Braidwood’s school for deaf children
Read more about Thomas Braidwood’s school, which helped empower deaf people in the 18th century. And discover how a Shropshire woman Jane Poole defended her rights through the courts…
Attitudes towards Deaf people during the 18th and 19th centuries were almost overwhelmingly negative; the general opinion being that they could not possess intelligence equal to that of a hearing person. Thomas Braidwood took a large role in beginning to change such attitudes in 1760 when he opened the first UK school devoted entirely to the education of deaf people in Edinburgh. It was a private institution which was run as a family business so they were largely forced to take on pupils from affluent families who could pay their own way, although there is evidence to suggest they also offered free places to some poorer children.
At least three of his pupils have been identified as being from Shropshire. One in particular became embroiled in a famous court case which tackled head-on the capability of Deaf people to manage their own affairs and at the same time highlighted the importance of education for all, particularly those with disabilities.
Jane Poole was born profoundly deaf in Ludlow in 1781, the youngest of 6 children. Probably because of her deafness and the perceived stigma, she was sent to live with her maiden aunts. When still a child, Jane was left a large sum of money by a relative of the aunts, which they then set up in trust for her. In 1787, some of the bequest was used to send Jane to Braidwood’s Academy, which by then had moved to London. While she was there she became adept at fingerspelling and was able to communicate effectively this way for the rest of her life, even after she became blind, aged 60.
Jane became friends with the other Salopian pupils of Braidwood’s, particularly Ann Walcot of Church Stretton. After Ann died in childbirth aged only 32, Jane took on her servants who were fluent in the manual alphabet. They assisted her greatly, especially when she lost her sight and in the subsequent court cases brought about by her sister Caroline. When their cousin died and left some of the siblings money, Caroline had Jane’s inheritance transferred into her own name, claiming her sister was incapable of managing such funds. The court,however, found in Jane’s favour.
After successfully applying to the court to regain control over her own property, Jane felt compelled to protect her wealth and assets so she made a will and testament using fingerspelling via interpreters.
Jane called for two children of her late friend Ann Walcot to interpret and witness the will. They were trusted persons whom she had known their entire life who were also proficient in sign language.
After Jane died in 1860, aged 78, her sister strongly objected to the will, which left funds amounting to £14,000. She complained that her sister being deaf and blind was totally incapable of writing such a will and that Jane did not even understand the contents of it. The case went to the Court of Probate, where Caroline sought to have the will declared null and void and win powers of administration to dispose of it as she saw fit. The court had to decide whether a person deaf from birth and blind for nearly 10 years was capable in her 70th year of understanding her own affairs and competent to make a will. Once the witnesses to the will had been examined, the jury were convinced of its authenticity and Caroline was forced to withdraw her complaint.
The education that Jane Poole had received at Braidwood’s had enabled her to claim her rights and defeat injustice, as well as allowing her to live a full and contented life.
[Many of the details of this blog were taken from “Braidwood &c.” by Raymond Lee (Feltham : British Deaf History Society Publications, 2015) [C 35.6]
Post written by Andie Lloyd, Librarian