Untold lives blog

10 September 2019

Asylum for the support and education of deaf and dumb children of the poor

An Asylum for the support and education of the deaf and dumb children of the poor was established in London in 1792 by Reverend John Townsend. The institution was maintained by charitable donations.  Its aim was to rescue deaf and dumb children from ‘a state of deprivation, ignorance, and inaction’ and to prevent them from being a burden to society. 

Portrait of Joseph Watson and drawing of the Asylum for the deaf and dumb'Joseph Watson and the Asylum for the deaf and dumb, Camberwell, in which he taught.' Engraving by former pupil George Taylor. Wellcome Collection CC BY

The Asylum opened in Fort Place, Grange Road Bermondsey.  It moved to larger premises in Old Kent Road in 1809 when there were 182 pupils.  Joseph Watson was the principal from its beginning until his death in 1829.  He had a small number of private ‘parlour’ students housed in his own quarters at the Asylum. They were taught by the Braidwood oral method, set out in Watson’s guide entitled Instruction of the deaf and dumb; or, a theoretical and practical view of the means by which they are taught to speak and understand a language.  Charity pupils were instructed using sign language.

Illustration showing a variety of people from John Watson, Instruction of the deaf and dumb; or, a theoretical and practical view of the means by which they are taught to speak and understand a languageIllustration from John Watson, Instruction of the deaf and dumb; or, a theoretical and practical view of the means by which they are taught to speak and understand a language (London, 1809-10) Noc


There was a ‘manufactory’ in Fort Place from 1801 to 1820 which offered practical vocational training in tailoring, shoemaking and stay-making for the Asylum’s children.  The manufactory also operated a printing press.

The Asylum actively aimed to spread the word about its existence throughout the UK.  Applications far exceeded the number of places available and there was a long waiting list.  Applicants had to be aged between nine to fourteen years and pupils were selected by a poll amongst the Governors.

The Asylum published reports of its work which included lists of current pupils and details of their father’s trade and location, and the number of siblings.  Children came from a variety of backgrounds, urban and rural – their parents were labourers, artisans, shopkeepers, publicans, schoolteachers, agricultural workers and small farmers, seamen, soldiers, deserted mothers and widows.

In the 1817 report there is a note about John Williams, whose father William was a stone-cutter and house painter in Merthyr Tydfil Glamorganshire with six children.  As it had been noticed that John had ‘a considerable talent in drawing’, the Asylum Committee thought it would be a good idea to allow him to receive instruction.  They arranged for John to go to the British Museum every day for practice and moved him to live at the manufactory to make his journey easier.  His work was inspected by the eminent artist Richard Westmacott who took John under his patronage.

John returned to Merthyr and earned his living as a house painter and glazier.  However he continued to paint portraits and landscapes and appears to have been well-known locally as an artist.  Examples of his work have survived including a portrait of William Moses which is inscribed: ’Drawn by John Williams, Deaf & Dumb 1814’.

It has been said that John was more talented than Penry Williams, his famous younger brother. Penry secured patronage to support his art training in London and he spent most of his career in Rome.  John died in Merthyr at the age of 51.

Our next post will look at the family of Asylum pupils Henry and Louisa Tattler from London.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Plan of the Asylum for the support and education of the Deaf and Dumb, situated in the Grange Road, Bermondsey (London, 1797)
List of the Governors and Officers of the Asylum for the support and education of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor; with the rules ... and an introductory statement of the purposes of the institution (London, 1817)
List of the Governors and Officers of the Asylum for the support and education of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor; with the rules ... and an introductory statement of the purposes of the institution (London,1821)
Joseph Watson, Instruction of the deaf and dumb; or, a theoretical and practical view of the means by which they are taught to speak and understand a language; containing hints for the correction of impediments in speech: together with a vocabulary illustrated by numerous copperplates, representing the most common objects necessary to be named by beginners, 2 vols (London, 1809-10)
Mary E. Kitzel., 'Creating a Deaf place: the development of the Asylum for Deaf and Dumb Poor Children in the early nineteenth century,' Journal of Cultural Geography (2017)
Derrick Pritchard Webley, Cast to the winds – the life and work of Penry Williams (1802-1885), (National Library of Wales, 1997)

 

Image from The Life of the Buddha

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