Some members of your family tree may be fairly anonymous to you because you haven’t really researched their lives, even though you know something significant about them. For example, in my family tree I have two female relatives, Hannah and Maria, who had disabilities. Hannah was blind and Maria was deaf, probably both from early childhood. What else could I find out about these women’s lives? How might their disabilities have affected them and what was it like to be a blind or deaf person during their lifetimes? Of course, every person has their own unique experiences but I think the lives of Hannah and Maria are at least representative of many other blind and deaf women from similar backgrounds. Nowadays, blindness and deafness are more commonly associated with old age but in times past, childhood diseases and limited advances in medical treatment meant that a far greater proportion of younger people had these disabilities. I am also conscious that these women should not be defined by their disability, even though it is the focus of my research for this article. Instead, I hope to encourage readers to look more closely at their own relatives who suffered from disabilities. Their stories deserve to be told too. In the first part of this series, I will be looking at Hannah and in the second part, Maria.

In many instances, census records will provide the only inkling that an ancestor was blind or deaf, especially if the person never entered an institution. One of the purposes of the British census was to gather information on the nation’s health so from 1851, the enumeration forms included a final column where it was to be recorded whether someone was blind, or deaf and dumb. This question was included after lobbying from charitable societies concerned with the welfare of the disabled. It was the government’s first attempt to gather data on disability on a national level and people were categorised according to their age, sex, occupation and geographic location. There was also an attempt to discover whether a person had had the disability from birth (congenital) or from childhood. The question stayed the same in the 1861 census but if a person was recorded as blind, “from birth” was to be added if this was the case. In 1871, 1881, 1891 1901 and 1911, the categories were extended to include: 1) Deaf and Dumb, 2) Blind, 3) Imbecile or Idiot, 4) Lunacy. For the purpose of these articles, I won’t be looking at those who fell into categories three and four. In 1911, one further change was added: the specific age at which the person had become afflicted. This was an attempt to limit the degree of the infirmity and exclude those who were only slightly affected. Of course, it was soon realised that many people were reluctant to include such personal information on their relatives’ health, especially if there was mental impairment, which carried a social stigma. It is therefore accepted that the numbers reported with these disabilities were undoubtedly grossly under-recorded. There was also difficulty in defining the degree of disability, as the question could be interpreted very differently by householders.

For detailed information on the 1851 and 1861 census statistics, there are the census reports, which can be viewed on the Vision of Britain website: http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/census. The table below provides information on the numbers of blind people recorded in the 1861 census in the United Kingdom:

England and Wales19,352or 1 blind to every1,037persons
Scotland2,8201,086persons
Ireland6,879843persons
Islands in British Seas197728persons
Total29,248994persons
Number of the blind, 1861 via http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/census/EW1861GEN/11

It had been thought that the incidence of blindness was related to climate but by 1861, it was realised that poor diet, bad sanitation and lack of good ophthalmic care were important factors. Analysis of the census information in 1861 suggested that blindness was more common in the agricultural counties of the south-west and east of England than in the northern counties where manufacturing, mining and commerce were prevalent. It was reasoned that this was because rural districts had a greater proportion of older people whilst in the north, there was a younger workforce that had migrated to the towns to work in the factories, in trade or in domestic service. Slightly more men than women were affected by blindness overall. It was recorded that 2,702 of the blind were under 20 years of age, (529 of these were under 5 years of age) so they constituted around one seventh of the total. 8798 persons, or 45% were over the age of 60.

Hannah Lilian Woodcock: 1866 – 1932
Brough, Robert; The Blind Girl; University of Aberdeen
http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-blind-girl-104833

Hannah Lilian Woodcock was my husband’s great great aunt. She was the eldest child of Methusalem Woodcock, a shipwright, and his wife, Mary Ann, nee Ford, and was born on May 29th 1866 at 4 Patterson Street, Mile End, Middlesex. She was baptised on July 1st 1866 in the parish church of St Thomas, Stepney, just a stone’s throw from the family home. Unusually for a Victorian family, her parents had no more children (or at least none born alive), until the birth of my husband’s great grandfather, Stanley Vernon Woodcock in 1877. His birth completed this small family.

Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of London 1898/9
https://booth.lse.ac.uk/learn-more/download-maps/sheet5

Every street on Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps was categorised according to income and social class. Patterson Street, some thirty years after Hannah’s birth, with its dark red classification, was “Mixed. Some comfortable, others poor”. Today it is no more but the map below of London today shows roughly where it was situated, just off Jamaica Street, which is still in existence:

OpenStreetMap – East London
http://www.openstreetmap.org/

The first census that Hannah appears in is the 1871 census. At this time, her father, Methusalem Woodcock, appears to be working away from home. Little Hannah (here recorded as Lilian) and her mother, Mary Ann, a mariner’s wife, are recorded with Mary Ann’s maternal aunt, Hannah, and her husband, Andrew Truby, a sail maker, at 4 Patterson Street:

1871 Census 4 Patterson Street, Mile End, Middlesex National Archives (U.K.) RG10 557 131 2
via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

Hannah is described as a scholar so presumably she had just started to attend school. There is no indication in the disability column that she was blind.

During the 1870s, the family moved further east to Limehouse and Methusalem, Hannah’s father, was going by the much more ordinary name of George. Stanley, Hannah’s brother had been born at 723, Commercial Road in 1877 and by the time of the 1881 census, the family were living at 81 Locksley Street, (formerly Cotton Street), in a terraced house with a garden. Hannah was 14 years old and she is recorded as “Blind” and has “no occupation”:

1881 Census 81 Locksley Street, Limehouse, Middlesex National Archives (U.K.) RG11 470 65 49 via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

Had Hannah suffered a childhood illness that had caused her to go blind? Epidemics of diseases such as small pox, measles or scarlet fever were frequent occurrences and could cause complications such as blindness. Ophthalmia, common during the potato famine in Ireland, caused inflammation in the eyes and was another common instigator of blindness. Other causes of blindness in children could include vitamin A deficiency, accidents and genetic mutations or birth defects. It is possible that Hannah suffered from an additional disability as well as her blindness.

Hannah had probably only been able to attend school for a couple of years before she lost her sight. Had she also lost the opportunity to go to school afterwards? Although literacy was becoming increasing significant in Victorian society, with many board schools being established in London as a result of the 1870 Education Act, when Hannah was a child, blind children were usually educated separately at special schools, if at all. The guardians of the poor of any parish or union were supposed to pay for blind children to be sent to a special school, where they could receive appropriate education and learn a trade to support themselves, but poor families outside of the workhouse were unable to afford to send their children to these institutions. In addition, in some areas, there were very few such places, as they tended to be situated in major cities. In London, there was the School for the Indigent Blind in St George’s Fields, Southwark, but only 25-30 children were admitted each year as resident pupils. It doesn’t seem likely that Hannah attended a residential school, as she was at home with her parents when the census was taken. It wasn’t until the Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf) Act of 1893 that parents were obliged to ensure that their blind children received a suitable education. Further information on institutions for blind children can be found at http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk.

There were also questions about the quality of the education that blind children received. Blind children were mostly taught a limited range of handicrafts such as basket making or brush making. They might also be given musical training so they could take up piano tuning or become organists. Campaigners for the blind such as William Armitage and Bessie Gilbert argued that blind people should not merely be taught manual work, but instead be given a greater range of opportunities to earn a living. At this time only a small proportion of blind people were able to support themselves. If they did not have family or friends to help them, they would be reliant on charity, forced to take refuge in the workhouse or receive out-door relief from the parish.

Although blind people received no state funding, there were fortunately a large number of charities and societies devoted to the welfare of blind people, helping them in different ways:

  • Schools and educational institutions.
  • Manufacturing establishments that employed blind people who lived at home.
  • Societies that visited the blind, supplying them with home teachers and printing and distributing books in embossed type.
  • Charities that granted relief and small annuities to the aged.

Perhaps Hannah was helped by one of these societies, such as the London Society for Teaching the Blind to Read (later the Royal London Society for the Blind). By the 1880s, it has been estimated that one in two blind people had some experience of reading. At this time in England, there were several different systems of embossed type in use, which meant that books for the blind were very expensive. Moon type was the most common script used. This adopted the Roman alphabet with raised embossed letters but it was simplified, with reduced curves and symbols. It was particularly useful for those who had lost their sight in adulthood. Braille was becoming increasingly popular too. Braille relied on six dots variously arranged to make whole words. By 1883, twenty seven British charities for the blind were using it for reading, writing and musical notation. Hopefully, Hannah had the opportunity to learn to read using Braille or another of the reading systems in use at the time:

The Woodcock family were still living at 81 Locksley Street, Limehouse in 1891. The census records report that she had been blind from childhood:

81 Locksley Street, Limehouse, Middlesex National Archives (U.K) RG12 298 53 27
via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

You can see from the map that Locksley Street, with its light red housing, was classed as “Fairly Comfortable. Good Ordinary Earnings” in the late 1890s on Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps:

Locksley Street, Limehouse, Middlesex
Charles Booth’s Poverty Map 1898/9
https://booth.lse.ac.uk/learn-more/download-maps/sheet1

Some time in the next decade, the family took the decision to leave London. At the time, land around the small village of Basildon in Essex, was being sold off cheaply. Plots were sold for just £5 by land speculators, as Basildon was not very close to the London railway line. It was an attractive option for older people who didn’t need to commute and wanted to have a smallholding. It is likely that Hannah’s father bought two adjacent plots, one for the house he was going to build, and another to grow food and raise poultry. The 1901 census reveals that he also continued to work as a shipwright, perhaps on one of the nearby river creeks. Basildon, then a tiny village, must have been a huge contrast to Hannah. She had left the noise and grime of the East End and was now living in a tranquil environment of fields, with the sound of roosters crowing and hens clucking:

Esperanza Croft, Oak Lane, Basildon, Essex National Archives (U.K.) RG13 1667 10 11
via http://www.ancestry.co.uk

In 1911, the age at which a person had been afflicted was added to the infirmity column in the census records. By this date, Hannah’s father had retired from his work as a shipwright and had become a poultry farmer full time. In 1911, the census schedules were filled in by the householder and here we see that Hannah’s father had written “Totally Blind 7 Years” in the infirmity column. Hannah had gone blind ca. 1873 when she was just seven years of age:

1911 Census Oak Road, Basildon, Billercay, Essex

Hannah was 43 years old, single, and would have been very much dependant on her parents. By this time, they were both getting on in age, her father was 72 and her mother was 65. They must have worried about Hannah’s future. Who was going to take care of her after their deaths? They had no family nearby and their only other child, Stanley, lived on the other side of the world in Colombia.

In 1925, Hannah’s father, Methusalem (otherwise known as George) died, followed by her mother, Mary Ann, in 1928. Perhaps Hannah struggled to take care of them in their old age. A few years ago, I traced their memorial in the churchyard of Great Burstead, Essex, which was close to the family home:

Memorial to George M Woodcock, Mary Ann Woodcock, the mother of Hannah Lilian Woodcock
Great Bursted Churchyard, Essex – author’s photograph
Memorial to George M Woodcock, Mary Ann Woodcock, the mother of Hannah Lilian Woodcock
Great Bursted Churchyard, Essex – author’s photograph

On the base of this small, modest cross is inscribed “Mary Annie the wife and beloved mother of Hannah Lilian died June 10th 1928 aged 84”. I find this very touching. With the loss of both her parents in the space of a few years, Hannah must have chosen to add the description of “beloved mother” and her own name to the memorial. It sounds as if mother and daughter were especially close.

Hannah didn’t live much longer than her parents, dying a few years later on December 8th 1932.

Death Certificate of Hannah Lilian Woodcock December 8th 1932

Hannah was buried with her parents in the churchyard of Great Bursted. Her death had occurred nearby at Pipps Hill Road, very close to her former home at Oak Hill Lane, Basildon. However, from the administration produced to settle her estate, I discovered that she was actually a resident of Middleton Home for the Blind, which was situated in the town of Maldon, Essex, nearly twenty miles away:

England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1933 https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/#calendar

Presumably, Hannah’s brother, Stanley, had arranged for her affairs to be settled by his attorney, William Joseph Evans, as he was living in South America. Hannah’s estate was valued at just under £200. After the death of her parents, the family home had probably been sold and she needed suitable accommodation, hence her home at Middleton Home for the Blind.

The informant on her death certificate was H. Maycock. A search of the 1939 Register revealed this to be Harriet Maycock, the wife of local nurseryman and poultry keeper, Harry Maycock. Harry Maycock was a near neighbour of Hannah and her parents and presumably, the Maycocks were close friends. Harry had only married Harriet, his second wife and a much younger woman, in 1925, and he had died just three years later. Was Harriet taking care of Hannah because she was ill or was Hannah just visiting at the time? I will probably never know but it shows that Hannah had close friends in the community.

I have been able to find out a limited amount of information on Middleton Home for the Blind. Essex Archives just has a record of some building plans for the home in the 1920s and 1930s. However, it is mentioned that the owner of the home was the Indigent Blind Visiting Society. The Society was founded in 1834 by Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Ebury to visit and give aid to blind people in their homes, (this was unique at the time). The Society would also provide the blind with religious instruction and Bibles, teaching them to read, and taking them to church services. The residential home in Maldon must have been founded to take care of blind people who could not live on their own and who didn’t have family members to take care of them. In the 1939 Register, there were twenty nine residents, one matron, an assistant matron and two maids living there:

The Terrace of Houses that made up Middleton Home for the Blind, 48 Mantz Road, Maldon, Essex via http://maps.google.com August 2018

In the 1911 census, there appears to have been a small home for the blind at No. 40 Mantz Road with a matron, an assistant matron and at least two visitors who were blind. The premises seems to have expanded over the the next decade with the purchase of the neighbouring properties. Rather than being an austere institution, Middleton Home for the Blind looks as if it provided a real sanctuary for blind people. Situated in the centre of Maldon, residents could engage with life in the town. I found a charming account of two residents who helped to run the local church of St Mary’s, Maldon, where the rector was also blind:

Daily Mirror May 3rd 1939 via http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

This article is just a small snippet but I love the description of the two blind ladies, walking arm in arm to church every Sunday, playing an active part in assisting at the services.

Compared to many other blind people, Hannah was fortunate, as for all but the last few years of her life, she had two parents to care for her and provide her with a home. You can imagine that she was particularly close to her beloved mother, Mary Ann. On the busy, dirty, crowded streets of East London, where she grew up, she would have needed a sighted person to accompany her outside the house. I imagine that her mother would have been her primary carer but perhaps her younger brother Stanley helped to look after her too when he grew older. You wonder whether one of the reasons why her parents decided to leave the East End and move to rural Essex was to improve Hannah’s quality of life. Did she help to feed the chickens and tend the smallholding? You can imagine her excitement when her brother came back to visit from South America, full of tales from exotic South America that enlivened her quiet life. Financially, she was provided for during her life. After the death of her beloved mother in 1928, she finally had to enter a home. The degree of independence she had whilst living there is unknown but the small scale of Middleton Home for the Blind and its ownership by a society dedicated to the care of blind people gives me hope that it was a happy place. Hopefully Stanley ensured that her needs were met, despite the physical distance between the two siblings. In her life, Hannah may not have had much opportunity for education or much opportunity for marriage either but I believe there is evidence that she had a great capacity for friendship. I think it is significant that she died at the home of her former neighbour, Harriet Maycock. No doubt she also enjoyed strong friendships with the other ladies of Middleton Home for the Blind during the last years of her life. Certainly, her life must have been full of many challenges, as she coped with her disability, but it had significance and value too.

@ Judith Batchelor 2021

In my next post, I will be looking at the life of my deaf relative, Maria Batchelor. Do subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss it.

4 thoughts on “Ancestors who were Blind

  1. While reviewing records from a poor law union in London recently there were a number of documents relating to children with severe eye infections. It’s terrible that a childhood illness may have left her with this lifelong disability. However, I’m glad Hannah was well cared for. I wonder what caused her death?
    And what a lovely newspaper article about the rector and church ladies!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I never realised that eye infections and blindness caused by disease in childhood meant that loss of sight at an early age was not that uncommon. Hannah seems to have been fortunate and had a caring family.

      Like

  2. What a truly wonderful blog filled with so much detail about what a blind person would have experienced during the Victorian era. A really valuable insight into the typical experiences of a person with a disability during this era. Hannah and her family lived close to an area that I used to live. My daughter was born in Basildon and I was born a stones throw from Great Bursted. We always took the children to Maldon for days out in the Summer beautiful place.

    Liked by 1 person

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