12 January 2016

Brighton - Moon, Matches and Microchips

A History of Being Blind in Brighton

Judy Middleton (1988 revised 2014)

copyright © J.Middleton
The new St Dunstan’s, designed by Francis Lorne, opened in 1938. 

William Moon (1818-1894)

William Moon is such an important figure in the history of caring for Brighton’s blind people that it is hard to imagine what their lives must have been like before his energy illumined their plight. It is almost as though there were no blind people before his advent: like dark shadows they were swept out of the way of ordinary life.

The majority of Brighton’s blind (if they were not born thus afflicted) must have lost their sight through injury or disease. Life was tough enough for the able-bodied working class who had to endure long hours of work in order to make ends meet. So just how did a blind person cope?
 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums,
Brighton & Hove
William Moon (1818-1894)

The hardest part to bear must have been the knowledge they were a drain on the family’s slender resources. If there were no family, what alternative was there but to beg? The idea of ending up in the Workhouse was as horrifying to them as it was to their sighted friends but undoubtedly that is where some of them ended their days. There was also the fact that there was nothing to occupy their minds and nothing to raise them above their circumstances or make them aware of the larger world beyond.

William Moon was born in Kent, a healthy baby with perfect eyesight. But when he was four years old he suffered an attack of scarlet fever that caused him to lose the sight of one eye. His other eye was seriously affected too but his family hoped that with suitable care all would be well. Towards this end, he endured several operations on his eyes, which must have been a frightful ordeal without the benefit of modern anaesthetics. Sad to relate the treatment was unsuccessful and at the age of twenty-one he became totally blind. Many years later when he was reaching the end of a long life, he remarked, ‘It has been for me a long night but a bright day.’

William Moon had already embarked on theological studies because he hoped to become a minister. But with blindness these hopes were dashed. Instead of allowing himself to be plunged into depression, he set his mind to work on devising an alphabet for blind people.

He was not the first in this field. The Braille system was published in 1829 and there were other embossed systems too. But Moon found by the experience of trying to teach the blind that these other alphabets were too complicated. Simplicity was his keyword. 

For example it meant that a blind boy who had been struggling to read for five years without success, mastered the Moon system in ten days. Whereas Braille had 140 contractions, the Moon system had only six and because Moon was based on Roman capital letters, the usual alphabet used by sighted people, those who became blind later in life found it easier to learn than Braille. To read Braille efficiently the blind person needed to have a sensitive touch. But an older person with work-calloused fingers or an infirm person found they could cope with Moon more easily. The one disadvantage with the Moon method was that it took up more space than Braille for instance.

The Roman capital letters used in the Moon system were of course modified forms. There were nine letters virtually unaltered, seven letters slightly altered plus ten new shapes. The fingers ‘read’ the letters by moving from left to right, then down to the next line and moving from right to left. This way the blind person did not lose his way in the text so frequently.

Moon was fascinated to discover years later that his style of alphabet went back to ancient Hittite and Egyptian scripts. The Greeks called this forwards, backwards style ‘ox-ploughing’ that is up one furrow, down the next. Moon commented that there was nothing new under the sun. It is interesting to note that Hebrew script is read from right to left and so are Chinese characters but in the latter case they appear in horizontal columns.

At one time William Moon lived at 104 Queen’s Road, Brighton with his wife and children. It was a struggle to survive financially and Mrs Moon kept a shop to help out. Moon scratched a living teaching blind pupils, for which he was paid 5/- or 7/6d a week. His very first pupil was a blind woman who lived near Smithers’ Brewery in North Street.

In the evening Moon was busy trying to work out how to produce plates of Moon print. After many experiments he devised a plate of tinned sheet iron to which were fixed characters made of tinned copper wire. He began to print Moon books in his own house and it was not until 1856 that he built a small workshop adjacent to his house funded by Sir Charles Lowther who also came to lay the foundation stone. Sir Charles Hugh Lowther, 3rd Baronet, (1803-1894) became one of Moon’s closest friends and they had a common bond because they had both become blind due to scarlet fever, although in the case of Sir Charles, he had been blind since infancy. His mother is reputed to have imported the first embossed books into the country in 1821 for his benefit.

By December 1858 Moon had completed the whole of the Bible consisting of 5,000 pages printed in 60 volumes. The task had taken his ten solid years of arduous work.

Moon had the advantage of remembering colours and shapes but he was aware that those born blind had no conception of what for instance a horse looked like. A blind girl he knew thought a horse walked upright on two legs while holding the other two up like arms. Moon then embarked on a whole series of embossed pictures of all sorts of subjects with two of the most popular being portraits of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. Moon also embossed maps and the solar system.

Although Moon taught pupils in his small school, he realized there must be many more blind people isolated at home who would be glad to learn how to read, if only someone could come and visit them. In 1885 the Home Teaching Society was formed, at first in London and then also at Brighton. But first blind people had to be identified and located and it was not an easy task. It meant going about and asking passers-by if they knew the whereabouts of any blind people. Fortunately, Moon had the assistance of the energetic Miss Graham during his stints in London.

During the years 1854 and 1855 the two of them were frequently out and about in London from nine in the morning to nine at night. They would become so engrossed they would forget the time and then realize they would have to run to the railway station to catch the Brighton train. On one occasion they arrived panting at the top of a flight of stairs as the train pulled alongside the platform but before they reached the bottom, the train began to move out. Nothing daunted Miss Graham shouted for the train to be stopped. It was, but in the hurry and confusion it started up leaving Moon stranded on the platform and Miss Graham inside the train. She shouted again and the train stopped while Moon was retrieved from the platform.

On one of their London excursions William Moon and Miss Graham passed through St Paul’s churchyard making their usual enquiries about blind people. A woman running an apple stall nearby said she had sometimes seen a little blind girl and she summoned a boy to show the visitors where the child lived. The mother agreed to let them see her daughter and led them up a winding stair to a room at the very top of the house. Inside they found the blind girl and her sister who was ill with scarlet fever in a bed in the corner. Miss Graham was unconcerned about the illness but it must have struck a chord with Moon because it was the same illness that had started him on the road to blindness. The visitors lost no time in trying to explain the alphabet to the blind girl and they were pleased to find her bright and responsive. On their way back Moon was amused when he was told the girl’s house was situated in Labour-in-Vain Court. But the story had a happy ending because the child was sent to the Blind School at Brighton where she was an attentive pupil. In due course she became an organist at one of London’s churches.

The Moon Society

The Moon Society was founded in 1847 and was dedicated to the production of books in Moon type. It was definitely not a small, parochial undertaking for the benefit of blind people in Brighton and possibly London because it was an international enterprise. Sir Charles Lowther was also a generous donor to this enterprise.

By 1892 the astonishing number of 551 different titles in English had been printed with another 223 in foreign languages ranging from Hindi to Urdu and from Swedish to Dutch. A Moon book was necessarily bulky because Moon script was larger than other embossed scripts. Thus a single edition of around 700 pages in ordinary type would require seventeen large volumes in Moon type. Each letter was hand-cut from copper wire and fixed to tin plate and so the labour involved was immense. Moon had one particularly devoted worker, a woman, who laboured away at Queen’s Road for 44 years cutting out a mountain of copper letters.

But it was worthwhile work and correspondence arrived from all over the world expressing the gratitude of blind people for William Moon’s alphabet. The United States of America had upwards of 65,000 blind people (50,000 of them adults) most of whom were unable to read for themselves unless the script was embossed in a clear and simple type like Moon’s.

American interest in Moon began in 1870 when Sir Charles Lowther presented 2,000 volumes to New York for distribution to the principle cities. In 1871 the University of Philadelphia awarded Moon the honorary degree of LL.D. in recognition of his work for the blind. In 1882 William Moon and his daughter Adelaide made their only trip to the States and founded the Pennsylvania Home Teaching Society in Philadelphia and other large cities as well as some free libraries.

There was also a Home Teaching Scheme in Australia. Most of the teachers were blind and they had to be prepared to travel enormous distances to reach all their pupils. For instance, the energetic Mr Prescott of Sydney had around 300 pupils and visited one hundred different places, sometimes clocking up 10,000 miles of travel in a year. Mr Prescott originated from Kent, England and emigrated to New Zealand to join the constabulary but during his service he became blind. Whilst he was in hospital it was suggested to him that he ought to learn Moon’s alphabet and off he went to study at the Melbourne Institute in Australia. He made such rapid progress that he was soon eligible to become a member of the Home Teaching Scheme.

In India there was a desperate need for more Home Teachers. Already the Gospels of St John and St Matthew were available in Hindi and Urdu and by 1892 Pilgrim’s Progress was finished.

From 1847 until the end of 1892 the total number of books sent out came to an impressive 194,993. In 1892 alone there were seventeen new works – nine in English, two in Hindustani, one in Tamil, four in Hindi and one in Welsh.

The Lord’s Prayer or some portions of Scripture were embossed in 419 languages or dialects. From this it will be deduced that missionary work went hand in hand with teaching blind people to read. Indeed the British and Foreign Bible Society supported Moon’s work by grants of money.

In 1915 the Moon Society became a branch of the National Institute for the Blind, which meant that more funding was pumped into the Moon workshop. As demand continued to increase, new machinery was installed. (In 1953 the institute received its Royal Charter and became the Royal National Institute for the Blind).

The Moon works stayed at Queen’s Road, Brighton until February 1960 when it moved to Reigate. The site of William Moon’s endeavour is now covered by a modern office block but he has not been forgotten and in October 1964 a plaque to honour him was unveiled on the building. George Robinson, aged 76, was one of those present at the unveiling. He had been employed in printing Moon books for 43 years. He also had a personal link with the early days because he could remember Miss Adelaide Moon and Dr Robert Moon, William Moon’s daughter and son. Sadly, this plaque no longer exists.

It was inevitable that the provision of books for the blind came to be undertaken on a national scale. This was known as the Centralization Scheme and the aim was to have a national library in one place. It was felt that this was the only way to ensure all books could be utilized to the full.

Brighton was regarded as a case in point because Brighton Free Library had a valuable collection of Moon books that sat idle upon the shelves once the local blind people had read them. It would be much more sensible to store them at a central depot where interested readers from all over the country could have access. There was an added factor because Brighton Free Library had such a good stock of Moon books that they refused to buy Braille books, which was rather hard on local Braille readers. In 1909 Brighton agreed to join the Centralization Scheme.

The body chiefly involved in this decision was yet another society for the blind. It was known as the Brighton Blind Missionary Fund and was founded in 1886 and Sir William Tindal Robertson left the Fund £92-6-2d in his will. But it was soon realized the Fund was more or less duplicating the work already being done by Miss Moon, particularly with regard to missionary matters and providing assistance to blind people. The Fund’s one original contribution was to pay blind people to copy books in Braille. In 1909 the income from the Trust Fund was transferred to the National Lending Library for the Blind while local blind people continued to be employed as copyists.

Brighton Society for the Blind

In 1862 William Moon founded Brighton, Hove and Sussex Blind Relief and Visiting Society, later known as Brighton Society for the Welfare of the Blind and finally as Brighton Society for the Blind. It was part of Moon’s ongoing concern for blind people many of them living in poverty.

It is interesting to note the Receipt Books quite often recorded gifts to the Society in goods rather than cash. For instance, in December 1873 a Mr Lelliott gave 12 yards of calico while Mrs Lyn donated 1lb of tea and 3lbs of sugar. People running businesses near Moon’s house in Queen’s Road gave what they could; the Windmill Inn in Upper North Street and the Blacksmith’s Arms in North Street sent one shilling each. In fact the list of donors resembles a directory of well-known Brighton business names. There was Attree (solicitor) Beal’s (stationer) Cheesman (builder) Mrs R.H. Penney (shipowning family) Mrs Soper (Soper’s Emporium) Vokins (family store) Willett (builder) and Gerald Loder MP for Brighton who lived in Abinger House on Brighton seafront. The most generous patron was Major Way of Wick Hall, Hove, who from 1878 until his death ten years later donated an average of £26 a year.

The Society was thus able to distribute some comforts to blind, poor people. In 1872 Mr Wisdom was given new boots (cost 11/6d) and stockings (cost 1/6d) while Edward Cogling was fitted out with a pair of trousers costing 8/- and a waistcoat for 3/-.

At Christmas 1872 the following people were given ½ cwt of coal and three small loaves each ‘ Avery, Belsey, Bishop, Clernow, Cobby, Coltrup, Cotton, Mrs Gillan, Randal, Shrivel, Mrs Smith, Sullivan, Tapner, Tull and Webb.

As more money was donated, so more comforts could be passed on. By Christmas 1877 not only did blind people receive the usual coal, bread and potatoes but also currants, raisins, tea, sugar and suet. By the turn of the century blind people living at Lewes were also being assisted while in 1906 a note records that seventeen shillings was sent to blind persons in Brighton Workhouse.

By 1915 the economic climate was difficult with the privations associated with the First World War. The generous patrons of the Victorian era were long gone and it was a struggle to raise money by the time-honoured method of Pound Day and Sales of Work. Yet the Society knew of 120 blind people living in Brighton and Hove of whom 58 received two loaves of bread each week. At Christmas 63 parcels of clothing and groceries were distributed to needy, blind people.

Miss Andrews was one person with first-hand experience of the crunch. She was a missionary worker who had patiently gone around paying some 2,000 visits to blind people. Unfortunately, the Society came to the conclusion they could no longer afford her salary of £36-8s a year and felt ‘obliged to dispense with her valuable services. In future unpaid volunteers would continue the work. No wonder the annual report made a heartfelt plea to all kind-hearted persons to support the Society ‘so that we may continue the benefits we have been accustomed to bestow on those cut off from the light of day, the majority of whom are very poor, many afflicted, and others advanced in years.’

In March 1915 Miss Elizabeth Munro Ritchie, who had been Adelaide Moon’s assistant from 1908 until she died in 1914, was asked to become secretary to the Society. She generously agreed to take the post without salary until such time as the Society could afford to pay her. In 1916 she at last received a salary of £36 a year but by the end of 1918 she was paid £100 per annum.

She was still going strong in December 1932 when she introduced the symbol of a lantern bearing the motto The Lantern that Lightens Brighton’s Blind. It proved such a popular choice that soon the Society became known as The Lantern.

The plight of blind people had at last roused the Government to some action and the Blind persons Act of 1920 required Brighton Borough to make provision for them in certain specific ways. It also made it possible for a blind person to draw an old age pension at the age of 50 instead of having to wait until the 70th birthday.

But there was still plenty of scope for a voluntary organisation. By 1924 there were 211 blind people on the Society’s register and the annual report printed some statistics.

                                                                       Male        Female       Total
Number of unemployable                                61              98            159
Number of employed                                       32                9              41
Number in training                                            4                5                9
Attended sighted school                                    1                0                1
Trained but not employed                                 1                0                1
                                                                         99            112            211

By this time there was a training centre where lessons were given in Moon and Braille as well as in basketwork, chair caning, shorthand and typing. There continued to be a home teacher who visited people in their homes.

By 1925 the number of blind people on the Society’s books had risen to 280 and out of this number 24 were blinded soldiers, 20 were in the Workhouse and only seven were of independent means.

Street Musicians

In the 1920s there were seventeen blind men who scratched a living as street musicians or newspaper vendors. Harry Vowles, known as Blind Harry, became such a familiar sight on the seafront playing his accordion that he featured on a souvenir postcard in a series entitled ‘Brighton Characters’. He was photographed on the seafront, just over the border in Hove, wearing a smart suit, flat cap and trademark round, dark glasses. He also had a fine Charlie Chaplin-style moustache. When he wanted a rest from playing his accordion he would go to Preston Street where he would entertain customers in the New Pier Tavern by playing the piano. No doubt he would be very surprised to know that in recent times a pub in Church Road, Hove, changed its name to the Blind Busker in his honour. The pub used to have an enlarged version of the famous postcard as its pub sign hanging outside.    
copyright © J.Middleton
Harry Vowles 
plays his accordion on Hove seafront. 

Walter Chapman was another street musician. He was aged 48 and the Society presented him with a piano so that he could entertain the public in the street. One day in 1925 he was playing the piano as usual when he suddenly collapsed and had to be rushed to the Sussex County Hospital where he had an operation. The Society came to the rescue by paying for the cost of the ambulance, doctor’s fees and his wife’s bus fares. Meanwhile, two of Walter’s friends rallied around and took the piano out into the streets while Walter lay in hospital; they gave Mrs Chapman a third of their earnings. When Walter left hospital he was too ill to be able to continue as a street musician and the following year he was found to be suffering from tuberculosis. The Society allowed him 18/- a week and he died in 1930.

Albert Simkins of Tichbourne Street also provided music for the passing public but with a wind-up gramophone and waited to find out what coins people would give him. As well as being blind, he was also crippled with rheumatism and in 1926, after being ill, he had had enough of street life and applied to the Society for an allowance.

In the 1930s Fred was also to be found on the streets with his gramophone but only in the summer months. During the winter the Society allowed him 15/- a week all the time he was not earning. By 1938 the Society had increased his grant to 25/- a week. But this caused a row at home and a misunderstanding because Fred’s fiercely independent wife wrote an indignant letter to the Society refusing the money. The Committee instructed Miss Grey to visit Fred’s wife and to explain the situation plainly.

Case Histories

Old Henry aged 68 of Jubilee Street was a blind beggar who wanted to come off the streets. The Society agreed to allow him 15/- a week provided that he ceased soliciting alms. But old habits die hard, and perhaps Henry missed the street bustle and perhaps he had built up a clientele who regularly gave him money. At any rate six months later in 1932 Henry’s allowance was stopped because he had been spotted back at his old begging post without reporting it to the Society.

If you thought the little match girl belonged to Hans Christian Andersen, consider Edith’s case. Admittedly she was no girl, being all of 51 years of age but she was blind and her only source of income was through selling matches on the streets; this was in 1932. Out of her earnings she had to find 8/6d for rent and by the time she applied to the Society for assistance she was 30/- in arrears and owed £4-2-7d, the wholesale price for her matches.

One of the saddest cases was that of Griselda who had always suffered from weak eyesight. She was trained at the Barclay Home and worked as a domestic servant until she was thirty years old. But her eyesight grew worse and she had to give up work. Just when it seemed her life had reached its lowest point, she thought she had found happiness with a soldier stationed at Preston Barracks. No doubt he made some promises to her but he vanished when she became heavily pregnant. It turned out he gave her a false name and could not be traced. She was left on her own and gave birth to twins. Her sole support was a married sister who managed to give her a little money although the sister was already supporting their crippled mother. The Society agreed to help by allowing Griselda 17/6d for her and the twins.

Griselda does not seem to have learnt the lesson regarding men because four years later she gave birth to another illegitimate child. But at least this father did not disappear and he made her allowance of 4/- a week to support his child. Griselda had also been receiving money from the Public Assistance Committee but in 1938 they suddenly had a fit of conscience and said they could not allow her any money because her children were illegitimate.

Griselda was thrown back upon the generosity of the Society. They helped her out when she had to go into hospital and they purchased a pair of spectacles for her so that she could see better when she was outside although she was unable to see well enough to be able to do any work inside the house.

When Griselda was aged 38 she at last had a wedding ring on her finger when she married a registered blind man. The RNIB employed her husband as a home worker, probably he was engaged in basket making or chair caning, and so she did not have to rely on the Society for support although they continued to give her an allowance for the children. In June 1942 her children were evacuated for a short time and during the same year her husband underwent an operation on his eyes. He recovered eventually but was unable to work for a while. By 1946 Griselda had one dependent child left at home while the other two had found jobs and that is where the record ends.

Frank’s story is another one that can be traced in some detail from the first time his name appears in the records in 1925 when he was aged 31. He was not totally blind but his eyesight was too poor for ordinary employment and he earned some money for his basket weaving. He had to support not just himself but also his wife Nellie and four children. Although the RNIB employed him as a home-worker, it appears basket weaving was not his forte. He thought he was not being paid enough and he complained to the Society. But when discreet inquiries were made at the Home-workers Department at Reigate, it was discovered Frank was not thought capable of doing many kinds of basketwork. But the Society felt Frank should be kept on with the home-workers scheme and agreed to make up his earnings to 16/- a week.

The year 1933 was a bad one for the family. Frank’s teeth were decayed and some ached so badly he had to seek help. The Society paid for the cost of extractions and dentures. By the time winter set in the whole family appeared to be undernourished and one child was in the Infirmary. Their total income from all sources came to 36/- and their rent was 7/6d. The Society thought a quart of milk a day and some fresh eggs ought to do them some good.

The following year Frank lost his place on the home-working scheme because he was not working up to standard and the small amount of work he did produce only earned him 10/- a week. The Society stepped in and made him an allowance of 36/- a week.

Three months later Frank’s son John aged six was causing anxiety. The Society’s Medical Officer thought the child had tuberculosis but the town’s Medical Officer of Health did not agree and the child was refused free milk. On top of this the mother was ill and had to go into hospital and the Society paid a woman 5/- a week to clean their house. In 1936 Nellie was registered blind and so here were two blind people struggling to get by with four children. They took in a lodger and this brought in 5/- a week and later on Frank earned a little by manually blowing the organ for church services, which produced 2/- a week. In 1939 one of their children was in and out of the Sanatorium but by 1940 life began to be a little easier. One son was working and self-sufficient and the family was able to move to a better address. The following year their daughter also found a job. By 1945 with Frank and Nellie in their fifties, their reliance on the Society gradually lessened as their children began to contribute towards their upkeep.

The 1930s was also a time of difficulty for the Society because of the Depression. Like most other charities, the subscription list had diminished. Fortunately Brighton Corporation gave the Society an annual grant, which in 1932 came to £2,960. But if it had not been for the occasional bequest (such as £3,250 from the late James Turner) things would have been black indeed.

(Some names in Case Histories have been changed).


There were attempts to diversify the trades that blind people could follow other than those pursuits already mentioned. In 1934 the blind workforce was still predominantly male with just five women working as trained machine knitters and another five working as weavers. For males basket weaving was still the most popular work with eighteen men engaged in it and there were 13 mat-makers. Boot repairing was another good trade employing eight men and another eight men earned a living as piano tuners. There was one man trained in massage and it is worth mentioning that Lord Fraser was to speak warmly in praise of blind masseurs. A modern occupation was that of telephone operator but there was only one. Altogether in 1934 there were 86 men earning money in various trades as opposed to 11 women although there were 155 blind women on the register.  


The wireless was a boon to blind people, providing them with entertainment, news and information and it also put them on a par with their sighted neighbours. As most blind people were poor, the provision of a wireless set for them posed something of a problem.

A ‘Wireless for the Blind’ was set up nationally and on Christmas Day 1929 Winston Churchill broadcast an appeal. In one of his memorable phrases, he asked the listening public to send in donations so that it would be possible to boast, ‘The blind all have wireless sets. It is the custom of the country.’ At least the blind did not have to purchase a wireless receiving licence; this was the result of a Bill instigated by Lord Fraser of Lonsdale. Lord Fraser (1897-1974) was blinded in the First World War when he was on active service. He was a founding member and national president of the Royal British Legion, chairman of St Dunstan’s and served on the council of the RNIB for 30 years.

During the 1930s Brighton Radio Circuit installed their relay service free of charge for the blind but by 1934 the manager Mr Skipper was obliged to inform the Society it was impossible to continue. The British Wireless Fund paid 30/- for each installation but the cost of maintenance was too great if no payment were made. The Society agreed to pay £11 a year. The blind were asked to pay five pennies a month maintenance or 5/- a year; this was felt to be a fair charge in view of the great demand for a wireless set. Our old friend Fred (he of the wind-up gramophone) refused to pay his five pennies in 1934. The Society told him in no uncertain terms that if he did not pay up, his wireless would be taken away and given to another blind person anxious to have one.

By 1938 the relay system had brought broadcasting into the homes of 154 blind people living in Brighton and Hove and proved ‘an unending source of interest to those confined to their homes.’

Brighton Asylum for the Blind

In the history of caring for the blind there are many strands leading back to William Moon and this school in another one. It was his enterprise in starting a small school for blind pupils in his own house in Queen’s Road that led to the foundation of the Blind School, which claimed to be one of the oldest in the country.
copyright © J.Middleton
The Blind Asylum, designed by George Somers Clarke,
 opened in Eastern Road in 1861. 

After a short spell in Moon’s house, the blind children were taught in a building in Egremont Place, which was shared by deaf and dumb children. But the number of blind pupils increased and the school moved again and by 1848 was situated in the Central National Schools in Church Street with the entrance around the corner in Jubilee Street.

By 1861 the school, called the Blind Asylum, taught seventeen children (nine girls and eight boys). The maximum period of training was seven years and children were not admitted before they were six years old or older than twelve.

The Victorian attitude to the blind (and William Moon’s to be honest) was heavily tinged with religion. This sentiment is well demonstrated in the following contemporary statement. ‘The Blind Children are trained in habits of industry, and assiduous attention is given to their religious exercises; thus in the midst of darkness opening the eye of their understanding to the prospect of a better and brighter inheritance.’ This sentiment continued. In 1909 the aim of the Blind School was still ‘the religious and general instruction of the Blind’. Towards this end an official from the Diocese of Chichester arrived at the school regularly to test children on their religious knowledge.

On 22 October 1861 the Blind Asylum opened its new premises in Eastern Road. George Somers Clarke was the architect responsible for the design of the building and he seems to have taken his inspiration straight from the famous Ca’ d’Oro in Venice. In the new quarters the curriculum widened with music and singing being added to a good basic education besides wool and basketwork.

By the 1890s the general public were no longer allowed to come and gape at the children, as had been the custom. Visiting was restricted to the first afternoon of the month. The children did not leave once they reached sixteen either. Instead girls were allowed to remain until they were aged twenty-one and boys until they were eighteen.

All this time the Blind Asylum had operated as a mixed school but in 1904 the decision was taken that henceforth it would be for boys only. The reason behind this arbitrary decision is not known. It took five years for the school to regain its strength in numbers. By 1909 local boys formed a small proportion of pupils. Out of 45 boys just four came from the local area and eight from other places in Sussex. The rest came from far and wide, from Cambridge to Great Yarmouth.

In 1909 the school’s income came from Government grants, local rates, voluntary contributions, Pound Days and other fund-raising activities with the total being £2,082-11s. New subjects appeared on the curriculum such as typewriting, hammock making, clay modelling and rug making. But many ex-pupils earned their living as piano tuners. By 1914 the number of boys had risen to fifty.

The school closed in around 1952. But it is a matter of some regret that the extraordinary building in Eastern Road was demolished for no good reason in 1958.

Barclay Home and Workshop

The late Alexander Barclay gave the Honourable Mrs Campion £500 for the purpose of founding the Barclay Home in 1893. The idea was to give industrial training to blind or partially-sighted girls over sixteen years of age in the hope they might become virtually self-supporting.

copyright © J.Middleton
This drawing shows the Barclay Home and School in 1931. 
Barclay Home started off in St Michael’s Place but in 1900 moved to Wellington Road where it occupied numbers 23 and 25. This was modest enough but there was rapid expansion until by 1906 the Home occupied numbers 27 and 21 as well and there was a new wing behind number 27.

One reason for the swift expansion was that the Blind School in Eastern Road had switched to a single-sex establishment and asked Barclay Home to take in fourteen girls. Another factor was the fact that experience showed older girls were incapable of benefiting from training had their earlier education been neglected. In other words the sooner a blind girl began her education, the better. This meant opening a junior department, which proved to be a great success.

In 1922 number 31 Wellington Road was purchased to accommodate a workshop. Gone were the days of simple basket making because Barclay Workshop turned out sophisticated articles for sale. In 1925 items included a wool costume with silk braid trimming for three guineas; hand-woven coats in wool for 45/6d with skirt lengths to match for 27/6d. Tweeds, hopsacks and serge could be purchased for 7/- a yard while silks cost 12/6d a yard and cotton 3/6d a yard. Luxury articles like a silk matinee coat for two guineas or silk stockings for 10/6d were also produced at Barclay. Besides these there was a whole range of more mundane articles such as curtains, towels and tablecloths.

It was essential to have the output prominently displayed before the buying public and for this reason the freehold of a shop at 22 East Street was purchased, which was right in the middle of a shopping area. The somewhat austere window display would never set pulses racing but Barclay cloth was well known for being hard wearing.

Alice Field worked in Barclay Workshop and she was born in 1899 at Grant Street. Her case is particularly tragic because she was not born blind. Perhaps her eyes became inflamed shortly after birth, which was a common occurrence in those days in poor districts. For whatever reason, when she was three days old, some drops were put into her eyes that destroyed her sight completely. Presumably, her parents acted in good faith but we shall never know what the drops contained or where the parents obtained them. At the age of five young Alice was sent to the junior department of Barclay Home. Eventually she became a skilled worker, weaving linen, tweed and serge under the supervision of Miss Willoughby, her first superintendent, and subsequently under the delightfully named Miss Snowball.

Another former employee of Barclay Workshop remembered her time there with affection. It was hard work but there was plenty of laughter and good humour. Visitors were amazed at how blind girls could handle their machines so well and they were also mystified as to how they could differentiate between colours; one visitor even enquired if the colours ‘felt’ different. The prosaic truth was the supervisor told the girls at the beginning of the day which colours they were using and it was skill and good memory that prevented them from jumbling them up. Of course, sometimes mistakes occurred. For instance, there was a girl who did not realize she was reinforcing the heels and toes of her stockings with the wrong colour. The result was certainly colourful and the other girls were most amused. But it cannot have been much fun for the poor girl involved who had the price of six pairs of stockings deducted from her wages.

Sometimes a spool of wool would slip off the machine and it would take hours to unravel. It was a task usually undertaken on a Saturday morning and so the term ‘Saturday morning’ became a colloquialism amongst them for any jumbled mess.

While the girls worked at their machines, they often enjoyed reciting or singing. In fact they enjoyed singing so much that most of them joined Barclay Workshop Choir and took part in Musical Festivals, winning many certificates and once even the cup.

When the girls had finished their work for the day, they returned to their lodgings. For some it meant waiting for their paid guides to see them home and it was not unknown for the guides to forget to turn up. The partially sighted could manage to find their way back by themselves. The girls also had a rota to use of the workshop bathroom because they were unlikely to have the luxury of a hot bath at their lodgings.

In 1965 Barclay Workshop moved from its premises in Wellington Road to North Road, Preston. The reason was because a compulsory order had been placed on their old premises where they had been for 43 years. The name has not been forgotten as the new block of sheltered flats is called Barclay House.

In a way it was hardly worth the move because Barclay Workshop closed down for good in the mid-1970s. By this time most of the workers had retired and the machines had come to the end of their useful life. The remaining few girls went to Blatchington Court School in Seaford.

As for the Blind School, which had been run in association with Barclay Workshop, it too closed down around about the same time. By then it was no longer situated at Brighton, having moved to Sunningdale, Berkshire in 1940. All the properties were sold and some of the money came back to the Brighton Society for the Blind.

St Dunstan’s

For many people St Dunstan’s is synonymous with the care of the blind. But under the terms of the charity, the help it gives to individuals is restricted to men and women whose blindness is accepted by the War Pensions Branch of the Department of Health and Social Security as being mainly due, or aggravated by, their service in the Armed Forces or auxiliary services.
copyright © J.Middleton
The new St Dunstan’s, designed by Francis Lorne, opened in 1938. 

St Dunstan’s also set up the Gubbay Trust that offered training to ex-servicemen under 50 years of age whose blindness was not attributable to war service and similar help was given to members of uniformed organisations such as the Police and Fire Brigade who lost their sight in the course of duty.

However, a history of the treatment of the blind in Brighton and Hove would not be complete without a mention of St Dunstan’s.

It all began when Sir Cyril Arthur Pearson (1861-1921) brought sixteen men to his house at Regent’s Park where they could ‘learn to be blind. It so happened that the house was known as St Dunstan’s Lodge. Pearson had enjoyed a successful career as a journalist and newspaper proprietor before losing his sight.

St Dunstan’s had a connection with Brighton right from the start because in 1915 an annexe was opened in Queen’s Road (shades of William Moon again). Later on Brighton had the main convalescent and holiday home for all war-blinded in the south at West House and by 1920 they already had 100 ex-servicemen in their care.

They were taught the traditional crafts of basketry and mat-making as well as such skills as poultry keeping, shoe repairing and the duties of a telephone operator. They were also taught joinery and it is pleasant to record that when the new St Dunstan’s was under construction, the men were busily occupied crafting Australian walnut to make all the tables to be used in the dining room.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
 Showing an image of building work at St Dunstans, Ovingdean. 28 August, 1937.

The new St Dunstan’s was built on a site at Ovingdean leased from Brighton Corporation. Francis Lorne was the architect who designed it and it was built of fireproof steel and brick. St Dunstan’s is a large six-storey building facing south west to capture the maximum amount of sunshine. Whatever one’s opinion about the aesthetics of modern architecture, Lord Fraser has a relevant point when he wrote ‘functional architecture has its critics but none of them is blind.’ In other words the regular layout of each floor was a distinct advantage to a blind person. As Lord Fraser wrote ‘the universal straight passages and rounded corners, the plain walls with inevitable guide rails, may strike you as monotonous if you are sighted, but if you are blind you will appreciate their gift of freedom of movement and independence. The stairs were shallow and on the banisters near the top of each flight were studs to identify the floor being approached. There were also swing gates to prevent anyone from toppling down the stairs. There were plenty of sunny balconies and a large winter garden was provided.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Lady Pearson and Sir I. Fraser laying the foundation stone at St Dunstans, Ovingdean. 11 September, 1937.

Unfortunately this splendid home was ready for occupation just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The men moved into their new quarters in October 1938 only to be evacuated before long to Church Stretton in Shropshire.

But the building did not stand empty and the Admiralty found a good use for it. HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy’s Torpedo School at Portsmouth was bombed and a considerable portion of the establishment transferred to St Dunstan’s. It was not until 1946 that blind people returned to St Dunstan’s to be greeted with a civic welcome. The Mayor of Brighton went on the roof to hoist St Dunstan’s blue and gold flag after an interval of nearly six years.

The war brought an unexpected bonus for blind people who could venture out in the blackout with confidence unlike their sighted friends. Indeed Lord Fraser went on the wireless to give a talk offering advice to the sighted entitled Getting About in the Dark.

At the end of the war there were over 1,000 new war-blinded cases needing the expertise of St Dunstan’s. But skills in eye surgery had increased rapidly since the days of the First World War and more than 300 people regained some degree of vision. Ironically, some men arriving at St Dunstan’s in the 1940s had in fact been injured in the earlier war and it had taken all those years before the gassing they suffered damaged their eyesight.

The statistics were that by 1959 over 5,000 blinded servicemen had been treated at St Dunstan’s.

For those of us who have grown up with the familiar name of St Dunstan's, it is sad to record that today the name no longer exists officially. The charity, whose headquarters are in London, is now known as Blind Veterans UK.

The Lantern and Kenilworth

In the 1930s Brighton Society for the Blind was occupied with proposals to open a Social Centre for the Blind. But where were suitable premises to be found? The old Swan Downer School near the Clock Tower was one suggestion and another was the Robertson Hall in Ship Street. But even in those days there was enough traffic and congestion at both sites to be hazardous for blind people to access.
copyright © J.Middleton
The Swan Downer School in Dyke Road,
designed by George Somers Clarke, was built in 1867. 

In 1937 the Society found a building that met their requirements at 141 Preston Road but it was not until 1939 that it was finally ready for use. The Duchess of Hamilton officially opened the Lantern on 29 March 1939. The ceremony took place in the Munro Ritchie Hall. This hall was intended as a permanent tribute to Miss Elizabeth Munro Ritchie who had served the cause of blind people for 40 years as secretary of the Society. It was a pleasant touch that she was well enough to attend the function.

The problems of aged and infirm people living on their own prompted the Society to seek a suitable house to purchase that could be used as a home for them. In 1945 the Society chose 47 Surrender Road and named the establishment Kenilworth.

It was not an easy task to set up because it was hard to find good, reliable staff. The first matron was appointed at a salary of £180 a year but she proved to be totally unsatisfactory and only lasted three months. The new matron started her duties in 1946 and was much more satisfactory but the poor lady did not receive as much salary as her predecessor. Perhaps the Society was being extra cautious this time. The new matron earned £130 a year, which was to rise by annual increments of £10 until the sum of £200 was reached. She was also to receive fourteen days annual holiday and a grant of £18 towards her pension.

The Mayor of Brighton opened Kenilworth on 5th February 1946 and there were fourteen residents, nine women and five men. In 1947 when Kenilworth had been running smoothly for twelve months, the venture was declared to be a success and there were now seventeen residents.

The late 1940s brought a time of great change because of the National Health Act and the National Assistance Act of 1948. The Society would have liked to continue to keep complete control of Kenilworth but it was inevitable the Local Authority would eventually take over.

copyright © J.Middleton
The Lantern was at 141 Preston Road. 
In 1951 the Charity Commissioners decided that Kenilworth must not be sold for less that £4,000 with the value of the contents put at £330. Whereas the Society could do what it liked with the latter sum, the Charity Commissioners kept an eye on what happened to the former. They laid down a condition that if the capital were to be invested in real estate, and later on that real estate was sold, then the money would have to be sent to the Charity Commissioners who would invest it on the Society’s behalf. The days of Victorian self-help were long gone.

In spite of this the Society’s work continued. By 1952 there were 430 civilian blind people and 21 partially sighted people living in Brighton and Hove. At Christmas time that year John Taylor of the Star & Garter Hotel generously donated grocery parcels valued at 12/6d each to 120 blind recipients.

Meanwhile deliberations were going on as the best way to mark Coronation Year and it was decided to make a special gift to local blind people. This took the form of a Scented Garden for the Blind that was laid out in Preston Park. It cost £1,100-3-7d but donations arrived from many quarters with the largest gift from the private sector being  £395-5s from Brighton & Hove Butchers’ Association.


Many people must have thought that with the establishment of a National Health Service, there would be no need for a voluntary body such as the Brighton Society for the Blind. But this was not so and the Society, acting with other interested bodies such as the RNIB, continued to offer a range of services to local blind people. Activities range from ballroom dancing to country rambles in the summer and there are occasional outings. There are communal classes in pottery and cane work where the blind can make social contacts as well as learning a craft. Music, painting and drama also play an important part in their lives. The Society acts as a distributing agent in loaning out radios supplied by the British Wireless for the Blind Fund. Then there is the Talking Newspaper Service; most blind people buy their own cassette player but if they cannot afford to, they are helped by the Society.

All these services need finance and in 1986 it proved necessary to sell 141 Preston Road. It was a sad day for many visually handicapped people who regarded the lantern as a second home. On the other hand the sale released a large capital sum that could be used for the benefit of all local blind people.    

Incidentally, William Moon would surely be pleased to know his system has been brought up to date and is now on a par with Braille because his alphabet can be written as well as read, thanks to electronics. No doubt he would applaud the use of microchips for such devices as speaking clocks, speaking watches and in the marvellous Optacon. The latter invention allows a blind person to read a page of ordinary print or typescript. It is not quick because one letter at a time is read but think of the satisfaction of being able to read something at once instead of waiting for a sighted person to read it.

Our story began with William Moon, threaded its way through the years and the sad match lady and so it is only fitting it should end with the microchip.


Barclay Workshop, souvenir booklet
Blind Relief and Visiting Society: Diamond Jubilee 1862-1922
Blind Relief and Visiting Society: Report 1915
Brighton Asylum for the Instruction of the Blind: Annual Reports 1909-1914
Brighton Blind Relief Fund: Receipt Book 1872-1873
Brighton Herald 17 October 1964
Brighton Society for the Welfare of the Blind: Annual Reports 1915 / 1923 / 1924 / 1925 / 1926 / 1927 / 1928 / 1929 / 1930 / 1934 / 1937 / 1938 / 1942 / 1983
Brighton Society for the Welfare of the Blind; Case Histories 1925-1948
Brighton Society for the Welfare of the Blind; Minute Books 1932-1952
Brighton Society for the Welfare of the Blind; Scrapbook of Newspaper Cuttings


Burt, C.T. The Moon Society – A century of Achievement 1877-1874
Collis, Rose Brighton Boozers (2005)
Fraser (Lord) My Story of St Dunstan’s (1961)
Gill, M.E. District Nursing in Brighton 1877-1974
Moon, William Incidents which occurred with Miss Graham and myself in the early years of our united efforts for the Blind (manuscript book)
Moon, William Light for the Blind (1875)
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Rutherford, J. William Moon LLD (1898)

Copyright © J.Middleton 2014
page layout by D.Sharp