of two girls on an errand, but also probably enjoying window shopping and companionship as well.
A longer letter from Beatrice appears in the 1900 annual report when she was 16. This was a lovely, chatty letter which tells us a lot about her family and her future plans. She was writing to her elder sister Mary Ann and brother-in-law Tom who live in London and appear to have a younger sister, Nellie, staying with them, who I think is around four years old. Another younger sister Katie who is about two, is reported to be home from hospital. Beatrice also wrote that her mother and elder sister Jane came to visit her recently and that Jane’s baby had a bad cold. She also hinted (strongly!) that she would love to come and visit her sister and her husband in London. She was looking forward to Christmas and a prize-giving with prizes for being ‘well behaved, for being best sewer, for being good conduct, and for being the best in school’. She said that the girls go for a walk every day except Monday and Saturday and wrote that she wanted to become ‘a tailoress or dressmaker’.
Another report by Adelaide Perkins concurred with Beatrice’s hope. Mrs Perkins recommended that Beatrice and Elizabeth Phillips stay on another year as she was very pleased with the girls’ appearance and described them as looking ‘bright, happy and intelligent’. The girls’ needlework was inspected and praised and thought to be a means of earning their own livelihood.
Beatrice did become a dressmaker. As the 1911 census shows, both Beatrice and her sister were self-employed dressmakers living at home. In fact, eight of the children were still at home with their parents and little Nellie, now 15, appears to personify 20th century modernity as a typist. Were Beatrice’s expectations lowered by the Cambrian Institution? Would she have earned her living by different means if dressmaking had not been foregrounded at the school? Were dressmaking and tailoring the deaf equivalent of the ‘blind trades’? I would love to hear your comments, please get in touch.
Royal Commission on the Blind and the Deaf & Dumb, &c, 1889.
Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act 1893.
The National Archives, ED 224/18, 30 October 1909.
Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb: Annual Reports, available in Swansea Central Library.
West Glamorgan Archives Service, Swansea Guardians’ minutes of meetings. The archives also houses minutes books and letter-books from the Cambrian institution.
Douglas C. Baynton, ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’, in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, eds. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, 33-57 (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
Paddy Ladd, Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2003).