Ancestry UK

Institutions for Blind Children

The earliest charitable institution in England catering specifically for blind children was the School of Instruction for the Indigent Blind, established in Liverpool in 1791, with the blind poet and reformer Edward Rushton usually credited with having originated the idea. The pupils were taught manual skills such, as basket-weaving, and also received musical training, many going on to become church organists or instrument tuners. The establishment, now based at Wavertree, has become the Royal School for the Blind, Liverpool.

In the years following the opening of the Liverpool School, a number of broadly similar institutions were founded including Edinburgh's Asylum for the Industrious Blind (1793), Bristol's Asylum for the Blind (1793), London's School for the Indigent Blind (1799) and the Asylum and School for the Indigent Blind at Norwich (1805).

Institutions offering a broader education, in addition to purely vocational training, began to appear in the 1830s. The Yorkshire School for the Blind, founded at York in 1833, provided 'maintenance, and ordinary, musical, and industrial instruction for blind children of both sexes.'

Other establishments of the period included the London Society for Teaching the Blind to Read (1838), Henshaw's Blind Asylum at Manchester (1838), the Blind Asylum at Brighton (1839), and the General Institution for the Blind at Birmingham (1847). The London Society, now the London Society for Blind People, was founded by Thomas Lucas who invented an early form of embossed text, known as Lucas type, which could be read by fingertip touch.

The main provision for Roman Catholics was the Elementary Education School for Blind Children at Liverpool, founded in 1841. It offered 'an elementary education and instruction in those branches of industry which shall be found suitable to each pupil's capacity.'

The College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen, opened at Worcester in 1866, was the first higher education establishment for the blind. Its co-founder, the Rev. William Taylor, invented the Taylor Arithmetic Frame, a piece of apparatus used to help teach blind students arithmetic using numbers embossed onto movable pegs.

The Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act of 1893 made it obligatory for parents to ensure that such children receive a suitable education. In some cases, particularly in major urban areas such as London, this could be achieved by attendance at a special centre, often attached to an ordinary school. Alternative options offered by the London School Board included boarding out a child near a suitable centre, or paying the travelling expenses of an escort guide – usually a child attending the associated ordinary school. In 1902, the Board opened two residential schools providing older blind children with vocational training. Elm Court, at Tulse Hill, eventually housed about forty-five girls aged from 12 to 16. As well as ordinary education, half of the working week was spent in the technical teaching of subjects such as chair caning, basket work, knitting, sewing, rug making and typewriting. The girls also learned cooking and laundry work at one of the Board's domestic economy centres. The boys' home, Linden Lodge, at Wandsworth Common, accommodated forty boarders, with basket-making being the main skill taught.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind was founded in 1868 as the British and Foreign Blind Association for Improving the Embossed Literature of the Blind and was influential in the adoption of the Braille alphabet. However, it was not until 1918 that it opened the first of its Sunshine Homes at Chorleywood, Hertfordshire. The home, a residential nursery school, accommodated 25 two-to-five-year-olds whose home conditions were poor. In 1921, the Institute founded Chorleywood College, the first higher education establishment for blind girls, its opening coming 65 years after that of the boys' college at Worcester.