Chapter 6

Diachronic Study 1:

A Study of the English “Art” Education of the Blind Prior to the 1981 Education Act[1]




Everything Changes. You can make

A fresh start with your final breath.

But what has happened has happened. And the water

You once poured into the wine cannot be

Drained off again.

What has happened has happened. The water

You once poured into the wine cannot be

Drained off again, but

Everything changes. You can make

A fresh start with your final breath.

Berthold Brecht (1979: p .400)




Aims and objectives of this section and chapter

            The aims of this section are to investigate:

  1. The cultural and social nature of the history of education of the blind[2] in England.
  2. Any qualities of English education of the blind, and its social influences, that excluded students who were blind from art education.
  3. The nature of the introduction on the 1981 Act.


The objectives of this section are to:

  1. Investigate evidence concerning the initial hypothesis which states that socially and culturally influenced educational policies affect the behaviour of students who are blind in art educational tasks.
  2. To investigate the difference and origins of the education of the blind affecting art tasks before the 1981 Act in order to investigate the reasons why the students researched in the previous study (Hayhoe 1995, 1995b, 2000) were excluded from art education whilst at school.


The background to this section

            In chapter 3 the concept of the semiotic model of analysis that was to be used as an analytical tool in this study was introduced. This model has two elements: the first is the synchronic analysis of social phenomenon in slices of time; the second is the analysis of the development of social phenomenon through time.


This section, through its three chapters presents an analysis of the diachronic nature of the social and cultural development of art tasks and the curriculum of the education of the blind throughout its two hundred year history in England prior to the 1981 Act. A diagrammatic illustration of this exercise is presented in diagram 6.1 below. This diagram shows the time line from the beginning of the earliest asylums in England to the current day in red. It is the difference in the nature of education of the blind either side of the black horizontal bisection of the 1981 Act, and the social and cultural reasons and nature of its change that this study examines in particular.


Diagram 6.1: Diagram illustrating the diachronic analysis of the theory of art for people who are blind in red








Adapted from Ferdinand de Saussure (1972)


In this chapter this study discusses the cultural attitudes that influenced the education of the blind in England, and the social factors that affected them. This analysis is split into the following 3 segments:

  • The introduction of education of the blind in England.
  • The role of handcraft in the education of the blind.
  • Conclusion


In the following two chapters this section will investigate the nature of aesthetic development in the education of the blind and the nature of the introduction of the 1981 Act. We now continue this chapter however with an analysis of the history.


The introduction of education of the blind in England


The first two English asylums represent the second (in Liverpool in 1791) and fourth (in Bristol in 1793) institutions in the world for the education of the blind, and their curriculum appears to have been copied by asylums which were introduced in England after this period until the second half of the nineteenth century. These curricula appear to be heavily influenced by vocational training of students into the twentieth century (Warnock, 1978, Illingworth, 1910).


The Paris Institute, which was conceived in its earliest form in 1784 (Illingworth, 1910; Braddock & Parish, 2001), was the first institution in the world to undertake the education of the blind, whilst the Edinburgh Asylum was the third in early 1793. What follows is a discussion of the nature of the influences on the formation of these English asylums.


The original theories on which the education of the blind was founded in England

It seems that the first formal proposal for separate education of the blind was published in an open letter to the Edinburgh Magazine and Review in the 1770s, by an anonymous author signing himself only Demodocus (1774). In this letter the author drew from the philosophies of Denis Diderot[3], Edward Sanderson – a mathematician who was blind and who was originally sponsored at Cambridge University by Isaac Newton (del Tufo, 2005) – Berkeley, and Locke’s earlier debate with Molyneux and Newton on the nature of perception, religion, visions and touch (see appendix 6). This debate itself seemed to be a scientific investigation on the nature of perception.


Drawing on examples of perceptual studies presented in Denis Diderot’s (2001) Letter on the Blind, Demodocus, himself blind, also appeared to observe the increasing amount of beggars who were blind, and unable to find a place in society.  Consequently he seemed to want to make the cause of the population who were blind a human cause. Demodocus justified his case with scientific arguments, and presented examples of people who were blind and successful in academic and social fields.


As a result, Demodocus averred that the blind were victims, whose ability was misunderstood and whose circumstances could only be rectified through a balanced system of education. This, he felt, would allow the students to be both enlightened intellectually and provide them with a trade at leaving age, thus lessening their chances of poverty later in life. The excerpt from his letter below illustrates this element of his conclusion.

[The] blind were objects of compassion, because their spheres of action and observation were limited … The most important view, therefore, which we can entertain in the education of the person deprived of sight, is to redress, as effectually as possible, the natural disadvantages with which he (sic.) is encumbered; or, in other words, to enlarge as far as possible his sphere of knowledge and activity. This can only be done by the improvement of his intellectual imagination and mechanical powers, and which of these ought to be most assiduously cultivated, the genius of every individual alone can determine…

‘That if one sense should be suppressed,

it but retires into the rest.’”

Demodocus (1774: p.676)


Demodocus’ letter was followed in 1786 by an essay of Valentin Hauy (1889), the French translator, educationalist and social reformer, who two years earlier founded the original Paris Institute – although at this point it was just a small school in his house. Appearing to use similar sources of intellectual inspiration, Hauy also drew upon the earlier works of John Locke, George Berkeley and Denis Diderot in his essay.


Hauy’s essay, however, seemed to differ from Demodocus’ in terms of its emphasis. His essay draws more from Diderot’s ideas of the moral purity of people who are blind, rather than the scientific nature of perception. According to William Paulson (1987) this emphasis led to the pursuance of education as a political moral exercise as well as an intellectual one.


It also appears to be an important factor in the history of the education of the blind that Hauy also dedicated his essay to King Louis XVI (Hauy, 1889), then the king of France. According to Norman Jay (1994) and Paulson (1987) this pursuance of the King’s approval was Hauy’s attempt to secure royal patronage for his institute and therefore ultimately led to the linking of the first institutes for the blind in continental Europe with other popular royal causes and charitable works. In Britain, however, this notion of charitable foundation appeared to differ. It is to this notion that this segment now turns.


The influences on the first English asylums

            Although drawing from the intellectual experiences of Hauy in their early literature (Hayhoe, 1995, 1995b, 2000; Illingworth, 1910; le Cue, 1992) English asylums were founded without government influence or funding. English and Scottish port cities such as Liverpool, Bristol and Edinburgh were to be key locations for developing the first asylums for the blind, and these initial locations had an influence on the attitudes held towards people who were blind and their curricula, primarily for two reasons.


The first reason appears to be financial. These ports were wealthy cities. Commodities such as slaves, sugar, chocolate and cotton were imported, and home grown commodities such as coal, iron and wool were exported from them, providing substantial profit and employment (Porter, 1997). This would have allowed the cities’ merchants surplus funds with which to finance projects such as asylums.


It also appears that the wealth of these port cities attracted beggars who were blind, and who knew they were more likely to earn a more lucrative living from those with extra funds to spare. For example the register from the Bristol Asylum, beginning in 1793, describes students from other areas in the West Country and from other parts of Britain and Ireland lodged at the asylum after being taken in from the streets as beggars (sees excerpts from this register in appendix 6).


The second reason is related to the causes of blindness in the eighteenth century. It could be suggested that, as today, port cities would have been more likely to have carried the diseases which caused blindness, such as syphilis. - It is thought that this could have led to a sense of people who were blind as immoral and sexually deviant (Del Tufo, 2005). - According to Roy Porter (1997) the first European syphilis epidemic began during conflict between French and Spanish armies in Italy during the fifteenth century.


Porter (1997) continues that prostitutes followed these two armies’ camps (hence their moniker, camp followers) and then moved on, having sex with soldiers in further areas of conflict and encampments throughout Europe. This epidemic spread across borders and through ports over the course of the following centuries. By the end of the eighteenth century, as Porter suggests, syphilis had become a major cause of blindness and mental illness in Britain and other European countries. This appears to have changed little until the widespread use of antibiotics in the first half of the twentieth century (Stanier et al, 1987; Scholl in Del Tufo, 2005[4]).


It was the large port cities and industrial areas in particular, therefore, that would have sizeable populations of sexually active single men in the military and merchant navies, who were far away from their wives and mistresses[5]. The likelihood of contracting diseases from a range of other countries in these cities was therefore increased. This chapter continues by examining evidence about the influence of these factors on the curricula of the asylums.


The development of a curriculum in the asylums


Evidence exists to show that the earliest asylums in England favoured the production of commercial handcrafts as the main tasks of their curriculum (le Cue, 1992; Howe, 1833; Bristol Asylum, 1799). As the original research on which this study is founded (Hayhoe, 1995, 1995b, 2000) identifies the use of handcrafts by its subjects as their only form of craft or art education, this chapter will continue by focusing its examinations of factors that led this commercial art to be pursued to the exclusion of the fine arts.


The handcrafts that were the basis of the original education of the blind appear to have been based on simple, repetitive tasks, which did not demand intellectual skills but a significant amount of close, intricate skills, such as cane weaving baskets and chairs for men, and simple cross stitch for women. Hayhoe[6] (1995, 1995b, 2004a, 2004b, 2005) also suggests that this form of handcraft in particular was derived from two principles:

  1. morality in behaviour and the abandonment of indolence, and
  2. a need to generate funds

Each of these principles is now investigated under individual subheadings. This is followed by an examination of how this form of training developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries prior to the 1981 act.


The role of morality in behavioural control, the division of the curriculum and working hours in England

The original asylums in England were founded on Christian principles. The Bristolian asylum was founded by a Quaker foundation, led by Bath & Fox, and the Liverpudlian asylum was founded with the help of Unitarian and Anglican ministers. In Scotland a similar pattern appeared to have existed in Edinburgh, whose institution was founded by a Presbyterian foundation, some of whom were blind, and included a Presbyterian cleric (RBSA, 1992). This appears to have influenced the asylums’ moral outlooks.


For instance, a poem from the report of the Bristol Asylum (1799) at the end of the eighteenth century (see appendix 6) and an excerpt from Bonners’ Journal from 1792 (also found in appendix 6), describing the foundation of the asylum seems to suggest that the founders of the asylum found it deplorable and unfortunate that people who were blind and “stricken” by poverty were to be found in a Christian Bristol community, and should be pitied. This poem also suggests that in this condition these people, prior to the introduction of the asylum, were useless.


Furthermore, the poem continues, because they had low or no sight they could not examine the “wondrous works of nature or art” which, they appear to aver, would enrich their lives and allow them to see the wonders of God. As a result they had to work hard in repetitive labour in order to qualify for the morality that was otherwise denied to them.


According to Ritchie Hunter (2002) a similar disdain of indolence and a belief in orally learning the Bible appeared to be demonstrated by the founders of Liverpool Asylum, some of whom were also blind. Such tasks featured in discussions of the liberal debating association in which they met. In addition, correspondence between the founders of the asylum (Royden, 2003) appears to show sympathy and pity for the plight of what they felt were the “poor blind.”


A moral cure for the plight of those who were blind, one of the founders Edward Rushton suggested, would be to employ them in work so that they might find some form of happiness. In the excerpt from the correspondence printed below, it is emphasised that there appears to be no worse fate than to be unable to work, to be “indigent”[7].

How piteous then is blindness! The face of the country, with all its various beauties; the town, with its docks, piers, and stately edifices; the aspects of his (sic.) friends, of his dearest relatives, of his partner and his prattling offspring, are all to him a blank - are all involved in a mass of thick black clouds, which no summer's heat can dissolve, nor wintry storms disperse. How deplorable then is such an existence! Even with a competence, how cheerless! But with indigence, how dreadful!

Letter by Edward Rushton, founder of the Liverpool Asylum, to his colleague John Christie, a surgeon in Liverpool, 1790 (Royden, 2003: No page number available)


E. P. Thompson (2001) feels that such a moral disdain of poverty did not appear to be restricted to Bristol and Liverpool. It seemed to be a general feature in England during this period, a time of social and industrial change. He suggests that as a result of civil unrest and the large movement of people from the countryside to the cities, the number of beggars was rapidly increasing in all areas of the country at the end of the eighteenth century. As a result he finds that in this period the cult of the “blind beggar” emerged. Although still associated with criminals and prostitutes, the “blind beggar” rose above their status and became not so much a figure of loathing but one of pity.

 A blind man can get a guide at any place, because they know he’s sure to get something.

Thompson (2001: p.293)


Similarly Thompson (1991) also suggests that, whether or not society was becoming over-run by sexual immorality and crime, there was a general perception of this factor. In his review of historical literature and surveys on the working class at the end of the eighteenth century, he finds it was reported that prostitution and crime were rife.


For instance, Thompson observes that government reports from the late eighteenth century stated that as many as one in ten of the population of London were harlots and criminals. However on closer inspection, he finds, it is established that the classification of prostitutes included single mothers and unmarried women living with single men.


Accompanying the notion of the power of commercial handwork to cure indolence in those who were blind in the late eighteenth century, Hayhoe (1995, 1995b) found that there appeared to be a belief that immorality should be met with a rigid code of behavioural control in the asylums. Furthermore, Hayhoe also stated that evidence also implied that docility should be achieved by the recital of biblical texts and hymn singing during working hours.


This is similar to other education promoted by middle class philanthropists in schools for working class, “able bodied” students (Lawson & Silver, 1973). However it appears that the emphasis placed on work, the bible and morality was stronger in asylums, where the working hours were longer, and the moral cure more “necessary”.


For instance the register of the Bristol Asylum, which was first recorded in 1793, shows that sexual behaviour was strongly discouraged in the early asylums even between those of marrying age. The excerpt from the register of the Bristol asylum re-printed in appendix 6 shows that students had been expelled from the asylum for conducting such physical relationships, and as a result their potential livelihood from the trade that they practiced there was denied them.


In contrast to its expulsions for what was considered to be immoral behaviour, the register of the Bristol Asylum (see appendix 6) also appears to show the rewards of hard work, diligence and docility in its training course. In this register it particularly likened the students of the asylum to its family, and emphasised the loyalty of the asylum to this family. This appeared to be reciprocated by its students. There are particular instances in this register, for example, of students coming back to teach in the asylum or visit. Other entries tell of the love of the asylum for the students, and follow their progress to their retirement and eventual death.


Under the following sub heading this segment continues by examining the progress of the use of handcrafts in the nineteenth century.


The use of handcrafts and the working hours in English institutions in the nineteenth century

            Evidence from the early nineteenth century appears to suggest a continuance, even a firming, of the moral attitudes and its effect on the curriculum of English asylums. For instance approaching the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, the annual report of the Bristol Asylum (1838; Hayhoe, 1995, 1995b) notes how its students, or what it referred to as its inmates, had become happy and “docile” through hard working days of weaving and what it refers to as “mechanical arts”. As a result, it felt that its students’ minds were thus becoming more cultivated, in the way that the person with sight gains knowledge from works of art or academic knowledge.


Similarly in the same decade the American educationalist and phrenologist[8] Howe[9] (1833), concluded that whilst the French system focused too much on literature at the expense of providing a trade, the English system too often emphasised training for trade, and indeed excessive working hours of training, at the expense of any form of literature or academic education. As a result Howe (1833) stated that he would prefer the Scottish model to be employed in his own asylum in Boston, as he felt it provided a more even balance of the observance of biblical texts and of trade.


Literacy was eventually introduced into English education of the blind in 1835 in an institution for the blind in Yorkshire (Taylor, 1828; Warnock et. al, 1978), although this remained regional. However, even with its national introduction through what is now the National Institute for the Blind (NIB) and its accompanying school The Normal College and Academy of Music in the 1860s (Thomas, 1936; Wolf, 1992), an emphasis was still placed on the use of handcrafts.


The founder of this institute, the Austrian trained physician Armitage who had become blind, had been impressed by the academic education provided by continental European institutions, particularly in his former home Vienna. Nevertheless, he still appeared to feel society should guard against the indolence of people who were blind, and maintain schools for the blind as principally centres for commercial training. He thus stated:

Training and employment [are] priorities.

Wolf (1992: p.4)  


Other new institutions appearing in the mid-nineteenth century also appear to emphasise that craft education was restricted to working or under class students who were blind. The only institution in England that did not pursue a vocational crafts curriculum of any form was an independent school, founded for the education of children of the professional middle classes, Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen. This school, founded by an Anglican minister, Blair, who was also a master at the local Headmasters’ Conference (HMC) registered Kings’ School, in 1867 (Craze, 1972).


A similar class differentiation was present in “mainstream” charity run schools for “the poor” in this period (Lawson & Silver, 1973). However, it again appeared that this class distinction was not as great as it was between those in academic, middle class schools and asylums. Thus, the asylums appeared to have longer working hours and a more intense, boarding vocational curriculum. There is also no evidence to suggest that “mainstream” schools for “the poor” were maintained by sales of goods as mainstream schools were. Therefore it appears that class was of a particular issue amongst students who were blind in the nineteenth century.


Evidence also exists that Worcester College was the only school to seriously consider a mainstream academic education for students as the aim for all of its students on entry (Worcester College, 1879). This continued until the twentieth century, when its administration was taken over by the RNIB and is now called New College, Worcester (Wolf, 1992; Glanville Smith et al, 1982).


The legacy of Worcester College’s independent foundation continues to exist at New College, as it still sends its principal to the HMC. However, similar to other charitable schools developed in this era, visual arts did not enter its curriculum until after 1981, with only music and literature favoured as forms of creative activity before this period (Fletcher, 1984).


The next segment continues underneath by examining the more immediate financial incentives handcrafts could bring to their asylums and the later development of handcrafts.


Financial incentives and the later evolution of handcrafts in schools for the blind


An examination of fundraising at institutions for the blind in England

There appears to be evidence that in the early asylums in western Europe, including England, there was an emphasis on handcraft tasks for the purpose of raising money to fund asylums. For instance early reports of the asylums in Bristol and Edinburgh feature the accounts from sales of goods from the students.


These sales supplemented the small donations that the communities of the students were asked to provide (le Cue, 1992; RBAS, 1993; Bristol Asylum, 1801; Hayhoe, 1995, 1995b). These accounts in particular listed the individual craft products that were manufactured, their cost of materials and the net profit derived from their sale.


Similar attitudes towards the production of goods to help in the financing of institutions were also commented upon by an educator and administrator in the Paris Institute named Guille (1819). He stated that the example of the British asylums in maintaining their buildings through this additional source of income should be employed by the Paris Institute, which was struggling to raise funds to stay in existence.


Guille (1819; Paulson, 1986) had earlier disagreed with the founder of the institute, Hauy, from an early period and argued that the Institute should be more focused on vocational training. This factor seems to have been particularly important after the French revolution, as the state funding for the institute had been withdrawn after the abandonment of the monarchy, as it was a favoured charity of the king.


The funding of institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

            Evidence also exists that this pursuit of profit not only appears to have been a characteristic of the early asylums, it was also evident in England throughout the nineteenth century (Bristol Asylum, 1838; Bristol School for the Blind, 1887; Liverpool School for the Blind, 1848). Furthermore “factories for the blind”, which derived from the regional asylums and later local societies, were later founded in the nineteenth century to provide employment for students of the asylums. This appeared to ensure their continued income and a profit for the local societies and institutions. Such factories still existed in England until the last decade of the twentieth century[10] (le Cue, 1992).


Finally further evidence from annual reports during the nineteenth century and their accounts, appear to suggest that not only were students encouraged to pursue vocational training, they were also defined by these traits in their schools. For instance in the report of the Liverpool Asylum (1849) from the mid nineteenth century, each student is listed and their trade described.


Nowhere in the report, however, are their other educational accomplishments mentioned. In this report it is noticeable also that the students are found in the school “employed” at their trade rather than studying. This seems to further emphasise the money generating qualities of their work, which is marked in the excerpt from the report of Liverpool Asylum shown below.

               [Sami], of the Parish of Sutton, Cheshire, aged 22 years, is boarded and lodged in the school, and employed at basket making...

               [Jo], of the Parish of Toxteth Park, Lancashire, aged 12 years, is boarded and lodged at the school, and employed at sewing...

Liverpool School for the Blind (1849: p.7)


There is further evidence to suggest that the focus on vocational and literary education in England continued in many schools for the blind into the twentieth century, and that the sale of goods was a strong motivational influence. For instance, a report from the Bristol School of Industry for the Blind (1908) – formerly the Bristol Asylum - in the first decade of the twentieth century described one of what it referred to as its regular exhibitions and sales of its work.


The sale of crafts, it stated, played a role in supporting the Bristol School, this in turn gave extra impetus to the vocational, cognitive training of crafts. This commercial self-sufficiency appeared to be further reinforced by no mention in the exhibition notes of the aesthetic qualities or gratification of the students' craft production.


The list of crafts on sale in the Bristolian catalogue, all created by the school's students, also reflected the crafts being taught in the Bristol School at the time. These appear to be dominated by those which were introduced at its inception, such as chair caning, and mat and basket weaving. W. H. Illingworth (1910) also reflects that many similar sales of work in many schools for the blind were held throughout England in this period. For instance in The Education of the Blind’s appendices he features many adverts from schools advertising similar sales of wares.


Correspondence to the Bristol school from the US also demonstrates the influence of the emphasis on handcrafts in traditional English education, almost 150 years after its inception. For instance this emphasis on training and acclimatisation to long working hours at the expense of literature appears to have been witnessed first hand by the director of the Perkins Institute, formerly the Boston Asylum, in 1930.


In his letter (re-printed in part in appendix 6) to the head of the Bristol School of Industry for the Blind, the principal indicates a close relationship with them. However although he expresses admiration for the head’s skill in educating his students, he concludes in this correspondence that despite the Bristol School having an advanced academic curriculum at this point, the Bostonian principal still felt that handcrafts were of too great an importance in comparison.


In this letter, Perkins’s director also appears to insist that he had no intention of prioritising vocational work over academic study as Bristol’s asylum still did, as he felt that he did not to want this trait to be reflected in his institution. However he does express admiration and asks for advice on the best methods of motivating students in order to emulate their long working days, as he appears particularly impressed with the work rate of Bristolian students.


Production was not only admired by the Bostonian in terms of the students, well being or their economic future, it also seemed to be envied as a means of financing the school, a factory for adults and a society for the welfare of people who were blind in the community[11]. Evidence however exists to suggest that after this period a different use of handcrafts existed. This will now be investigated.


The development of non-vocational handcrafts

            Signs that the nature of handwork in English institutes for the blind began to change during the 1930s appears to exist in training literature developed at the time. The RNIB and the College of Teachers for the Blind, a national organisation formed to provide guidance on model practice, for instance, showed signs in this period of looking at handcrafts not only for training in vocational tasks and economic subsistence, but also to develop their students cognitive abilities.


In particular, in their report from 1936, the Joint Committee of the College of Teachers of the Blind (1936) (JCCTB) initially refers to handcrafts more as a subject of tactile development for “practical”, non-commercial purposes (such as mobility and personal grooming) than an industrial craft. Furthermore in its text the authors of the report also suggest that this new form of craft instruction should work alongside the past century's emphasis on vocational education, and begin to make blind students’ craft work more influential on their personal and social lives as well as their intended vocational careers.


This report in particular appears to emphasise a more holistic use of handcrafts, for developing the use of touch for everyday and educational purposes as, the report also finds, such tasks were not in wide spread existence in the various curricula of schools for the blind at the time. Schools throughout England, it observed, still appeared to be placing as great an emphasis on vocational handwork as other elements of students’ education.


Furthermore in the 1950s it appears that the JCCTB had placed even more emphasis on the notion of handwork as an educational and cognitive tool as well as for economic subsistence. In a further report by the Committee of the College of Teachers for the Blind (1956), a large section is again devoted to the uses of handwork. Similar to the 1930s survey by the committee, this report re-emphasised the use of this craft form for enhancing practical abilities.


Unlike the previous report, however, the authors seemed to further suggest that the perceptual impressions of such work could enhance the emotional and psychological well-being of children who were blind, and benefit the mental ability of students pursuing their exercises for purely cognitive development[12]. Furthermore in this report they further suggest the practice of using their hands to maintain themselves in everyday practical activities, such as domestic chores. This, it was felt, would provide their students with more social freedom and a better appreciation of beauty through craftsmanship[13].

Standing as it does in a close relationship to art, handwork provides many opportunities to the blind child to express his or her own ideas in concrete form. Blind children should be trained from the earliest to appreciate beauty of form, proportion, craftsmanship through handwork, and also realise that an article which fulfils its purpose, is well made, and well proportioned, is in itself a thing of beauty.

Committee of the College of Teachers for the Blind (1956: p.60)


This later form of craft work appeared to be the one in which students featured in this study and who attended schools for the blind prior to 1981 were trained. In appendix 6 the descriptions of the early education of many of the students featured in the study who attended such schools are reproduced. These appear to suggest that basket weaving in particular was the staple craft task in these schools.


This chapter now concludes its findings in the segment below.




            The evidence discussed in this chapter appears to suggest some initial conclusions about the origins of the education of the blind before the 1981 Act. In particular this chapter has shown that the curriculum developed in England appears to be unique and has been affected to an extent by cultural considerations of charity, the belief in morality as part of a vocational education and the financial welfare of the asylums’ administration. These are now discussed under the following two sub headings.


The marriage of a commercial culture and a moral disdain of indolence

            In particular it appears from the original literature of the institutions in continental Europe and Britain that there was a fear and loathing of begging and the non-capital productivity it engendered. This factor was perceived to be a frequent source of income for many of the working and underclass people who were blind.


This belief appeared to be felt powerfully in the middle class, professional section of these societies and clerics, who formed the majority of the founders of the asylum. As a result it could be argued that a moral solution was found. The first institutions were built to rid the streets of those in the worst forms of poverty, and to institutionalise and reform beggars, whose presence was felt to be distasteful. It could therefore also be argued that the original institutions in Western Europe and Britain were formed on an ideal of moral social control.


However although the institutions in France, Scotland and England appeared to share the same disdain of indolence and the social implications of begging, the report by Howe (1833) of the Boston Asylum indicated that they did not appear to share a similar solutions to this problem. In this context it appeared that the English curriculum was radically different.


It can also be suggested that the commercial culture of English asylums reflected the culture of the industrial revolution, which ran through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rather than taking time to study literature, the English asylum students’ long hours appeared to represent not only a training to raise them out of their perceived indolence and poverty, but a belief that such tasks would enrich their souls. In this, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they were similar to other charity schools, although the culture in asylums was more on hard workloads and of alleviating the worst affects of begging.


This belief was accompanied by recitals of biblical texts and a strict code of behavioural control. This, it could be argued, not only furnished them with greater morals, it also allowed them to remain at their commercial work throughout the day, made them docile and did not relieve them of their training tasks. The task of the early Bristol Asylum, therefore, in the words of the poet from the Bristol Asylum was to make “useful that which was useless before” Bristol Asylum (1799: p.1)


It can also be argued that English asylums found that putting their students to work could fund the buildings and resources of these institutions, which received no government grants. It can therefore be suggested that the economic imperative for the students to survive financially was not the only motive of these early asylums. Under the following sub heading this segment discusses a further factor affecting this issue.


Vocational crafts and the class system

            It could also be argued that the attitude of the English asylums in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and the tasks they focused on as a result, also represent an amount of discrimination towards the lower and working classes (who were blind). Despite being blind themselves, many of the founders of the asylums and later the NIB were themselves middle class professionals and did not feel that their behaviour equated to the indolence they reported in their correspondence.


Furthermore the achievements of Sanderson, the Cambridge professor born blind, in much of the early literature belied a conviction in what could be achieved through their curriculum. It is particularly noticeable in their early curricula that Sanderson’s techniques of learning geometry or notation language (Demodocus, 1774) were not employed in these asylums.


It is also apparent in the nineteenth century that the only school founded on the notion of educating students who were blind from the middle classes did not entertain the notion of training its students in a manual trade. It was also evident that, although the potential for students who were blind was observable in this school, in charitable institutions for the blind the students’ abilities in these fields were still doubted.


Finally, it could also be argued that although the emphasis on commercial handcrafts between the 1930s and the 1981 Act diminished, it appears that the belief and nature of craft tasks that substituted an art curriculum in England still reflected the earlier tasks and skills of the commercial asylums. In particular, students were given the tasks of cane weaving baskets, a repetitive mechanical exercise which provided little creativity.


Its imperative at this time could also be seen as maintaining a skill that it was perceived would serve some practical use in the outside world, rather than provide intellectual stimulus as a solely aesthetic art. Furthermore, it could also be argued that an element of commercial thought still went into the notion of cane weaving during this period, as many of the local societies that evolved from the original schools had factories which employed former students in order to maintain their employment.



In the following chapter this thesis investigates the notion of non-vocational tasks and aesthetics in the education of the blind in England before the 1981 Act.


 © Simon Hayhoe 2005, 2007


[1] From this point this will continue to be referred to as the 1981 Act.

[2] In the following chapters I refer to the education of the blind (sic.) as a concept of education developed by a particular national, social or cultural community during a distinctive point in history. It is distinct to the simple reference to the simple education of students who are blind in that it is a theory and a purpose of education that evolves outside of the classroom in order to dictate policy, rather than a technique of teaching or a set of tasks within the classroom.

[3] In his Letter on the Blind Diderot argued that women who were blind were in actuality more beautiful and morally innocent because they could not cast their eyes on immorality as women with sight could. In his Letter on the Blind it could also be argued that Diderot, a political radical who was imprisoned for his views on the French state and atheism, felt that touch was indeed a more honest sense than sight as tactile illusions were impossible.

[4] Unfortunately, no source of accurate data collection about this disease appeared to exist during this period. However, as this thesis stated before tertiary sources such as Scholl and Stanier appear to agree its significance as a cause of blindness and mental illness.

[5] Circumstantial evidence also appears to suggest that syphilis could have been a major problem in the male homosexual community at the time, leading to a belief that they were susceptible to blindness more than other. In recent decades, for instance, data from the medical records of homosexuals have been analysed separately in epidemiological studies, and have shown that male homosexuals are more likely to contract this than male heterosexuals (Stanier et al, 1987).

Michel Foucault (1989) in Madness and Civilisation argues that this homosexuality was not only a moral affront to European society in the eighteenth century, but also classified as a form of mental abnormality, or illness. He further argues that those who were homosexual felt to be intellectually abnormal. Porter[5] (2001b) also finds evidence in the eighteenth century of the bitterness shown to male homosexuals, arguing that in the eighteenth century mobs attacked these men. Although these attacks were relatively rare, Porter suggests, they appear to reflect a negative attitude towards homosexuality during this period.

[6] See also the table showing influences on the earliest forms of education in England, France and Austria in appendix 6, which is from Hayhoe (2004a).

[7] It should be noted however that the author of this letter was blind himself, although from a wealthy, middle class family and held a post in a company in the city after becoming blind.

[8] Phrenology was a popular science in the nineteenth century, and was a fore-runner to psychology. Phrenologists believed that a person’s personality and intelligence could be gauged by the physical size of certain parts of their skull, which indicated the size and shape of the brain underneath the corresponding part of the skull. Phrenologists believed that size of brain was inherited and also changed over time dependent on exercise and stimuli.

[9] Examining European models of educating students who were blind in order to form a model for a similar asylum in Boston – later to become the Perkins Institute.

[10] After reading a recent paper I presented as a lecture (Hayhoe, 2005b), I was sent an email by a teacher in a school for the blind in Kansas, US. He found that factories for the blind still exist in his state. The following is an excerpt from his email.

There is an organization here in Wichita that employs hundreds of blind people at tasks that were replaced by automation decades ago. I was much taken aback when I visited one of their departments and saw a room full of people assembling four plastic parts to make 29 cent ball point pens. The broom factories of the past were more fulfilling of a sense of self worth. The experience gave a stark realization of our focus on what they don't have rather than what they do have.

[11] Handcrafts produced in a factory for the blind have existed as a source of income in the Bristol Society until the 1990s, though the school is now closed.

[12] It does not appear to be clear from the evidence from interceding reports how this belief changed. It is recommended therefore that more research appears to be needed into this subject.

[13] Viktor Lowenfeld proposed similar changes in the practice of mechanical arts in US institutions in the same period. These he argued were continuing to be emphasised at the expense of more intellectual or aesthetic tasks using hands as a form of direct perception. This was caused by the understanding that art was of little use unless practiced by more elite members of society.

[Art] for the blind was considered misleading the blind, and diverting them from the preparation for their vocations which they needed to earn a living. That they can earn it better as well adjusted individuals - and that creative activity used as an emotional outlet helps them in their adjustments - has not even penetrated the thick walls of most of our institutions today.

Lowenfeld (1951: p.1)


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