by Karen J Mossman
During the 1880s, my great, great-grandfather, Charles Henry Stott, was a stockbroker by trade, and visited places throughout Manchester and then sent them as articles to a local newspaper. In 1889, he put them together in a book and named it Various Subjects. This is one of the stories and is about an institution founded by Thomas Henshaw in 1837 to provide support, advice, and training to anyone affected by sight loss and other disabilities.
Written in Charles’ own words.
We received an invitation from the board of management of Henshaw’s Blind Asylum, which most people who reside in Oldham know it is situated at Old Trafford, to the annual distribution of prizes by Oliver HEYWOOD Esq., J.P., the High Sheriff of Lancashire. The invitation card bore a very attractive programme; at 2 o’clock there was to be an inspection of the workshops, schools, gymnasium, and other parts of the asylum. At 3 o’clock a hymn, distribution of prizes, and an address by the High Sheriff. At 4 o’clock a concert and at 5, refreshments.
Sighted visitors to the institution could not fail to be struck by the marked cleanliness that was everywhere to be seen.
In visiting the institution for the blind we always consider that visitors convey the greatest amount of pleasure to the inmates by entering into conversation with them, not as sightless beings, but as ordinary mortals. The intelligent blind appreciate, understand, and know more than many who have the assistance of sight. With the blind, there is a concentration of thought, no attractions elsewhere, and no wandering of ideas. Of course, there are grades of blind people, as they are grades of those who are able to see.
Our first halting point after we’d had a few words with the secretary was in what we were told was the men’s yard, where we noticed three young men arm in arm promenading, and who on our saluting them thus, “Well, young men, you are quite enjoying yourselves; it’s a nice day.” The prompt acknowledgment was, “Yes, it’s a very nice day.” Although we were told by the trio that the boys’ yard was through the door at the end, the gymnasium next commanded our attention.
Here we found a large room, with gymnastic apparatus as near perfection as it is possible to approach perfection. There were girls suitably dressed, short blouses, waist belts, and trousers and boys and young men ready for any athletic display. A girl who tackled the Swiss ladder, a very intricate piece of work, might almost be called a contortionist. The instructor, Sergeant Grane, kept her well before him, but there was no fear of a mishap as she understood her part well. Here were also given exercises on parallel bars, a balancing beam, horizontal bar, rope ladder, bridge ladders, spool ropes, and ladder plank. The smiles of the girl gymnasts silently but effectively told us that they consider the afternoon quite un jour de fete.
From there we went to the workshops, Here we found men making baskets. They told us there had been in the institution between seven and sixteen years.
Having spoken to the young men, we were just too late to see the work in the schoolrooms, but not too late to have a few words with the pupils. In one room there had been reading, in another writing, a third arithmetic and in a fourth, the pupils had been busy with maps. There were also sewing and knitting rooms and lastly, we came across some young scholars who had been building on the Kindergarten system.
The pupils were anxious, perhaps even impatient to receive their prizes. These were to be given out in the dining room, which was crowded. The recipients had distinguished themselves in Latin, general excellence, history, arithmetic, geography, general improvement, physiology, dictation, writing, general progress, and general industry. All, big and little, those who were young, and those who had arrived at a mature age, there were all sizes and all ages. They seemed to be well pleased with what they had received, books, and writing frames being the most numerous.
The distribution of prizes, address by the High Sheriff and the short speeches by gentlemen on the platform being over, the visitors next proceeded to the concert hall where the pupils waited eagerly for us. So that our readers may know what it was like, we repeat the programme:-
Part song “Break, break, break, on the cold grey stones, O Sea,” Macfarren
Pianoforte “Wellenspiel,” Spindler
Trio “The Flower Greeting.” Curschman
Solo pianoforte Grand Fantasia – “Mose in Egitto,” Thalberg
Chorus and solo “Daughter of Error”
Bishop Song “There is Music in the Fountain,” Donizetti
Song piano “La Source,” Blumenthal
Song “The Day is done,” Balfe
Glee “Thy Voice, O Harmony,” Webb
So charmingly and carefully did a pupil sing the “Daughter of Error” that every word seemed to have been mentally weighed before utterance had been given to it. Miss Crighton deserves words of praise for her song “The Day is Done”. We regret that thanks were not accorded to those who took part in this entertainment, but as nobody moved in the matter we may conclude that such proceedings are not encouraged.
Today, on looking at the 48th annual report which was presented at the annual meeting held in February, we read that: “Today there are 157 inmates in the asylum, 48 men, 47 boys, 29 women, and 33 girls. At the end of 1886 there were 143. During the year 1887, 42 were admitted, 34 left, and three died, making the number by 31st December, 148. In November last, nine were elected, who have since this year commenced come into the residence, thus making the total at the date of this report, 157, as stated above. Of these 157 we find that four came from Oldham, and one from Royton. The ages of these five persons range from 11 to 53 years. We also find that the youngest blind person, a male, in the institution is eight years old and the oldest male is 57 and came here on 17th November 1856. Another male resident, however, was admitted on February 21st 1841. Of the females, the youngest is nine years old and the oldest 67, who was admitted in the 20th February 1843.
Under the heading of “The Cause of Blindness,” we find amaurosis, accident, brain disease, congenital, convulsions, cornea, from infancy, granular conjunctiva, glaucoma, inflammation, inflammation of the brain, measles, neglect in infancy, ophthalmia, optic neuritis, purulent inflammation, scarlet fever, sympathetic disease, smallpox, staphyloma, ulceration of the cornea, vaccination, and water on the brain. Perhaps if of all the causes of blindness that we give, that of “neglect in infancy” will command most sympathy, as preventable diseases, when they become incurable, are the saddest of all.
Those who feel anxious to visit the institution will be glad to learn that it is open to visitors weekdays from 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock and from 3 till 5, except on Friday and Saturday afternoons. Subscribers and donors, upon signing the visitor’s book have free admission. To concerts, strangers are admitted by the purchase of articles that are exhibited for sale or by giving silver at the entrance.
Henshaws are still around today, although they are in a different place now. You can visit their website to find out what they are doing today.