Abilities first? Institutions for disabled children in Victorian and Edwardian Britain

By Lesley Hulonce

In 2001, Douglas Baynton observed that ‘disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent from the histories we write’.[1] Of course, since then, historians have begun to fill these lacunae, and ‘disability history’ in its many guises has burgeoned. Baynton’s argument that disability is everywhere in history carries resonance for me because while conducting my research I have encountered many references to mental and physical impairment couched in the language and perception of disabilities in the Victorian period. These included nineteenth-century prostitutes who were sometimes ‘diagnosed’ as ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘troublesome’ and ‘incorrigible’ workhouse inmates being admitted to lunatic asylums. Victorian children were sometimes sent home from school if their teachers thought them ‘idiots’ and a boy with epilepsy was removed from a children’s home and ‘sent’ elsewhere as he required more attention than the home felt they could provide.

Since I began looking explicitly for examples of disability in history, my research has alighted upon three institutions in Victorian and Edwardian Wales which cared for and educated disabled children. These were large and impressive establishments and were supported by both local and national subscribers. The Cambrian Institution enjoyed the patronage of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and like many institutions of their time they could expect the support of the nobility and the upper ranks of ecclesiastic and civic society.

Many disabled children were financially supported by the poor laws which paid for them to receive the sought-after education and training provided by these institutions. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, along with subsequent amendments, provided the destitute with the right to ask for poor relief. While it was first intended that this would entail entering a workhouse, in later years local poor law guardians were empowered to provide funds for disabled children to be educated at specialist institutions. This was not a wholly altruistic endeavor as it was felt by both the poor law authorities and the management of the institutions that the disabilities of these children did not preclude education. Indeed education would lead to wider employment opportunities and the children were subsequently trained to capitalize on their abilities. This investment was promoted as beneficial not only to the child, but would also produce useful and independent future citizens.

Roman Catholic girls, especially those with physical or mental disabilities, were sent to Nazareth House in Cardiff at the expense of poor law unions across Wales. The guardians of the poor also paid for children with sensory disabilities to go to specialized institutions. Deaf children were sent to the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Swansea, and sometimes to other establishments around the country. Blind children – and some blind adults – were educated via tactile methods such as Moon type and later Braille at the Swansea and South Wales Institution for the Blind and also trained for a narrow range of employments . All these institutions were privately run establishments which relied on philanthropic donations as well as the ‘state’ funding it received for educating poor law children.

image 1 - Nazareth House today[1]

Nazareth House today

Nazareth House in Cardiff was run by the Poor Sisters of Nazareth who cared for those they described as ‘crippled, deformed and incurably afflicted’ girls, some of whom were from Swansea Union. It was a substantial institution, which, by 1887, was housing around 165 inmates. Again, disability was not considered a barrier to education. A girl born without arms was taught to write with her mouth and another girl, described as a ‘blind imbecile’ was reported to be ‘proud of the one thing she can do – the singing of little songs’. Although these statements were intended to generate pity prompting increased funding for Nazareth House, they also celebrated the children’s abilities rather than just their impairments.

At Nazareth House education was led by the nuns in ‘the moral atmosphere of order, duty and busy kindness for life in domestic service’, and the girls were trained in domestic duties and were generally placed as servants when they were 16 or 17 years old. However, Elizabeth Wilson who was described as ‘feeble minded’, lived there at the expense of Swansea Union in 1887 and didn’t leave until 1903 when she was 25. She subsequently lived with her sister in Carmarthen, in West Wales and it is interesting to note that the 1911 census does not mention any disability with regard to Elizabeth.

Physical disabilities were not perceived by the institution or by poor law authorities as preventing paid work. Although Sarah Donovan was described as a cripple and of stunted growth, this did not rule out future employment in the minds of both the management of Nazareth House and Swansea guardian, Emily Williams. It was agreed by both that she would be helped to earn her own living by using her needlework skills. Katherine O’Keefe, who at 15 years old was described as ‘very backward’, was placed into service with a Mrs Jones in Newport. In each case, the institution stressed what the children were able to accomplish rather than their incapacity.

image 2 - Swansea and South Wales Institution for the Blind

Swansea and South Wales Institution for the Blind

The Swansea and South Wales Institution for the Blind was established in 1865 by a group of middle-class ladies. According to Martha Holmes, blind children were the ‘preferred figures of disability in the Victorian imagination’.[2] A poem in one of the annual reports of the institution illustrates their purpose very well:

Lonely blindness here can meet

Kindred woes and converse sweet;

Torpid once can learn to smile

Proudly o’er its useful toil.

It was ‘useful toil’ which would offer self-respect to the inmate whose institutionalization might also reduce feelings of loneliness. Swansea Blind Institution used both education and vocational training to harness the abilities of their children for ‘useful toil’ and paid work in their future. In Victorian Britain, occupations such as piano tuning along with basket weaving, mat making and knitting were seen as suitable occupations for blind people and came to be known as ‘blind trades’. These were indeed the skills in which blind children were trained in the Swansea Blind Institution.

image 3 - Basket making at the Institution for the Blind

Basket making at the Institution for the Blind

Some children were awarded scholarships to attend the Royal Academy of Music for the Blind in Norwood. The College’s Annual Report in 1880 clearly stated its vocational pathway:

 ‘The College is open to the young of either sex and of any rank, but only those will be received as pupils who, in the opinion of the Principal, show sufficient ability to render it probable that by instruction they can be rendered capable of self-support’.

 A blind female graduate of Norwood came to teach music among other subjects at the Swansea Blind Institution. In 1892, one pupil by the name of David Rees had been receiving training in basket making and chair caning but was not proficient and he was thought unlikely to earn his living in either trade. However, training at the Norwood College could enable him to become a teacher of the blind or a minister within his own church. So, if a child did not show aptitude for one trade, their other abilities were taken into consideration to enable them to find future employment.

image 4 - Cambrian institution for the Deaf and Dumb

Cambrian institution for the Deaf and Dumb

Swansea Poor law Union had been also paying for deaf children to attend the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Swansea since 1861. The fees of the majority of its children were paid for by poor law unions across Wales. Subsequently the institution had to pursue the vocational and industrial training which the poor law authorities felt appropriate. Benjamin Payne, a long serving principal of the institution, who was himself deaf, objected to what he called ‘specifically industrial’ training. In a letter to the Poor law Inspector he said his purpose was to educate and fit pupils to learn trades, but not to teach them the trades themselves. He also argued that an educated deaf child could later be taught a trade by any tradesman. While the uneducated deaf child was sometimes promoted publicly as a ‘painful spectacle of wretchedness’ to garner support for the institution, Principal Payne endeavored to locate the children’s intellectual abilities and demonstrate his belief in the capabilities of educated deaf children rather than foreground their disabilities.

What could deaf children aspire to as a career? Although tailoring for boys and dressmaking for girls headed the lists of occupations, there appears to have been a fairly wide range of career possibilities.

image 5 Extract from the 1893 Royal Commission on the Blind and the Deaf & Dumb, 1889

Extract from the 1893 Royal Commission on the Blind and the Deaf & Dumb, 1889

With more choice for boys than for girls, career prospects for deaf girls were as gendered as those for hearing girls. While these jobs may appear to be more varied than those offered by the ‘blind trades’, blind pupils could become teachers of the blind in institutions, deaf children were more likely to be domestic servants in institutions for the deaf. The Cambrian Institution employed many of their ex-pupils as servants, and also sent children to train as servants in other schools, such as the deaf school in Boston Spa.

How did the children themselves feel about their care and education? Some reacted against their teachers. It was recommended that 17 year old Benjamin Jones was removed from the Blind Institution and sent to the workhouse because of his unruly behavior; but he was still there when he was 24. Andrew Skull has argued that institutions were a ‘dumping ground’ for a ‘heterogeneous mass of physical and mental wrecks’[3], but many disabled children in mainstream schools felt subject to the ‘undue pressure’ that could be placed on them and many deaf children were happier being educated with other deaf children. An intimation of what Paddy Ladd calls ‘Deaf helplessness’[4] was used to sustain philanthropic involvement in the Cambrian Institution and deaf children were often perceived as ‘delicate’. As a poor law inspector reported, these children were thought ‘inferior due to their defective organization in strength of constitution and of average health to ordinary children’. Such alleged ‘helplessness’ could also provide a transformative contrast when a deaf child was ‘made over’ into a useful worker by the training and education offered by the institution.

Resistance also comprised of deaf pupils disregarding advice to avoid sign language when at home and all manner of acts of disobedience within the Cambrian Institution. However, as Anna Davin argues, resistance from children can be found in every school log book.[5] All institutions record incidents, from violence and indecency to youthful high spirits and frustration. Just because a child misbehaved did not mean they were contesting the system. Similarly, not all acts of agency resulted in bad behavior. One child’s letter, although corrected and annotated by a teacher, demonstrates a child could side-step the mediated nature of letters they sent home. The letter is from Winifred, and she ends with dozens of kisses.

image 6 - Kisses from Winifred “I am learning hard”

Kisses from Winifred “I am learning hard”

Anne Borsay is correct to argue that the expectations of blind and deaf children were depressed by these institutions.[6] Many of these children’s abilities would have exceeded the menial or ‘blind trade’ type jobs allocated to them and most did not fulfill their potential. However, they were poor children in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain and few of them could have bypassed the rigid class systems in place. The fusing of state and private philanthropy inherent in these institutions demonstrates both the economic precariousness of many disabled children and also the mutually beneficial dialogue between state poor relief and private philanthropy. The primary goal for all institutions for disabled children was to train and encourage them to become independent, respectable members of the working-class; ‘worker bees in our human hive’ as one poor law guardian put it. There was little or no controversy about sending children to these institutions which cost considerably more than any other method of support such as the workhouse or maintaining them at home. Although pity and melodrama was used to garner funds for the institutions, the children’s disabilities whether, physical, sensory or intellectual were not assumed to rule them out of employment and society, and their abilities were sought and foregrounded.

Lesley Hulonce is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain and specializes in researching children, women, prostitution and disability via state and voluntary action. She is a lecturer at Swansea University, blogs at Workhouse Tales and tweets at @LesleyHulonce.


Annual Reports of the Swansea and South Wales Institution for the Blind and the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb can be found in Swansea Central Library, and other sources relating to the Cambrian Institution are available in West Glamorgan Archives Service, also in the Civic Center, Swansea.

Sources relating to Nazareth House in Cardiff can be consulted at Cardiff Central Library and by appointment in the Sisters of Nazareth Archive, Hammersmith, London.

[1] Douglas C. Baynton, ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’, in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, eds., 33-57 (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 52.

[2] Martha Holmes, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 16.

[3] Andrew Scull, Museums of Madness: The Social Organisation of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century England (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 252.

[4] Paddy Ladd, Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2003), 119.

[5] Anna Davin, Growing Up Poor: Home, School and Street in London 1870-1914 (London: Rivers Oram, 1996), 37.

[6] Anne Borsay, Disability and Social Policy, in Britain since 1750: A History of Exclusion (New York, 2005), p. 97.

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