Apr 172013

JaiI have long been fascinated by the question of how deaf people were treated by society in the 18th Century – just what would life hold for you if you were born deaf, or completely lost the use of hearing through illness? What education was there for you, if any, if you came from a poor family and could not benefit from a local school because there were no facilities for teaching you? So I was delighted when I stumbled across the blog page of Jaipreet Virdi entitled “From the Hands of Quacks”  (here) because it gives everything you ever wanted to know in terms of the history of deaf teaching, and much, much, more besides. Jai has the perspective of being deaf herself, having lost her hearing as a result of meningitis when she was four years old. She is doing a PhD at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Toronto – her research broadly focuses on early nineteenth century developments in English medicine and biology.

JT portraitShe has kindly agreed to help me write this as a blog about education for deaf people, in particular about the work of a remarkable English clergyman called the Reverend John Townsend (1757-1826), who is pictured above. He is known for his establishment of the Asylum for the Support and Education of Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor, or more informally, the ‘Bermondsey Asylum.’ Later (in 1792) he was co-founder of the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the Royal School for Deaf Children, Margate). The institution provided education, training, and shelter to poor parish deaf children and heavily relied on subscriptions and donations to manage its affairs. It transformed the way deaf people were taught in Britain.


The man had an indefatigable appetite for work – barely had he finished setting up one institution that he would form a committee to raise funds to purchase premises so that some other institute could be established. Thus he was also was instrumental in setting up the London Missionary Society in 1794, and the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1802. In 1807 he also helped initiate the London Female Penitentiary, which housed and rehabilitated repentant prostitutes.

Caterham-school-front-entranceIn 1811 he started a Congregational School in Lewisham, to provide a boarding education for the sons of Congregational Ministers. It still exists, as Caterham School.

So, what of the man himself? John Townsend was born on 24 March 1757 in the impoverished parish of Whitechapel, whose narrow lanes, slums, and industries housed some of the city’s most destitute congregations. He was the son of Benjamin Townsend, who was a pewterer of Whitechapel. Father was a Calvinistic Methodist who was a follower of George Whitefield. John became an ordained minister in 1781  at Kingston, and then in 1784 moved to the Independent church in Jamaica Row, Bermondsey.

Jai sets the background to his pioneering efforts to help the deaf community: “Prior to 1750, when opportunities for deaf-mutes to be literate were becoming widespread, the situation of the deaf was a calamity: unable to acquire speech, the deaf were forced into a state of isolation and removed from the two-way communication prevalent in hearing society. Some even believed that the deaf were literally incapable of absorbing divine worlds, as they were metaphorically deaf to the Word of God. As Oliver Sacks describes the experiences, deaf-mutes were “confined to a few rudimentary signs and gestures; cut off, except in large cities, even from the community of their own kind; deprived of literacy and education, all knowledge of the world; forced to do the most menial work; living alone, often close to destitution; treated by the law and society as little better than imbeciles—the lot of the deaf was manifestly dreadful.”

While the poor deaf and dumb may have suffered uncomprehending brutality, this was scarcely the case of deaf children born to the wealthy and aristocratic who had the privilege of private instructors to teach variations of artificial speech, finger-spelling, signs, or lip-reading, skills that would enable them to enrich their social status through communication.”

Traditionally the Church had put forward the view that a child’s deafness was a result of God punishing the sins of the parents. Consequently deaf people were excluded from taking part in religious worship and they were given the status of imbeciles – incapable of education. Because of this prejudiced view, for many years ‘deaf and dumb’ people were considered incapable of making a will or of inheriting property from their families.

Holder-DeafIn the seventeenth century books started to appear on the topic of deafness, and various different types of sign language were introduced. The first formal schools for the deaf started to appear in Northern Europe in the eighteenth century.

In France, the Abbé de L’Épée (1712-1789) had opened a school for deaf children from all backgrounds. At first he taught speech with hand gestures and by writing, later developing a less time-consuming system of signs. Essentially, he developed Signed French which became known as the ‘silent education’ of deaf children.

In Germany, L’Épée ‘s methods were heavily criticized. The so-called German method put forward by  Samuel Heinicke (1729-90) was based on the insistence that speech was the only thing that separated human beings from animals. Sign language was discouraged, and everything was based upon oral learning. In Britain, there was a less dogmatic, more shared, approach. Five years after L’Épée had opened his school, the first deaf school was opened in Britain by Thomas Braidwood. The school was in Edinburgh and in 1760 initially accepted one deaf pupil. Braidwood’s success in teaching speech to this boy led to numbers increasing to twenty pupils by 1780. His approach, due to the use of natural gesture, was known as ‘combined’ – sign language was used as a gateway by which students could learn speech in order to communicate. His results were impressive and his reputation spread.

Silver ear trumpet from 1803

Silver ear trumpet from 1803

The Braidwood family in many ways represented deaf education for the last half of the 18th Century. The school in Edinburgh was eventually closed and Braidwood opened a new school in London in 1783. This became known as Old Kent Road Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, with Braidwood’s nephew, Watson becoming the new Head.

Jai continues: “Townsend became acquainted with the plight of the deaf child when one of his parishioners, a Mrs. Creasey, sent her son to the Thomas Braidwood’s academy for the deaf in Edinburgh. The boy’s ability and accuracy in mastering speech impressed Townsend, who then agreed with Mrs. Creasey on the necessity for a charitable institution that would counteract the privatization and expense characteristic of the Braidwood institutions.”

Sending her child to the academy in Edinburgh had cost Mrs Creasey £1500 over a ten year period – a vast sum, totally out of reach for anyone but the wealthy. What was remarkable, in an age of religious faction and bitter rivalry, was the way Townsend managed to draw together both the established church and the dissenters to unite in a single enterprise: the establishment of a deaf school for the “impotent poor”. On Thursday 30th August 1792 at 6.30 p.m. a meeting was held in the St Pauls Head Tavern in Bermondsey “ for the purpose of establishing in Bermondsey an Asylum for the Support and Education of the Deaf and Dumb children of the Poor.”

Jai continues “With the assistance of Henry Cox Mason, rector of Bermondsey, and of the philanthropist and banker Henry Thornton, Townsend established the Asylum. Admission to the school was through a public selection process voted by the Committee of Governors of the Asylum, usually reserved for a candidate between six to twelve years of age of “sound mind,” on the basis of their biographical sketch. Where six children were originally admitted in its founding year, at each yearly half-election, the governors of the Asylum accepted a few more; yet the number of children waiting to be admitted increased yearly, and by 1804, Townsend sought new dwellings for the growing institution. With the patronage from the Duke of Gloucester, the Asylum moved to Old Kent Road in London in 1807, and construction for the new institution completed in 1810. Braidwood’s dynasty in deaf education persisted as his nephew, Joseph Watson, served as the superintendent of the Asylum. Watson also published Instructions for the Deaf and Dumb (1809), which outlined the Asylum’s methods of education. Informally renamed the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, the institution eventually became an important national charity and its model of patronage and governing committee did much to transform the operating systems of charitable institutions in Britain.”

Townsend died in February 1826. Details of his life appear in the book ‘Memoirs of the Reverend John Townsend’, which was organized and published by his niece, Susan Warner, five years after his death.

jaipreetI am really grateful to Jai for her input on this post. Hopefully I will be able to persuade her to do another one, perhaps on Thomas Braidwood, in due course! Meanwhile, here is another picture of her, because let’s face it, she’s better looking than any of the other photographs I use!


Post script: I am embarrassed to see that I failed to give credit to myk briggs for the picture of the silver ear trumpet, shown above. He has a site at http://www.eartrumpets.co.uk/ dedicated to ear trumpets (yes, he has a collection of dozens and dozens, of all shapes and sizes, and of all ages!). Thanks myk!


  4 Responses to “Teaching the Deaf in 18th century London: A tribute to Rev. John Townsend.”


    Thank you, both Mike and Jai, for knowledge about something I knew nothing about! What a remarkable degree of dedication to bring communication to the forgotten. I only wish that in 250 years attitudes had changed more, as the few deaf people I know can be very frustrated that many hearing persons still treat them as though they are mentally impaired too. I have discovered in this way that sign language has expanded [proving it to be a wonderful living language] to include swear words.


    […] Teaching the Deaf in 18th century London: A tribute to Rev. John Townsend. […]


    In 2007 I published in Canada ‘John Townsend .. Champion of Georgian Charity’, he being my g g g g uncle. A copy is lodged at Dr Wiliiams’ Library in London. Just this week, I have also deposited copies at the British Library and the Library of the Society of Genealogists, as I am in London on a visit from my home in Ottawa. See the Catalogue to DR W. Library.

    Hope it is helpful.

    John Townesend
    (Note .. Watch the spelling!)


    I am grateful to Raymond Lee for pointing out errors in the text of my article:
    1. Thomas Braidwood opened his school in the early months of 1760 when he took on Charles Shirreff as his first pupil. The Abbe de l’Epee opened his shelter for the poor deaf in Paris in the latter part of 1760 – and it was not a school when he first opened it, but a shelter. The school proper was established in 1762, some two years after Braidwood.

    2. The school which Braidwood opened in London in 1783 was based in Grove House, Hackney, and it had no connection with with the London Asylum. The link between the two establishments came about when Joseph Watson, who was trained by Braidwood to become a teacher of the deaf, later became the first head of the London Asylum.

    3. Joseph Watson was not actually a nephew of Thomas Braidwood, but they were distantly related.

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