Today there are assumptions that the Victorian deaf-and-dumb were given the worst kinds of occupations due to their disability. My research shows that this was not initially true.
The education of the deaf-and-dumb in Britain started with the opening of the Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1760, which taught speech, reading, writing and sign language to the children of wealthy parents. This school is believed to have been the first in Britain to use sign language in education.
In 1851 England had nine schools for the deaf-and-dumb, one of those was the Yorkshire Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (YIDD) in Doncaster, West Riding of Yorkshire which had opened in 1823 and catered for pauper children from the age of 9 years. The YIDD provided residential care by means of subscriptions or paid for by Poor Law Unions. The students often undertook public examinations, in a bid to secure more sponsorship and advertise the work of the school.
In letters to the Clergy and Overseers of the Poor, the YIDD committee urged for the early education of deaf-and-dumb children followed by an apprenticeship in a trade, for the cost (in 1852) of £21 a year per child.
In 1855 the Free Schools Bill allowed the free education for pauper children in England and Wales except for those who were deaf, dumb, blind, lunatics or criminals. It was not until 1870 that the Board of Guardians was required to send pauper deaf-and-dumb (and blind) children, under the age of 14 years, to a suitable institution for their education. The education of deaf-and-dumb children became compulsory in 1893.
As with most schools at the time, classrooms often contained several classes catering for different levels of skill and knowledge, rather than age groups as schools are today. At the Doncaster school, level 5 was the lowest class with level 1 being the highest, and each class had an average of 15 pupils each. As well as sign language and lip reading, the subjects taught covered all of the usual subjects, reading, writing, mathematics, geography, history and religious studies etc. as well as sewing and other domestic subjects for the girls and trades, such as tailoring, shoemaking and carpentry for the boys.
Several different ways were used to teach communication skills and was known as the ‘combined method’. This would include signing, finger spelling, natural gestures, using pictures, lip-reading, and speech as well as reading and writing. The use of the combined method of communication was thought by many deaf teachers to be the best qualification for living a practical life.
Up until 1880 most of the deaf schools in the UK had deaf teachers and primarily focused on the use of sign language. From 1868, however, some schools decided to focus on the oral approach and concentrated on teaching speech. The late 19th century saw the start of the ‘manual versus oral’ (signing versus speaking) debates, which led the way to sign language being banned from deaf schools in 1880, and so forcing deaf children to learn how to speak and lip read. This in turn not only affected the children’s education but also their chances of employment and their quality of life.
There has been little research on the occupations these children would have obtained upon leaving school.
The 1861 census report was the first to list the occupations of the deaf-and-dumb and shows that those who were aged under 20 years, had a vast range of occupations from professional classes to typical working class occupations, with the most common being within the Domestic, Industrial and Agricultural occupational groups. The 1871 census report stated that “…to the educated deaf-mute nearly all occupations in which spoken communications are not absolutely necessary are open. … It is well known that the deaf-and-dumb possess the imitative faculty in a high degree, and this enables them to become efficient workmen in many handicrafts and mechanical arts; but they are said to experience difficulty in finding suitable employment.”
My dissertation study for the Post Graduate Diploma in Genealogy found that majority of young deaf men had the same occupations as their fathers and/or hearing brothers, and unmarried deaf women undertook similar occupations as their hearing counterparts.
The effects of the 1880 ban on the use of sign language in deaf schools would be felt by deaf teachers who would find themselves out of work and replaced by hearing teachers who taught pupil how to speak. Generations of deaf people also suffered, as they left school with little general education, and therefore found obtaining work even harder than before, and often could not even manage their own affairs without the help of a hearing person.
* 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