This month, English Heritage launched a new web resource, Disability in Time and Place, a site which uses historic buildings to explore changing attitudes to disability over the years. In September, Rosie Sherrington gave us a sneak preview of some of this material, in a blog post exploring the history of Chiswick House, a neo-Palladian Georgian Villa in west London, which was a private asylum between 1892 and 1928. Disability in Time and Place explores the history of hundreds of buildings like this, which help tell the story of disabled people’s lives both in the community and in separate institutions: from churches built with ‘Lepers’ squints’ to meeting places for the first disabled self-help groups.
The history of Bethlem features on the site, among wide-ranging stories communicating a variety of experiences. The former Royal School for the Indigent Blind in Merseyside, for example, was set up in 1791 by Edward Rushton, who was himself blind through disease. It was the very first school in Britain that equipped its students with the skills they needed to support themselves. While histories of schools for deaf or blind children have often indicated harsh regimes, which punished alternative methods of communication such as sign language, other sources offer us a more nuanced picture of life for people with disabilities in the past.
In 1883, one young man admitted to Bethlem was described as a “deaf-mute”. However, he regularly held conversations with his doctors in sign language, and his communication was described as “coherent”. As well as doctors using sign language in this period, other patients (who were not deaf), also appear to have understood it. When Amy Marsh was admitted in the same year, her general practitioner considered the gestures she made with her hands as a symptom of her disordered mental condition. In Bethlem, these signs were recognised as “the deaf and dumb alphabet”. Amy, it was said, was “constantly talking on her fingers, she says to amuse herself”. But where did her knowledge of sign language come from? We can only speculate, but it is interesting to note that, for Amy, signing appears to have been an important part of her life.
While many of the institutions and ideas explored in the website appear old-fashioned, patronising or even offensive to us today, the resource offers an interesting way of exploring the diverse experiences of people with mental or physical disabilities, and English Heritage will be encouraging all readers to join in debate over the issues raised. In particular, a free conference in March 2013 (Disability History: Voices and Sources) aims to highlight how disabled people are using (and making) archives and finding evidence in the built environment to document their histories. Bethlem will be among the resources explored in this thought-provoking event. Bookings are now open, on the English Heritage website.
Former Royal School for the Indigent Blind, Hardman Street, Liverpool, Merseyside. Carved stone hands reading braille. Copyright English Heritage.