When an ancestor who was born in the early 19th century was recorded as being deaf-and-dumb* from birth, researchers may not understand how that affected their lives. Some researchers may assume that they would be placed into an asylum, or would live solitary lives, with little contact with the world around them. This is not necessarily the case.
In the 19th century it was difficult to determine if a child was born deaf, with some children not being diagnosed until the age of 2 years when they failed to learn how to speak. In the 1851 census report only those who lacked hearing and speech under the age of 2 years were classed as being truly deaf-and-dumb.
The 1861 census attempted to identify congenital deafness by including the description ‘from birth’ in the infirmities column. This census identified approximately 12 thousand people in England and Wales listed as being deaf-and-dumb from birth, almost 2.5 thousand were born between 1837 and 1846.
Many children may not have been born deaf, but could have become deaf due to childhood infections. Meningitis and Scarlet Fever were believed to account for more than 50% of incidences of deafness in infancy in 1880. Despite this the Alexander Graham Bell, who was part of the Eugenics movement in the late 19th Century, believed that deafness was hereditary, and wanted to prevent deaf people from marrying each other. Research in 1889, however, found that only 2% of deaf and dumb children had two congenitally deaf parents.
From the early 1830’s many deaf institutes, churches and social clubs, were established which provided a social and educational network for the deaf and dumb.
They were initially started for bible study and prayer meetings, but gradually expanded to cater for other social events. By the 1870’s lectures were often translated, parties and outings were popular, and sign language translations of religious services, baptisms, marriages and burials, and on the occasions of sickness, adversity and bereavement, were also available to the deaf community.
Some of the popular activities included art and crafts, amateur dramatic groups which would put on regular performances, Temperance societies, and deaf sports such as football and cricket. In 1891 it was reported that 3,000 deaf people attended the first international deaf football match in Glasgow, Scotland.
These groups were often the lifeline of many deaf-and-dumb people, especially those living in isolated rural communities. It was not unknown for people in rural communities to walk many miles to the nearest town and social club.
Finding a suitable spouse may also have presented challenges for the deaf-and-dumb. One man from Newport, East Yorkshire, who described himself as “unfortunately deaf and dumb”, advertised in his local newspaper for a wife, with the added stipulation that she should be “a member of the Methodist connexion.”
The marriage of deaf-and-dumb couples was unusual enough to appear in the newspapers. One article regarding the marriage of a deaf and dumb couple in Ireland was reported in an East Yorkshire newspaper, appears to express surprise that the couple were “intelligent, industrious and prosperous artisans.” This attitude towards the deaf and dumb can be seen in other articles and publications.
Although there are no statistics for the marriage of the deaf-and-dumb in the mid-19th century, my study found that less than one third of these researched in East Yorkshire did marry, and of those, most married someone who was also deaf-and-dumb. The marriage ceremony was similar to the usual service with the exception that the words of the officiating minister and the responses of the couple were interpreted using sign language often by another minister who had the acquired skills.
Little is known about the family life of the deaf but case studies show that very few, if any, lived in the Workhouse or an Institution simply because they were deaf. Most of those living in Deaf Institutions either worked there as teachers or domestic staff, or were residential pupils gaining an education. However the newspapers did not always understand this, as shown in the reports of the murdered Maria Hailstone who, with her deaf-and-dumb husband, lived at the Hull Institute for the Deaf as a housekeeper/matron to the Master and the residential pupils. In reporting the case several out of town newspapers stated that Maria and her husband were inmates of the Institution, rather than employed residents.
Those who married and had children lived in the same type of accommodation as their hearing neighbours, whilst those who remained unmarried or were widowed either lived alone or with family members.
In my dissertation study only 4 out of the 28 individuals researched lived most of their lives with their parents, however in each case, after the death of those parents the ‘child’ either lived alone or was the Head of the family containing siblings (both hearing and deaf), suggesting that living with a parent was a choice rather than a necessity due to their dependency. In fact those who were regarded as being deaf-and-dumb from birth rarely appear as being totally dependent on others. In the case of 44 year old Thomas Goodison, who lived in Hull, East Yorkshire, with his non-deaf parents, the 1891 and 1901 census returns show that his father had no occupation and was dependant on Thomas, despite having seven other non-deaf children.
It is clear that although life was undoubtedly hard for the early Victorian deaf, they lived a useful and independent life within their communities, just as their non-deaf counterparts did.
* Disclaimer: The term ‘deaf-and-dumb’, although not acceptable in today’s society was the accepted description in the Victoria era, along with the term ‘deaf-mute’. Its use in this writing reflects that and does not imply any irreverence or insult to today’s deaf society.