“To visitors to Paris.”

The first magazine about (or for) Deaf people to really gain national traction in the UK was the ‘Magazine intended chiefly for the deaf and dumb’. Edited by Samuel Smith, it ran from 1873 until 1878.

In the edition for August of 1878, there is a small notice that–perhaps because my previous research focused on the French Deaf community–jumped out at me:


It reads:

TO VISITORS TO PARIS. The Committee of the Universal Society of Deaf mutes, founded in 1838, and reorganised in 1867, the meetings of which are held on the first Sunday of each month, at 2 p.m., commencing from the month of January, in the Hall of mairie of the first arrondissement of the city of Paris, Place du Louvre, believe it will be agreeable to those of their brethren, both French and foreigners, who intend to visit the Exhibition, to have it made known to them that the Café Restaurant Saint-Roch (Avenue de l’Opera) has been chosen as a central point for their friendly re-unions, on Wednesday and Saturday of each week, at 8 p.m., during this period. P.S.-You are requested to communicate this information to your deaf-mute friends.

The notice is wordy and the language shows traces of having been written by a French speaker… but what’s most interesting is the way that the dates and intent flow around each other to give a tiny glimpse of both a Parisian Deaf space and its connections into an international Deaf network.

Setting the scene a bit, the Parisian Deaf community were not in great shape in 1878. In fact, they were in a bit of a mess. Lots of internal divisions and rivalries meant that the community was far from united…

In the hearing world, however, things in deaf education were steaming ahead. 1878 saw the first International Congress on the Education of Deaf people… the precursor to the notorious Milan congress of 1880. The congress ran at the end of September and was organised to coincide with the World Fair. It was organised by the Pereire Society – a society established by two prominent brothers who were famous French industrialists (extremely wealthy) to celebrate the work of Jacob Pereire, the first oral teacher of the deaf in France.

Comparing the two worlds… you have a Deaf community in disarray, whose very existence is being energetically attacked by a large, powerful, rich hearing-led movement of modern educational ‘progress’.

And yet, the Deaf community in Paris still had time to think about and open up Deaf spaces.

The intent is clear – and the choice of the Café is also interesting… The St Roch church (which is just down from the Opéra) was the resting place of the remains of the Abbé de l’Epée who was, of course, famous within the French Deaf community for his support of sign language.

So, what we have here is an advert that says “Despite our differences, and despite the events going on around us, there is something that unites us… and even unites us internationally. If you are travelling to Paris – particularly if you are coming over for the congress on deaf education, don’t be a stranger. We want to celebrate the centrality of our language and our community… Deaf space will be there to welcome you. Come and find us”.


A new blog on Mark 7

Today, news of a new blog linked to the SDDS project.

Anyone familiar with the history of the Deaf community in the UK will know how influential the church has been in shaping attitudes towards the Deaf community. And anyone familiar with that church-influenced history will know that there’s one key passage in the bible that speaks about deafness and that comes up time after time. That passage is in the New Testament, in the book of Mark where, in chapter 7, there is a story of Jesus healing a deaf man.

In one version (the New International Readers Version), the story goes like this:

Jesus Heals a Man Who Could Not Hear or Speak

31 Then Jesus left the area of Tyre and went through Sidon. He went down to the Sea of Galilee and into the area known as the Ten Cities. 32 There some people brought a man to Jesus. The man was deaf and could hardly speak. They begged Jesus to place his hand on the man.

33 Jesus took the man to one side, away from the crowd. He put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 Jesus looked up to heaven. With a deep sigh, he said to the man, “Ephphatha!” That means “Be opened!” 35 The man’s ears were opened. His tongue was freed up, and he began to speak clearly.

36 Jesus ordered the people not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were really amazed. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes deaf people able to hear. And he makes those who can’t speak able to talk.”

The passage itself is important in Deaf history. But it can be read in a number of different ways – so what is probably more important than the passage itself, is its ‘reception’ by the church and the deaf community. i.e.: how people have read it, and what they have said that it means.

As part of our project, we’re discovering that Mark 7 is everywhere… in stories, in teaching, in artwork… you even find the word ‘ephphatha’ in the names of magazines and organisations that were aimed at the Deaf community*. We’re having to think about this passage a lot… so my colleague John Lyons, who is the project manager and an expert on the reception history of the bible, has set up a blog specifically to think about Mark 7, and about its impact on the lives of Deaf people in Victorian England.

The blog is at  http://gospelofmark73137.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/

* I’ve always found it funny that the word ‘ephphatha’ means ‘be opened’ – but produces the same kind of lip pattern… “fathafathafatha…” that Deaf people often use when imitating the impenetrable flapping of hearing people’s lips when they talk.

Historical evidence, and the spaghetti kiss from Lady and the Tramp

One of the greatest pleasures that I have, as an historian, is stumbling upon a piece of evidence that confirms something that we already know from somewhere else.

This morning, for example, I stumbled upon this – in a biography of Charles Baker, who was the headmaster of the Doncaster school for deaf children in the 1850s.

cutting from newspaper describing Baker's experience with the Braidwood family

This is a cutting from an 1875 biography of Baker, and it describes a visit that he made to the school in Birmingham run by the grandson of Thomas Braidwood, the famous educator of deaf children.

The Braidwood family were renowned for being extremely secretive about their methods, so much so that when Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet visited London in 1815, the headmaster of the London school (owned by Braidwood, and run by his nephew Joseph Watson) refused to tell him what his method was unless Gallaudet agreed to stay and work for him.

Gallaudet refused, and travelled to Paris instead, where he persuaded Laurent Clerc to leave the Parisian deaf school, and travel to North America. Between Clerc and Gallaudet, they started the American deaf school at Hartford, and the rest… as they say… is history.

Braidwood’s methodological secrecy in London had a direct impact upon the direction that Deaf education in America took. Had he been less secretive, American Deaf education might have turned out quite differently. And here, Baker’s biography gives us confirmation of that secrecy.

It is a real pleasure to find evidence like this that has a direct link to other stories that we already know. It’s like the two stories are just one, that connect… and something amazing happens.

As a historian, it is a bit like watching the scene from Lady and the Tramp (watch from 1 min 15 secs) where Lady and the Tramp pull out the same strand of spaghetti from different ends, and end up kissing.

(I guess you have to really love history to see it like that… but I do!)

Oh Census Transcriber – you only had one job…

As part of a paper that I’m writing on Deaf spaces in the early church, I’ve been tracing Samuel Smith’s life in the official record. And I’d hit rather a large problem. Despite his importance to the story of St Saviour’s, I’ve been really struggling to find him in the census data.

I have a clue why now…

Basically, the census tools that we use to search census actually search the transcriptions made of the censuses. They have to; they can’t search the original images. So, when you’re searching records, you rely on the transcriber of the records having done their job as well as possible.

That’s not always the case.

So here is Samuel Smith’s employment description from the 1881 census (which I finally found after a long search). Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 17.49.22

Ignore the top line… what does that say?

Well, I know that it says

Chaplain of the Royal Ass. in aid of Deaf & Dumb and minister of St saviour’s Church for the Deaf + Dumb Oxford St West.

Straightforward, right?

Nope – this is what the transcriber thought that it said.Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 17.57.43

No wonder I couldn’t find him.


Letterheads – a tactile gift from the 19th century

Since returning from the archives in London, I’ve been working through a small set of correspondence that we have from the secretary of the Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb covering the years 1854 to 1856. These are crucial years for the association which was restructured in 1854 and which employed Samuel Smith as its chaplain in 1855.

As an historian, I am particularly fond of correspondence. It is about as close as you can get to the original characters of history without going back in time to shake their hand. After all, the letters that we now read were handwritten by people in the 1850s, sent by them across the country on mail coaches, and opened and read by others. I like to think that if we had very sensitive instruments, we might pick up traces of the hands that held them and the eyes that read them.

… That said, given some of the handwriting of those involved, I do breathe a sigh of relief when typewriters begin to be used in the early 20th century.

Many of the letters come from schools for deaf children. Some of these used standard letter-headed paper. Here are two examples from the Edgbaston and Northern Counties schools.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 13.35.07 Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 13.35.30

My favourites, however, come from the Doncaster and Liverpool schools, which did not use a printed letterhead in their correspondence with the Association, but instead embossed their name on to any piece of paper used using a hand press. The result is a wonderfully tactile gift from the mid-19th century, created by the hands of those whose stories we are telling, which has lasted as something that we can still touch today.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 13.33.00Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 13.33.19

Using maps to get into the 19th century

Many of us have lived for long enough to remember when the world was quite different… We can, if we try, use our imaginations and our memories to go back to earlier times.

Many of those memories can be triggered by things that we think we’ve forgotten, but can be reminded of – like the smell of the London Underground in the 1980s, or the taste of chips with newsprint still on them, or the feeling of non inertia-reel seatbelts, or the covering of ash that you got after the stubble was burned off the fields in the autumn.

Interestingly, many of us can go back further than our own lives. We’ve read enough history, and seen enough films that if we are reminded of things that pre-date us by a long way, we can begin to enter the period, and get a feel for how it looked, smelled, tasted, and felt … even though we don’t have a personal memory of it.

That’s what it’s like looking at old maps of London in the 19th century.

Today, I’ve been locating all the places that the AADD ran services and lectures, and it’s been fascinating to look around them, and see what was going on in the vicinity. It’s particularly interesting to peel back time using different maps (I have access to maps from the 1960s, back to the 1840s in some places) and see what changes.

Take, for example, St Matthew’s school room on City Rd, which you can see just North of the church of St Matthews, marked as ‘national school’ on this 1870 map



Scan around the church, though, and as well as rows upon rows of houses, you find printing works, a rice mill, a hospital, a gas meter manufactory, a ‘Vulcanized India Rubber Works’, a coal depot, and a foundry, a canal, a paper staining works and a railway. (Today, I’ve also found a number of pickle factories, and a vinegar works – I can only imagine what they smelled like).

Populate the streets with people in Victorian dress, horses, carts, steam, noise, smell… and you start to get a feel for the kind of world that we’re exploring.




The listening pulpit…

St Saviour’s church was designed for deaf users… that doesn’t necessarily mean sign language. There’s evidence that many of those who came were people who had lost their hearing, and who were primarily lip readers.

Lip readers had the benefit of growing up hearing English, and so probably knew the Prayer Book well. They would have known the liturgy, and would have probably only needed a guide to where they were in the service to follow it. There’s also very good evidence that many of them gradually learned to sign; that St Saviour’s was a place where many of those deafened people slowly absorbed sign language, and became much more thoroughly and linguistically visual in their communication.

Visual communication is something that you can provide in a church in London where you can gather together several hundred deaf people. Not so easy to do in a place like Whitby, where there are only a few thousand people in total, and where those needing visual services are few.

So, what do you do? Well, if you can’t make the service visual, you have to work with the hearing that you have. That was the situation facing the wife of the Rector of Whitby in the early 1800s… and so, they attached ‘hearing trumpets’ to the back of the pulpit.

Here you can see them on the back of the pulpit, and in more detail (thanks to Jonathan Downing for the photos)

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The plaque describing them reads:B8wuqTUIQAAWxGe

Elegant 3-decker pulpit

Built in 1748 it originally stood on iron props in the middle of the aisle. It was moved to its permanent position in 1847 and is now unique as a 3-decker in the middle of the church.

The ear trumpets(above) [sic] were fixed to the pulpit in the early 19th century when the Rector’s wife, who was deaf, sat in the pew below and was linked to these mouthpieces by two long tubes which she placed to her ear.

I can’t help but feel that the trumpets are badly placed to capture sound, but–in a rather familiar approach to accessibility–perhaps they had to be out of the way so as not to disturb those who could hear ‘normally’.

I also can’t help but think that piping the preacher’s voice to a pew behind the pulpit, where anyone sitting wouldn’t have been able to see the preacher, is rather silly. From my own experience of struggling to hear in some situations, it’s an enormous help to be able to see the mouth of the person I’m listening to.

That said, it’s an imaginative solution to a problem, which isn’t really much different from our modern-day T-loop technology which also pipes the service directly into the ears of those with hearing-aids.