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.

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