SeeAbility, the operating name of the Royal School for the Blind, Leatherhead

In November 2015, Mr David Scott-Ralphs, Chief Executive Officer of SeeAbility, deposited the charity’s records with Surrey History Centre. The organisation has a long and fascinating history and has helped thousands of visually impaired people for over two centuries.

The early schools for the blind

In 1784, pioneer Valentin Hauy founded a school for blind children in Paris. Between 1791 and 1793, schools for the blind opened in Liverpool and Bristol, and an asylum for the industrious blind opened in Edinburgh. Following a visit to Hauy’s school in Paris, London banker Samuel Bosanquet and three colleagues asked friends and associates to help raise funds for a school in London to educate the young blind in religious and moral values, and to teach them a useful trade. Bosanquet’s partners in this venture were Thomas Boddington, a director of the Bank of England; surgeon James Ware, and charity worker, William Houlston.

The School for the Indigent Blind was established at St George’s Fields, Southwark, in 1799. At a meeting on 8 January 1800, it was proposed that the school would accept pupils between the ages of 10 and 18 and instruct them in occupations such as basket-making, spinning, weaving and mat-making. The school would clothe, board and lodge the pupils until they were able to earn their own livelihoods; later it was also planned to open day schools. In addition, the pupils would receive moral and religious instruction.

By the end of 1800, 15 male pupils between the ages of 10 and 18 were living at the school; girls were accepted in early 1801. A House Committee controlled the day to day affairs of the school, and 12 members were elected on an annual basis at the April committee meeting. In 1809, a new site near the obelisk at St George’s Fields was leased to the school by the City of London Corporation and a new school building was completed in 1812. To cover the costs of the building and improve the school’s finances, it was resolved to change the procedure of admitting pupils by giving voting powers to members to elect candidates of their choice according to the level of their subscription.

In 1826, the School for the Indigent Blind was incorporated by an Act of Parliament. In 1834, additional land was leased from the City of London and the extensive new premises, incorporating part of the old building, were designed by architect John Newman, and completed in 1838. The new building had the capacity to accommodate up to 200 pupils.

Pupils learning a trade normally resided at the school for 6 years, and some of their goods were purchased by the school and sold by advertisement or through its retail shop at St George’s Circus. By the 1860s, a trade committee had been formed to establish a workshop for adult blind men. Initially a work room was used for the purpose; by the 1870s, a workshop was established in the adapted basement.

A new site in Leatherhead and Royal patronage

Since the 1860s, the option of moving the school to “another site more contributive to the health of the inmates and the advantage of the Charity” had been discussed. In 1900, a committee decision was made to purchase 15 acres of freehold land in Leatherhead at a cost of £4,000, and C Pemberton Leach was appointed as architect. Work began on the new school building in May 1901 and the foundation stone was laid by HRH Princess Helena on 13 November. The pupils moved from Southwark to Leatherhead the following year.

The committee also agreed to the building of a factory as near as possible to the site of the old school, since a move to Leatherhead would have been impractical for the workforce. A site at 246-250 Waterloo Road was secured for the workshop; Barclays Bank agreed to let the 1st floor of their St George’s Circus premises to the school for office use in June 1902; and the lease of a shop in Oxford Street was also signed in May 1902.

In 1911, the school was granted Royal Patronage by King George V and became The Royal School for the Blind. By the 1930s, the school had become a place of residential workshops and, during the Second World War, it was requisitioned by King’s College Hospital as a national emergency hospital. It also housed Chelsea Pensioners until the 1950s when the building once again became a school, although it was in need of refurbishment and modernisation.

The modern school and a new direction

In the 1970s, the accommodation was transformed with individual bedrooms replacing the communal dormitories. In November 1982, Diana, Princess of Wales, formally opened the modernised building.

In more recent years, the charity has concentrated on providing accommodation and training for blind people who also have other physical or learning disabilities. In 1995 it expanded its services in community-based settings helping people in their own homes. The charity changed its name to SeeAbility in June 1994, and adopted the ethos, “Seeing beyond disability.”

Sources

The records of SeeAbility, the operating name of the Royal School for the Blind, Leatherhead, can be seen at Surrey History Centre under SHC ref.9543. The collection comprises constitutional records, annual reports and accounts, minute books, registers of baptisms, confirmations and services at St George’s Chapel, Royal School for the Blind, Leatherhead, 1895-1983, lists of subscriptions, donors and bequests, records relating to the Blind Employment Factory and London Workshops for the Blind, employee records (including payroll ledgers and financial records), a visitor’s book for Home for Unemployable Blind Women, Effingham, and events and publicity material.

Minute books of the National Emergency Hospital at the Royal Blind School, 1939-1946 (SHC ref 4412/-)

E Vardey (ed), History of Leatherhead: a town at the crossroads (1989).

More information about the work of SeeAbility can be found on their website https://www.seeability.org/

Images:

These images are from an album of uncaptioned photographs of pupils at study and at work at the Royal School for the Blind, Leatherhead, August 1912 (SHC ref 9543/9/1-2). They show sewing, basket and brush making workshops, gymnasium activities, and the school grounds. Some of the photographs appear in the 75th anniversary booklet, 1978 (SHC ref 9543/9/6).

To find out more about the history of Disability and Mental Health in Surrey click here.

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