Seeing Our History – Outdoor Blind People in Edwardian Scotland

By Iain Hutchison

Seeing Our History is a Heritage Lottery Fund-supported research project conducted in 2014/15 by the Royal National Institute of the Blind-Scotland and aided in practical terms by Lothian Health Services Archive and the National Records of Scotland. The basis of the project was a Register of Outdoor Blind people living in Edinburgh and the southeast of Scotland between 1903 and 1910. The Register had been poorly compiled with many incomplete entries, but this gave added incentive to research volunteers in their quest to reconstruct the lives of outdoor blind people – people living in their communities and beyond the patronage of the Edinburgh Blind Asylum and its workshops.

Members of the Seeing Our History research team. (Photo: Iain Hutchison)
Members of the Seeing Our History research team
(Photo: Iain Hutchison)
The project team, consisting of research volunteers some of whom have sight loss, Dr Iain Hutchison, the project research historian, and Dr Catriona Burness, RNIB-Scotland’s senior research officer, had several potential lines of enquiry from which to choose. With 1,170 entries in the Register, a quantitative study was attractive, but when the incomplete nature of many entries was confronted, and numerous duplications identified, a qualitative approach was seen to hold greater potential.

Selling matches in
Edinburgh's Old Town
(Photo: City of Edinburgh Council)
Several detailed case studies resulted from this qualitative strategy and as life stories were developed, the study extended well beyond the eight years during which entries were made in the Register. The Edinburgh Mission to Outdoor Blind, the first such mission in Scotland, founded in 1857, had the instruction of tactile print as its primary objective. It used the Moon system exclusively for four decades before also embracing braille. Its concern was that blind people living among the sighted population should not be deprived of access to religious works. The Edinburgh Blind Asylum was also guided by a strong religious ethos, but the workshops that were the core of its activities meant that it catered for productive and therefore ‘ablebodied’ blind people.
The outdoor blind tended to be those blind people ‘disabled’ from working, or who, if they did work, earned insufficient money for it to provide meaningful self-support. They included elderly people, people who had lost a trade due to accident-related blindness, married women and widows, paupers confined to poorhouses, and the Mission’s so-called ‘migrant class’ whose claim to independence was in reality a precarious existence in lodging houses and temporary accommodation.

The primary output from the project was a book entitled Feeling Our History. The title emphasised not only the role of tactile print to people with sight loss, but the emotions affecting individual lives along with their tribulations, successes, and diverse social relationships. The book presented the project finds in two ways. One was through a selection of themes tracing the work of the Missions to Outdoor Blind and the broader experiences of blind people in such spheres as employment, education, poverty, communication, religion and charitable intervention. The second approach was to showcase the lives of ten of the people whom our researchers had explored in detail.

The book was produced in five formats in order to provide maximum accessibility to people with sight loss, and included large print, braille, audio and e-book formats. An interesting discovery was that people with total sight loss, in addition to other options, also wished to have a standard print version of the book so that it could be passed around their sighted friends.

The project had also undertaken to produce six podcasts for Insight Radio (now renamed Connect Radio), the radio station of RNIB. The podcasts, each lasting about ten minutes, were scripted in consultation with individual researchers and combined their case study investigations with a chosen broader theme.

Lizzie Hoseason spent her final years in a mental asylum where this image was taken. (Photo: Lothian Health Services Archive, Edinburgh University Library)
Lizzie Hoseason spent her final years in a
mental asylum where this image was taken.
(Photo: Lothian Health Services Archive,
Edinburgh University Library)
The podcast preparatory work opened up two unanticipated additional opportunities. The Missions to Outdoor Blind approved of certain occupations for the blind people in which it took an interest, but disapproved of others. It took a jaundiced view of street musicians whose activities, it thought, were akin to begging and might take them to unsavoury locations such as public houses. Street musicians were also free spirits and that didn’t suit the missionaries either. But what kind of music did they play? Music hall was popular among the general public and singer/songwriter Sarah Caltieri drew on music hall numbers to create the theme tune adopted for the podcast intros and to craft lyrics that told the story of Lizzie Hoseason, one of our characters, and her daughter, Sophie.

The second opportunity was to produce an additional, smaller book, which showcased the podcast scripts. It was entitled Hearing Our History.

The podcasts and the books can be accessed at: http://www.insightradio.co.uk/seeingourhistory.html#.V3PPjfkrLIU

Recommended Citation:
Iain Hutchison (2016): Seeing Our History – Outdoor Blind People in Edwardian Scotland. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 17.


Doing Public Disability History

By Daniel Blackie

The clue is in the name. Public disability history is ultimately about getting people – the public – to think about disability history. Simple as that. Only it’s not really that simple, is it? As I’ve found out over the past few years, doing public disability history is actually quite challenging.

The first, and most important, thing to consider is how to reach the public? During the Disability and Industrial Society project I learned that there are many ways to do this and that the best public engagement strategies employ as many of them as possible.

For example, our public engagement programme included a touring museum exhibition, public lectures, panel discussions and workshops, as well as regular blogposts, tweets, podcasts and pieces in the popular media. Although very different formats, all involved writing to greater or lesser extents. The text for the panels displayed in the exhibition, the notes for lectures, the emails back-and-forth with journalists. Writing, writing, writing. And this is something disability historians have to think about when doing public history.

Disability and Industrial Society’s Blog page. Blog posts were an important part of the team’s public engagement strategy
Disability and Industrial Society’s Blog page
Blog posts were an important part of the team’s public engagement strategy
Perhaps the most obvious issue in this regard is length. A 140 character tweet, a 150 word exhibition panel, a thousand word blog post, a one hour lecture: all impose space or time constraints that mean we have to choose our words carefully.  As too do people’s attention spans. 

It doesn’t matter how great or interesting the message, there’s only so long you can realistically expect to hold a person’s attention. Short and sweet is definitely best when it comes to public engagement. Language is also important. It’s no good presenting disability history in terms that nobody but specialists can understand. Clear, jargon-free language is absolutely essential if you want to reach as wide an audience as possible. 

Grabbing people’s attention is another challenge. Images and objects can be a help here. I visited our exhibition a few times after it opened at the National Waterfront Museum in Wales.  It was one of several exhibitions visitors to the museum could visit, so we had lots of competition for people’s attention. Every time I visited, I noticed some visitors start to rush past ‘our’ part of the building, presumably on their way to enjoy something else the museum had to offer. Many, however, quickly stopped in their tracks after an image or artefact in our exhibition caught their attention. Most lingered a while and started to examine other aspects of our displays, some at quite great length.

‘Falling in of a Mine’ (1869). One of the images featured in our exhibition
‘Falling in of a Mine’ (1869)
One of the images featured in our exhibition
The perspectives and stories we choose to highlight can also act as ‘hooks’ to entice members of the public to stop and think about disability history. Dramatic historical episodes or incidents, can be especially useful in this regard. 

During our research for the Disability and Industrial Society project, for instance, we uncovered the story of two mining brothers from south Wales – Davy and Griffith Ellis. Griffith had a mobility impairment and used a wooden leg. In December 1865, both brothers were working underground at Gethin Colliery when a terrible explosion occurred. Fearing suffocation from the deadly gases that followed the blast, they attempted to get out of the mine together as quickly as possible. Due to his mobility impairment, however, Griffith had trouble keeping up with his brother and fell behind. Worried that he might not make it to the surface in time, Griffith called out for help and his loyal brother went back to get him. It was a fateful decision as both men perished, overwhelmed by the noxious gases they tried so hard to escape. 

Incidents like this have a clear ‘human interest’ element that appeals to journalists and the general public alike. Emphasising them in our public engagement activities can help make disability history interesting to audiences beyond academia, furthering the field’s broader goals. Who doesn’t like a good story? Good stories (even ones with sad endings) have the power to entertain and hold people’s attention, but the best ones do much more than that, especially in a public history context. 

The drama, excitement, and tragedy of the Ellis brothers’ desperate and unsuccessful flight for safety is riveting, but it is also intriguing and raises lots of disability-related questions. For instance, how were men with significant impairments like Griffith able to work in such a physically demanding and dangerous sector as the nineteenth-century coal industry? By suggesting the question, moreover, the case of Griffith Ellis unsettles popular ideas about disabled people’s capacity for work. This is exactly the kind of thing disability history is supposed to do: challenge dominant disability stereotypes and get people to rethink their attitudes about disabled people. 

Yet this approach is not without potential pitfalls. Using dramatic, exciting, tragic, inspiring or disturbing ‘hooks’ to capture public imagination also risks enforcing some of the stereotypes public disability history seeks to undermine. Without proper contextualisation, for instance, Griffith Ellis’s story might become just another tale of heroic overcoming that feeds the pernicious ‘supercrip’ stereotype disability scholars and activists frequently critique. Alternatively, focusing on his death might promote the idea that disabled people have been little more than passive victims in history. 

Ultimately, of course, we cannot determine or control the interpretations people arrive at when they encounter public disability history. We can suggest a framework for making sense of the images, stories, and objects we present in our public engagement activities, but we cannot compel people to adopt it. At its best, public disability history spurs people to find out more about the still largely hidden history of disability on their own, with friends, or with their families, and gives them some ideas about where and how they might start looking.

Recommended Citation:
Daniel Blackie (2016): Doing Public Disability History. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 16.