For the past two years, the Heritage Lottery Funded project History of Place has been exploring the history of deaf and disabled people and the places associated with those lives.
Buildings themselves and the culture associated with them affect the opportunities open to disabled people: whether they are cut off from the world or part of it, limited or empowered, and whether they had opportunities to demonstrate their skills, or simply take a holiday.
Here we take a look at 6 radical spaces:
1. Maison Dieu, Faversham, Kent
Maison Dieu (‘House of God’) is a brick, wattle and daub house in Faversham, and the last surviving structure from a large monastery built by Henry III in 1234. This far back in time, it’s quite rare to find individual lives of ordinary people in the record, but the archives tell us that in 1235 Henry III gave permission for the ‘blind daughter of Andrew of Faversham’ to be admitted to Maison Dieu as a ‘servant of God and sister of the hospital’. We know that disabled people were also admitted as patients, or at the end of life.
Maison Dieu was on the pilgrimage road to Canterbury – Chaucer would have stayed there. Disabled people living in the building would have been at the social and spiritual heart of the medieval world and not necessarily ‘shut away’ through living in a monastery.
2. Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind, Liverpool
The School for the Blind founded in Liverpool in 1791 was the first in the UK, and inhabited a series of increasingly imposing buildings. This porticoed building in Hardman Street conveyed much of the booming city’s civic pride, while also demonstrating the worth and purpose of blind people who gained an education and trade there.
The School was founded by Edward Rushton, himself blinded by ophthalmia as a young man while working on a slave ship. The conditions there made him an ardent anti-slavery campaigner, as well as working to ensure that poor blind people had a better life path than destitution, begging and bullying in the street.
By 2004 the Hardman Street building had become derelict, but today it has found new life as a gastropub.
3. Chiswick House, London
Chiswick House is an Italianate stately-home-in-miniature, built in 1729 by the third Earl of Burlington. Now open as a heritage site, it is often forgotten that at the turn of the 20th century it was leased as a humane private asylum for up to 40 residents with mental health problems. The two wings used for the asylum were demolished in the 1950s, but can still be seen in older photographs.
The large institutions where many disabled people found themselves in the Victorian period were frequently places of cruelty, especially for the poor. The Directors of Chiswick House Asylum were brothers John and Charles Tuke, who were both admired by their contemporaries for an approach to mental illness that did not centre around restraint. Charles’ 1925 obituary said ‘he made for himself a name that will be lasting and that stands for all that is best and most human in the treatment of insanity’.
4. Guild of the Brave Poor Things, Bristol
Especially commissioned to be accessible to disabled people, this 1913 building was decades ahead of its time. It was created by the Bristol ‘Guild of the Brave Poor Things’ – a community of disabled people which was founded in 1894 and which, with a couple of name changes, survived into the 1980s. The brainchild of Grace Kimmins and Ada Vachell, who was herself deaf, it gave opportunities for strong community, apprenticeships and work for its members.
5. St Saviour’s Deaf Church, London
This 1925 structure was built in Acton from designs by Sir Edward Maufe. Everything about the church is designed to assist the use of sign language. The design of the main church building was carefully managed to cast light onto the two pulpits (one for the priest, another for a person signing the sermon). There were also no pillars to give clear sight lines. The building complex included a billiard room, refectory and tennis court, so that the congregation could socialise. The building was sold by the Church of England in September 2014 due to lack of funds, and its congregation now meets elsewhere.
In the 1970s being disabled almost inevitably meant being cared for by a family member, or ending up in an institution. Ken and Maggie Davis were among the first disabled people to reject that choice, and argue for the right to live in their own home. The Independent Living Movement that they helped to found was part of an activist approach, challenging preconceptions about how disabled people could live – in buildings they helped to design, instead of institutions controlled by others. This picture shows Maggie Davis in her adapted kitchen at Grove Road, Sutton-in-Ashfield in 1976.
Written by Kate Smith, Editor of historyof.place
Three exhibitions are taking place in 2018 which tell more about these buildings and the lives lived in them: full details can be found here.
History of Place: 800 years in the lives of deaf and disabled people
Exhibition, MShed, Bristol Brave Poor Things: Reclaiming Bristol’s Disability Heritage
Exhibition, Museum of Liverpool The Blind School: Pioneering People and Places
Victoria & Albert Museum, London Without Walls: Disability and Innovation in Building Design (display)