BSL introduction to A History of Place

John Wilson signs an overview of the 800 year historical period covered by the History of Place project – below you can also see a version in text plus images of many of the places and people whose stories we tell.

Group of people from Wecil sit in front of the banner made for the Mshed exhibition.

There are around a billion disabled people in the world today, and stories of deaf and disabled people can be found from prehistory onwards, in cultures from sixth century China to the Industrial Revolution in the West.

Despite this, it is still unusual to find the life stories of deaf and disabled people in museums or at heritage sites. The History of Place project has tried to change that. Working over three years from 2016, we explored eight historic sites spanning eight centuries of history to reveal what it has been like to be deaf or disabled in England across time.

Maison Dieu, 1941

Maison Dieu, 1941. Courtesy of Historic England

The earliest place in our narrative is the monastery-hospital of Maison Dieu in Faversham, Kent. Commissioned by Henry III in 1234, it was once a large complex receiving throngs of pilgrims on the road from London to Canterbury, although now only one building remains. Searching through the monastery records, we were able to find potted life stories – often just a couple of sentences long – which give us an idea of the experiences of disabled people. Some were admitted to the monastery because they were sick, but others, like Helen, the ‘blind daughter of Andrew of Faversham’ were admitted as monks and nuns, performing the work of the monastery.

A drawing of the School for the Blind dedicated to Pudsey DawsonEsq

The School for the Blind additional building by T Troughton. Copyright National Museums Liverpool.

A few centuries later, in 1793 the first School for the Blind was founded in Liverpool by Edward Rushton, one of many campaigners whose remarkable lives we covered in our research. Blinded through infection while working on a slave ship as a young man, he became an anti-slavery campaigner.


Painting shows man with black band tied over one eye.

Edward Rushton courtsey of DaDaFest and Royal School for the Blind, Liverpool

He was also concerned by the grim life prospects of poor blind people in Liverpool, which often involved begging or playing a musical instrument on the streets, while being at risk from abuse. His school gave blind people an education and taught them a trade so they could live with dignity. The School thrived and still survives today as well as having contributed to the grand architectural heritage of Liverpool.

Similarly, in the late 18th century there was no provision for teaching deaf children, except in the families of the very rich. One woman spent £1,500 on educating her deaf son, the equivalent of around £100,000 today. Reverend John Townsend believed that education could be made available to deaf children regardless of income and was the initial founder of the School for the Deaf (initially known as the London Asylum) which offered an education first in London and then in Margate.

Children in pinafores outside the Royal School for the deaf in Margate

The Royal School for deaf children

However, for a long period from the late 19th century the School privileged lip reading over sign language. This reflects one of the recurring themes in our story of deaf and disabled people: often the price of living a dignified life, particularly for poorer people, meant finding yourself in an institution with strict rules and important decisions made by others.

Black and white image of the Victorian theatre showing elaborate wooden rafters

Langdon Down theatre in 1981

Some institutions were remarkably humane by the standards of their time. We looked at Normansfield Hospital, created by Dr John Langdon Down in 1868 as a home for people with learning disabilities. He believed in giving residents access to the arts – including at an ornate Victorian theatre built on the site, and a chance to learn skills in workshops and enjoy the grounds which included a farm and a boating lake. Also in West London, the asylum run by the Tuke Brothers at Chiswick House from 1892 was known for its approach based around therapy rather than medication or restraint. This is one of the sites where the archives give us a glimpse into the lives of residents themselves, not just the asylum administrators. We took two letters, written, but not sent, by G B Bartlett while he lived at the asylum and used this as the basis for an interactive story.


Image shows people in Victorian dress signing during a church service

A deaf and dumb service, St Saviour Church, Oxford Street, from the Collage archive. Built in 1870 – 4, it was demolished in 1923. Like its successor in Acton, it was built with plenty of light and visibility for sign language.

However, it’s largely from the mid-Victorian period that we also see a different model emerging: one where deaf and disabled people had more capacity to act as a community, strengthened against an often prejudiced wider society by operating together. One such organisation was St Saviour’s Deaf Church which operated in London from the mid-19th century and gained its first purpose built building an community complex in 1924. You can read more about it here

A line of children with crutches, the epitaph reads I thought to myself how nice it is for me to live in a world like this.

Children at the Guild

The Guild of the Brave Poor Things emerged in Bristol in the late 19th century, led by campaigner Ada Vachell and by 1913 opened the first purpose-built accessible building in the world at Bragg’s Lane, Bristol. It brought together deaf and disabled people of all ages, and its photograph album dated around 1914 shows older people engaging in trades such as basket weaving, while younger members joined Scout groups. Disabled people were often discriminated against as they sought work – the Guild helped them to find employment and campaigned on their behalf. However, minutes from 1931 show that disabled people were not allowed to sit on the Guild’s steering committee. In many ways the organisation was ahead of its time, but by the 1980s when it closed it had been overtaken by a more activist approach by disabled people who wanted to shape the world for themselves, rather than the Victorian overtones of pity and stoicism which had shaped how the Guild presented itself to the world.

Ken and Maggie Davis on their wedding day

The final stop on our tour through history is a nondescript 70s terrace house at Sutton in Ashfield, which marked the beginning of a revolution by disabled people. In 1972, Paul Hunt had written to the Guardian to complain that disabled people were ‘isolated in unsuitable institutions’ where their ‘views are ignored and they are subject to authoritarian and often cruel regimes’. He said he was planning a ‘consumer group’ to give disabled people a voice.

Bedroom at Grove Road

That group included Maggie and Ken Davis who were both disabled and wanted to live together in their own home, rather than in an institution. Together, they formed the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS). Through campaigning, fundraising and bringing together the best of architecture and design adapted for disabled people, they were able to move in to their own home at Grove Road in 1976.

Forty years later, deaf and disabled people are still too often having to fight for an environment that allows them to live and work as part of society. Knowing the history of people, places and campaigns that have shaped where we are now is an important part of imagining the possibilities for the future. ‘If you believe people have no history worth mentioning, it’s easy to believe they have no humanity worth defending’.

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