After a trip to the West Glamorgan Archives today we found 3 useful documents relating to our research topic of disabled children and young people in the 19th century. Although it’s difficult to find testimonies from children of the time, there is primary material available from other perspectives, particularly from the people in charge of the institutions that cared for children. The written sources from children that are available need to be treated with care, as words were often put in their mouths to make the institutions look successful. We’ll discuss the documents we’ve found, to keep you updated with what we’re up to!
1. A sermon preached by the Lord Bishop of Saint David’s in Aberystwyth, 1849
This sermon was written on behalf of the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Swansea, in order to promote and improve the work of the institution, which had been running since 1847. We found this useful and relevant for our project, as it focuses on the religious aspect of disability which we’ve looked at in lectures. The main point the Bishop is trying to make is to “Bear ye one another burdens, and so full-fill the law of Christ”. He’s suggesting that you should make the most of your disability or ‘burden’, as it’s the law of Christ. This document is an example of the growing religious concern over disabled children. In the Victorian era, blind and deaf people were seen as particularly vulnerable as they were unable to connect with God. Devotion and worship to God, as quoted by the Bishop, needs to be “animated by the confession of the lips and ears”. It’s no wonder then that the Bishop is promoting the Cambrian Institution and urging for charitable assistance in order for it to continue and improve its work in helping deaf children.
2. Reports on the Cambrian Institute of the Deaf and Dumb
This book of the Principal’s reports from the Cambrian Institute describes the progress of each child, reporting on their improvement (if any) in their health and behaviour, including applications for clothes and any other supplies certain children were in need of. It shows us that the Institute relied on money from the community to help pay for these resources, and showed how they struggled to obtain them. The book also tells us of the organisation and surveillance over the children at the Institute, suggesting that they genuinely supported and cared about the children that they were looking after. The problem with this document is that it may be censored; the people in charge of the institution may not want to give away the problems and negative aspects that are taking place, as they want to protect their reputation. But, they did mention the misbehaviour and ill health of the children at the institution. One misbehaved member, Mary Davies, is mentioned in this report: “I am sorry to have to report the mis-behaviour of Mary Davies…she…uses indecent signs to the children…’. She also entered the Institution at aged 19 ‘…with an intellect of a doubtful character…’ Unfortunately, she was asked to be removed from the institution which only shows how important the Cambrian Institute found their reputation.
3. ‘My Dear King’
The third document we looked at was a collection of newspaper cuttings including information from various archives from Desmond Thomas, about his disabled father Idris,who lost both of his feet following a disease of his bones which lead to their amputation. This document is useful because it gives an account of a person who lived with a disability and had his life changed from the kindness of King George V himself, who seemed interested in his story and donated £5 so he could obtain two prosthetic feet. Idris also thanks Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra for “providing the gift of hope, of life, of pride, of dignity and most of all a reason to survive to a young man, who was later to walk unaided by crutches or sticks.” He also thanks them all for “letting him be my dad”, expressing the importance of family life and their gratefulness towards prosthetics that were being invented in the early 20th Century. Idris explains how after being carried into Buckingham Palace by footmen, the people he encountered were “just like my own people- everybody was so kind to me, I did not feel a bit frightened.” The various newspaper articles seem to highlight George V’s sympathy and how he “delighted the youth by cordially shaking his hand, displaying the utmost tenderness and sympathy,” which seems to be more in favour of the King rather than gaining sympathy for Idris. The Daily Chronicle in fact referred to the story as a “pathetic little drama,” and goes on to say how initially Idris did not see the King but someone on his behalf and the King only granted him 15 minutes of his time. This seems to bring more attention towards the King for giving his time and money to help. We also notice offensive terms by today’s standards such as “Morriston Cripple” and “The King and his cripple” which encourage pity for Idris. Idris’ story is fascinating, useful and poignant as it showed how even in the next century disabled young people were seen as being weak and frail. But it also shows how kindness of others and donations from people helped them to ease their suffering and how medicine was developing to what it is today in inventing prosthetics which changed the course of disability history forever.
We’re happy with our findings so far, and look forward to finding more evidence and sharing it with you! All images are courtesy of the West Glamorgan Archives, Swansea.