A history of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind 1866-2004




НазваниеA history of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind 1866-2004
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The Founding of the Association of Braille Writers and Library, 1894


It was probably Tilly Aston's negative experience at university that provided her with the strongest motivation for organising the Association of Braille Writers in Melbourne. Basically she had been forced to drop out of tertiary study because few books were available in Braille. Certainly the printing of Braille books was expensive. But Braille libraries were at that time being set up in England, with volumes being hand copied by devoted transcribers. So long as volunteers were willing to do the work, this was a cheap and effective method. Tilly decided to set up a similar local venture, assisted by Mary Blakeley, the sister of a former school friend, David Blakeley, who was blind. Mary and Tilly gave a paper at the Stenographers' Association monthly meeting and enthusiasm for their idea was immediately aroused. Tilly recalled that the first book they produced in Braille was a short work by Charles Dickens.


It soon became evident that the many books being produced in Braille needed to be stored somewhere and that the whole enterprise needed to be managed. Braille books are bulky, with a standard-length work filling about five volumes. And there was no small expense in meeting paper and binding costs. The Australian Natives' Association organised meetings at various branches to publicise the cause and raise funds. Tilly took part as demonstrator and singer and many famous performers of the time gave recitals free of charge.


As a result, the Association of Braille Writers was able to rent a room in The Block Arcade, Collins Street, from which it circulated books to readers all over Victoria. The books were kept at various homes, and then at the Blind Institute, until 1919 when the Association opened its purpose-built Braille Library. This was sited on land in Commercial Road, South Yarra, purchased in 1917 with the assistance of Edward Wilson Trustees. The Trust's gift was partly intended to help soldiers who had returned from World War I blinded or vision impaired. The location of the new Braille Library was a matter of some debate. J.T. Hogarth, Vice President of the Association, was also Superintendent of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind, so he had favoured making the Library part of the Institute's domain. However, Tilly successfully argued that recreation and work should be kept separate.


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Although only eight people turned up to this first meeting, the Association for the Advancement of the Blind was duly formed on 8 December 1895. It was to become a self-directed organisation for people who were blind or vision impaired - a feature especially important for adults, who had felt stifled by the Institute.


Alice McClelland, who was a resident at the Institute from 1898, spoke of the limitations placed on her by the place. She had entered the school as a five-year-old boarder and was only allowed home at the end of every two months for a single weekend. She played piano, violin and organ and remembered doing her schoolwork in Braille with materials that all came from England. She did maths on a Taylor's slate. This is part of her story:


After school hours we used to do reading, our main occupation, the Braille. We had nothing else, like talking books, and in those days the older people were quite willing to learn Braille, like old farmers or older country folk. George Benson (a blind man) used to go out and teach the blind people in country towns how to read Braille and used to go by himself, nobody to take him.


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… we sometimes got to go to various concerts - but wherever you went, you had to walk up Collins Street, go by tram then walk. If it was wet, we'd get drenched. They taught us nothing like cooking. We had to clean our own shoes. We were taught hemming but I wasn't very good at it.


When asked if she had any contact with boys, Alice said:


Oh dear, dear … they were the most evil-minded people that ever I struck … if you were caught talking to boys, you were up to no good, according to them, anything like that, it was just evil minded, that's all …


I was there until 1922, nearly thirty [years old]. I went from the school into the brush shop. That was hard yakka, I tell you. Eight hours per day, sit on a stool, no back to it.


Then they advertised for a reviser-proof reader. I put in an application, not that I was great, through Mr McClennan, the social secretary for the Braille Library at the Institute. He was a member of the Caledonian Society. I got the job. I went to the Library 1 March 1922 … I've been there ever since. [She was still working part-time at ninety-four.] … They pay me so much a sheet for correcting.


… We had a lady at the Library, an assistant - Miss Shrimpton - and she had bought a Fiat car and she took us for a ride in this car. I thought


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it was wonderful to be taken in a car. We had only ever heard the clip-clop of horses going along St Kilda Road. There was a great to-do when the Duke and Duchess of York came out in 1901 and we came out at the front gate at the Institute, they came out and the horses clip-clopping along St Kilda Road. We had a holiday - we had a week.30


In March 1896, all but the apprentices ceased to be known as 'inmates' of the Institute and became instead 'employees' on piece work, with the older or less qualified among them being assisted for a time by a bonus.31 The difficulty was in finding a market for their goods and the Institute's attempt at setting up a shop in Collins Street did not really solve this, on account of the depressed economy.


Many workers supported families and some contributed at home. A number were the only member of their family earning an income at this time.


The 1896 Annual Report stated that manufacturing had greatly improved under the leadership of J.T. Hogarth, along with the self-esteem of workers and the quality of their products. New labour-saving machines and appliances were bought for the factory.


A workers' sick fund was also established, to which non-resident workers contributed threepence per week.


Many musicians were having difficulty maintaining themselves because of keen competition due to the economic depression. But music practice was still kept up and apt students were trained even if most of their time was spent working in the factory. The Institute thought that this would give them two options for employment - to say nothing of the pleasure derived from the music itself.


The Braille musical system was introduced too. As a result, music had to be transcribed into Braille and individual copies made for orchestral pieces.


One of the new teachers in 1897 was Frank Roberts, who had himself been educated at the school.


In the same year, the Lady Brassey Appeal took place with the aim of reducing the debt accumulated by the Institute during the 1890s depression. Lady Brassey, the Governor's wife, kindly agreed to spearhead the appeal, but only after a thorough investigation had cleared the management of any kind of 'improvidence'. Her arrangements to bring the appeal to the notice of as many people as possible succeeded spectacularly. In two months, the required


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amount was more than fully subscribed and the fund was closed. The appeal raised pounds 5,745, easily paying off the debt of pounds 4,660.


In the 1898 Annual Report, Hogarth, keen to improve manufacturing outputs, suggested that a small amount of money be put towards 'defraying the cost of experiments for improving the methods and appliances in use'.33


Sewerage was to be connected in 1900 and the cost was estimated at between pounds 800 and pounds 1,000. The Victorian Government declined to make a special grant for the purpose, but it did increase its regular grant. A one-off grant of pounds 250 (over the usual pounds 2,000) was made available to install hot water and renew lighting and heating appliances, but there was a condition - the Board was obliged to raise money to match the grant.


The sales from goods were gratifying - despite the cessation of country concert tours, at which stock had generally sold well. The cancellation of concerts was due to the lower average age of new students, which caused a shortfall in the supply of mature voices - especially male ones. During the year, no fewer than fourteen musicians left, including some withdrawn to a new school in Tasmania.34


At the turn of the century, legislation was being drafted to make education compulsory for children who were 'blind, deaf or dumb'. While it was already compulsory for other children, it would be many years until this supplementary legislation was in place. Until that time, children who were


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blind or vision impaired were still often kept at home, without formal schooling.


The Principal's Report to the Board in 1901 was critical of certain aspects of the institution. He felt that many students were


… predisposed to sickness and have feeble constitutions, and their attaining to a fair measure of health, in many cases, is due mainly to the sound hygienic regulations, careful diet and regular conditions prevailing in the Institution … some of the sickness that prevails is due to a lack of protection from the weather in the boys' quarters. In this respect the Institution buildings afford one of the very worst examples of barrack architecture I have ever seen. Some years ago alterations were made in the girls' portion by means of which access was given to every part without going out of doors. In the boys' quarters, however … Except the dormitories, all other rooms at their disposal are entered directly from the open yard without even the protection of verandahs. There is no room whatever in which the boys can play in wet weather, hence they are obliged to spend a very large portion of their time out of doors.35


Another thing criticised was the fact that for years the old gymnasium had been used as part of the factory. In an attempt to get money for a functional gymnasium, the Principal wrote the following in the 1901 Annual Report:


All the blind people I have ever known have displayed a lack of stamina, and in too many cases their intellectual development is far from what it should be; while at comparatively early ages they become prematurely old. Some time ago, in giving evidence before a commission of enquiry into the subject of Old Age Pensions, a former pupil of this Institution, probably the most highly trained blind person in Australia, stated that a blind person at 40 years was as much in need of aid as an ordinary person of 60.36


During the same year there was the suggestion of amalgamation with the Deaf and Dumb Institution. Though seriously considered, it was not taken up because of recent building in both places.37


The early twentieth century saw a decrease in neonatal ophthalmia - juvenile blindness - thanks to improved sanitation and better medical


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knowledge. But there was an increase in adult blindness and vision impairment, chiefly because of accidents.


Despite the activities offered by the Association for the Advancement of the Blind, there was still little recreation available to people who lived outside the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind. Some were involved in activities deemed inappropriate, such as drinking.


By 1906 the Institute's financial situation had begun to improve again. The amount from bequests alone was pounds 4,836. Workers were given increased wages and some holiday pay. The Institute was fulfilling contracts to metropolitan and country municipalities, as well as to various government departments - both Victorian and Commonwealth - including Railways, the Post Office, the Customs Service and Government House.


The Superintendent was able to report:


A very encouraging feature of the present era is the complete disappearance of the hopeless conservatism that characterised not only the blind, but some of the teachers of a former period, when every new departure met with strong opposition, and anything not hitherto done was looked upon as practically impossible.


The steady development of the industrial branches during the past decade or so has had the effect of breaking down this idea, and has stimulated the blind worker to have confidence in his own ability, and to sweep away his self-imposed limitations. This elimination of the 'impossible' is one of the most significant advances the Institution has yet made.


The period leading up to World War I was largely one of moderate growth and progress. In 1907 a new brush factory opened, at which emphasis was placed on good sanitation, ventilation and convenience. In the same year, the Institute participated in the Exhibition of Women's Work held at the Carlton Exhibition Buildings.


In 1908 students went to concerts given by Madame Albani, the Mallinsons and Peter Pan. Dame Nellie Melba visited the school and sang, but she cut short her performance on account of the number of sighted people in the audience. However, she was reportedly delighted at the school and workshops.


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Boys began to attend football matches at the St Kilda Football Ground, where they were allowed in for free. With their friends describing what was happening on the field, they become enormous football enthusiasts, eager also to have read to them the follow-up newspaper accounts of the matches. The boys were allowed to play in the school grounds for a while, but that stopped when too many broken windows resulted.


The old problem of begging was again brought to the attention of the Board in 1908 as the Annual Report once more differentiated between deserving and undeserving cases. It was a fact that some people still made much more money begging than they could ever make at the Institute's factory.38


The first decade of the twentieth century brought a continuation of the same problems that the Institute had been grappling with for almost fifty years. But with the increasing independence of people who were blind or vision impaired came a greater need to rethink methods of education, employment and care.


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Chapter 3


The year 1911 proved significant for the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind. A new era of progress was Heralded with the establishment of compulsory education and pensions for people who were blind or vision impaired. However, the paternalism continued. More than ever, the Institute was expected to provide for everyone who was blind or vision impaired, and sometimes it convinced itself and the world that it did just that. The following article appeared in the Argus on 16 July 1910. The Institute considered it so noteworthy that it reprinted it in its Annual Report for 1911.


Help the Blind to Help Themselves

Training and Industry

Operatives at Work


'Please assist the blind' is a cry as old as charity itself. Nowadays, however, the necessity for it has almost ceased to exist. The blind are being taught and trained to assist themselves, and there is no reason why many of them should continue to seek alms in the street except that it is easier than working. Many of the blind beggars of Melbourne have been better off since their blindness than ever in their lives before. They obtain large sums from the public. Melbourne's principal blind beggar owns a handsome, well-furnished villa in a good suburb, and the other day he bought a new piano, and paid pounds 90 cash for it. He was a labourer, earning a pittance with difficulty before blindness raised him to affluence. There is practically no necessity for any blind person to beg at all. The Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind has now developed under the superintendence of Mr J. Thurston Hogarth into a great industrial college, where blind people are taught to use their senses of touch and hearing; in some trade in which they can earn regular wages, the lowest of which is sufficient to keep them …


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That they triumph over all obstacles is made abundantly plain when the Royal Victorian Institute is visited, and the work of the scholars and operatives observed. Little children are found able to read 'Braille' records with ease and rapidity and understanding. They show equal facility in writing, embossing the thick paper through their little brass guiding frames with a clicking rapidity which is wonderful. It is the triumph of touch over sight. Then when figuring comes on these same children display an arithmetical knowledge which would be creditable to seeing children of the same age …


It is very clear that after a few years in the schoolroom - and the schoolroom for the blind includes the playground - there are developed from the helpless blind who are received as children, alert brains, abnormal senses of touch and hearing, and in the circumstances, an extraordinary mechanical ability. When drafted into the workshop they form the most skilful workmen, and since all work is paid for at piece rates they are able to earn higher wages on account of their skill. But the factories are not by any means manned by those who have been through the school as children. On the contrary, the majority of the employees are indigent blind people from outside …


The article went on to describe conditions in the school rooms and work rooms. Overall, despite the unintended contradiction of its first paragraph - where a beggar is described as being so much better off than any factory worker - it would have left no doubt in the reader's mind about the manifold virtues of the Institute.


By contrast, in the same year, the Report of the Inspector of Charities presented quite a different picture of the Blind Institute. The inspection was carried out as part of a process championed by the Treasurer of Victoria, the Hon. W.A. Watt, to enact a new Charities Act in Parliament. Watt wanted the Institute to amalgamate with the Victorian Association of Braille Writers and the Association for the Advancement of the Blind (AAB) in order to concentrate 'all the agencies for the benefit of the blind under one controlling body'.1 The Braille Writers Association agreed but the AAB was reluctant. Having been formed and managed by people who were blind or vision impaired, it was wary of being taken over by an organisation that would be unable to safeguard the self-governance ethos of its members.


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The AAB had been operating for almost twenty years and was fulfilling many functions that the Blind Institute could not. By the time this inspection occurred, the AAB had also set up a Home for the Blind at Brighton Beach. The Inspector of Charities, T.E. Meek, was of the opinion that the AAB and Institute should merge and that the beach home should be managed as an adjunct of the Institute. He saw, however, that this would be difficult. Especially since the Institute's Superintendent was, he said, generally disliked by people who were blind or vision impaired:


The natural question arises - Why does not the Committee have the confidence of the blind. It seems to me that the Superintendent's influence must be very large with the committee.2


Meek saw as part of the problem the fact that many of the Committee were public men who could not give much time to the Institute. The most regular attendees of meetings were Messrs Blundell, Hill and Weigall - all retired public servants over seventy years of age, and two of them aged seventy-eight. He felt that a new Superintendent should be appointed - someone who had the confidence of people who were blind or vision impaired. He felt also that there needed to be an infusion of new blood into the Committee.


He suggested that 'as groundwork for the amalgamation, the rules of the Institute be amended so as to provide for a certain portion of the Committee


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to be blind persons'. He also felt that more of the teaching and industrial training staff ought to be people who were blind or vision impaired (at this time, only one of them was). And he suggested that 'In an institution where blind women are regularly employed and where young girls are being brought up … there should be women representatives on the Committee'.3


Meek further noted that the concert hall was being inappropriately used for storage by the factory and that the emphasis on the industrial part of the Institute was generally too heavy.


The Blind Institute set out its terms for the proposed amalgamation: two places on the Board would be allocated to people who were blind or vision impaired and the AAB could retain a separate board for its own activities. As well, a building could be provided on the grounds of the Institute to replace the AAB home in Brighton. Nothing came of it. There was no amalgamation, nor did the Institute improve its Board, change its Superintendent or allow women on to the Committee.


Problems with aspects of the Institute were also evident in the report of the schoolmaster, Thomas Dobson. Dobson began work there in 1909 and remained until 1921. He was a dedicated teacher with a good heart who seemed to care for his students' welfare. His struggles with the Superintendent and the Board usefully shed light on the daily functioning of the institution. Dobson was assisted by Lenna Bryan and, after 1913, by Tilly Aston


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Aston arrived at the Blind Institute's school in difficult circumstances, having been employed by the Education Department in the wake of the new State legislation that made schooling compulsory for children who were blind or vision impaired. She had been somewhat reluctant to apply for the position of head teacher there, knowing that the Board would not believe a blind teacher able to cope with such a responsibility. Yet she applied anyway, encouraged by a friend. After an interview and other formalities, the Education Department declared her the chosen candidate for the job. But to general amazement, the Institute refused to have her, asserting that 'it had no confidence in a blind teacher, and would not sacrifice the children in such a manner'.4 Since people who were blind or vision impaired had often taught at the school, with many having earlier been students there themselves, it seems unlikely that Aston's blindness had provoked the Institute's objection. More plausible, as Aston suggests in her
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