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.

A link to our project funders…

Our project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, who administer the legacy of William Hesketh Lever – one of two brothers whose business became ‘Unilever’. Lever was made ‘Lord Leverhulme’ in 1922. You can read more about Lever on wikipedia, or on the pages of the Leverhulme Trust itself.

We knew that William Hesketh Lever experienced deafness, and this is one of the main reasons why we asked the Leverhulme to fund the project. What we didn’t realise was that there was a direct link between Lever, and the original St Saviour’s church, and the work of the AADD. But there is!

Today, as I was looking through the lists of those who gave a donation to the work of the AADD in the early 1900s, I noticed this entry:Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 12.58.22Lever gave a direct donation of £10 – which at the time was about £500 – to the work of the AADD.

It was only a one-off donation, but it is great to have found evidence that – in funding our work – the Leverhulme Trust are continuing to fund (now research work) on the Deaf church… in the tradition of their founder.

The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes

OK, I’ll admit it – this is a bit of fun for a Monday… but I’ve been working through the later years of St Saviour’s, Oxford Street, and into the Acton years of the church. In doing so, I stumbled upon the following in the account of the laying of the foundation stone at Acton in 1924.

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 14.17.31

Now, I don’t know about you, but I found the idea of the Prince of Wales being met by an order of ‘Buffaloes’, quite amusing… In actual fact, this reference is not to buffaloes at all, but rather speaks about the link that the Association had with Masonic, and non-Masonic (but similar) organisations. The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes was not a masonic order, nor was it royally approved, nor did it date from antediluvian (i.e. before the flood) times, nor did it consist of buffaloes… However, in common with the Masonic Lodge, it was a very large, charitable organisation with powerful and influential members, particularly known for their philanthropy.

I say ‘was’ – it still exists.

The ROAB is just one of the colourful organisations associated with the story of the Deaf church in London. We’ll try and bring you more as we discover them.

Sometimes, you just need to draw…

Today, I thought I’d share something of what I’ve been doing. Since this morning, I’ve been working through the descriptions of activities in the Annual Reports of the AADD from about 1864, noting down all the religious services, lectures, classes and other meetings that they had, where they had them, and who was in charge of them. I’ve been drawing lines to map where they continued from year to year, where they started, and when they stopped.

This is the start of a big piece of work to scope out the whole spectrum of the AADD’s work, and to look at things like

  • Periods of growth, and shrinking
  • Handovers from one missioner to the next
  • Development of particular areas in London
  • Types of services and when they started
  • … and so on.

So far, all I’ve really been able to do is map the activities generally, with a few comments on who was involved, and some of the very basic changes in the organisation.

So here’s the whole map (excuse my feet):

2015-01-23 16.36.40


Here’s the first page,2015-01-23 16.36.47


and the last…2015-01-23 16.37.00

You can see the growth in activities… and that’s without taking into account that the top and bottom lines in the final picture represent entire churches… so they had about 10 or so services within that one line.

The wider section in the middle is when the AADD split its activities into four (and then five) districts, each with its own staff.

2015-01-23 16.36.56

This map will need finishing, and formalising, and then other information can be added. The number of those attending services, who ran which service (there’s a little of that already if you look closely), what the missioners daily timetable and weekly activities looked like, and so on.

We’ll also be able to start locating all of the buildings that were used, and see how their location corresponded to Deaf populations, transport, and other historical information about London at the time.

Gradually, we can build up a picture of the Association, and how it responded to needs within the Deaf community and, as it became more of an established charity, how it responded to the economic environment.

I’ll put more up as we get there… only about another 25 more years to map!!


H.L. (again)

A few days ago, I posted on H.L. and his initial placement at Hart’s, and then at Heal and Son’s.

It seems things still didn’t go well for him there. In 1862, we find him again being helped by the Association. This time, their reporting and attitude is different. In both previous cases, they have made a lot of the fact that he is nearly blind, and that he only has one leg. Deaf and blind, and lame – he seems to be a poster case for the Association’s involvement.

If this is the same H.L, now, he’s simply ‘Lame as well as Deaf and Dumb’. And he’s not given a great deal of help either; simply a ‘box and stock of small articles to sell in the streets’. Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 14.57.35

This is still a reasonable living as long as it was consistent. Most of Victorian life was lived in the streets, which were extremely busy. There was a reasonable wage to be had if what you were selling was something that people wanted. Of course, there were some, like matchmakers and sellers, who were the lowest of the low and really extremely poor. H.L. hasn’t, therefore, hit rock bottom – but he’s no longer able to maintain regular work.

Part of the philanthropic trade-off in the 19th century was that, if you were given help, you demonstrated your gratitude by working hard to improve yourself. The AADD were clearly able, and willing to help some. But H.L.’s case suggests that he couldn’t keep to his end of the bargain, so expectations were adjusted.

Still, he hasn’t been relegated to the level of some who are simply sustained by AADD gifts, or placed by them in the workhouse. They do, at least, provide him with initial stock.

It’ll be interesting to see if he reappears further down the line… again.