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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Chapter 4


The second half of the 1920s was a period of enormous growth and change for the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind. A school library was established in 1925. Many volunteers transcribed books for the collection, while Melbourne's best known printers, Troedel and Cooper Pty Ltd, bound the copies free of charge. The first librarian was Norman Rees.


By 1926 pounds 40,000 had been spent on new buildings and alterations to existing buildings. As well, a hostel for young women apprentices and workers was built at an approximate cost of pounds 3,500 on land donated by the Victorian Government.


It was in this year, too, that the Institute decided to use its now-familiar lighthouse logo.


Its lamp is kept bright by the beneficent interest of its friends and supporters, and its rays of activities and service throughout the State, searching out those in need of its assistance, lighting their paths.1

The Institute was open to everyone who was blind or vision impaired, every day of year, for socialising and recreation. According to the Annual Report, 'they were welcome at any hour to enjoy the use of pianos, gramo-phones, orchestrion, wireless with headphones or loudspeakers, the grand pipe organ, the social and debating and dancing clubs, and rooms where there was space for study, writing and typewriting'.2 Braille playing cards were available too. And hot and cold baths and dressing rooms were provided for those living in places without such amenities.


The Albert Park Committee set aside a piece of land on which the Blind Institute might build a boat shed for the use of its students and factory workers. Boating was to become a common form of recreation in coming years.


In 1927 the Institute was given the use of two acres nearby for a recreation and sports ground. Cricket, football, skittles, pushball, running


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tracks, swings and other athletic pursuits were to be provided for. Facilities for hot and cold showers, dressing rooms and tea rooms were also anticipated.3


Ormond Hall was made available to a committee of people who were blind or vision impaired, to organise dances and concerts. Many men and women who were sighted came there to join in the dancing and dance teachers provided coaching opportunities. The weekly dances soon became a favourite activity.


For some time the Blind Institute's St Kilda Road location had ceased to be so isolated as it had been on its opening in 1868. More precisely, since 1888 cable trams had trundled up and down St Kilda Road, giving the Institute relatively easy access to the city. By the 1920s, both sides of the road were filled with fine houses and institutions. It was Melbourne's grand boulevard, with its beautiful trees and enormous gardens. The suburbs surrounding the Institute - St Kilda and Prahran - were growing fast and Melbourne itself was experiencing a brief period of development, the first since the depression of the 1890s.


Workers now had a fortnight's annual holiday and public holidays were granted on full pay. The children of workers who were blind or vision impaired were given the opportunity to learn music. Two travelling salesmen were employed to sell the Institute's manufactured goods.


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Those who could not work in the factories were able to work from their own homes or as concert artists, ticket sellers, tea agents, piano tuners. 'Deserving home workers, moreover, are given amounts up to pounds 50 per annum in allowances as an encouragement to work, which, with their Invalid Pension of pounds 52 per annum, enables them to live with some comfort. They, and in some cases, their children, are given free tuition in trades and professions and their manufactured goods are bought from them at market rates.'4


The new hostel for women apprentices and workers was sited close to the Institute, in Raleigh Street. The State Government provided not only the land but also the services of the Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works and his staff to superintend construction. The Trustees of the Edward Wilson Estate donated pounds 1,000 towards building and furnishing. As well, funding was contributed by the Felton Bequest Committee and Emily Griffith Trustees. The rest of the pounds 4,000 needed was raised through a Monster Fair organised by Mrs James Angus and held in the Institute's grounds. The building, commenced in 1926, was opened the following year by the Mayor of Melbourne, Alderman Sir Stephen Morell, Kt.


The completed hostel housed eleven women and was equipped with a wireless at each bedside and a communal gramophone and piano. Since there was room on the site for further buildings, the construction of a similar hostel for men was begun there in 1927.5 This was opened by Lord Somers, Governor of Victoria, in April 1929.6


The Board had decided to pioneer the provision of a wireless to every 'deserving blind' person in Victoria. Advertisements in newspapers and on the radio let people know that this service was available. Radio Station 3LO made appeals for donations of money and wireless sets. This was one of Stan Hedger's pet schemes and took up much of his spare time.


In another attempt to improve fund-raising, a Central Auxiliary was formed to bring the work of the Institute 'under the notice of the public and assist in finding the large sum required each year to carry on'.7 Its first presidency was jointly held by Mrs and Mr Angus, the latter simultaneously Vice President of the Institute itself. Many more Auxiliaries were formed in the years to come, both in suburban Melbourne and in country districts throughout Victoria. By 1930, the ten suburban and more than twenty country Auxiliaries had raised pounds 4,000.8


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Despite much success at raising money, the Institute's balance sheet still showed a deficit. In 1928 expenditure exceeded income by pounds 6,341. On the one hand, sales had reached pounds 30,488. But on the other, wages for men and women in the workshops came to pounds 5,497, the sum of pounds 12,350 was paid out to augment pensions and help people to live in their own homes, and pounds 7,000 was paid to artists and ticket sellers who were blind or vision impaired. This added up to pounds 24,847. Total ordinary expenditure had risen from pounds 5,403 in 1918 to pounds 25,065 in 1928.9 And there was a need for yet more workshops.


Stan Hedger made sure that all the right people knew of the Institute's developments and needs. In 1928 the Governor of Victoria, the Right Hon. Lord Somers, visited the Institute with Lady Somers and made tributes that reinforced the idea of a need for increased public support.10


Music continued to play an important part in life at the Institute, with huge audiences attending concerts by its artists all over the state. Fourteen thousand attended matinee and evening shows in Bendigo and Ballarat, while a Melbourne Town Hall concert attended by the Governor of Victoria drew an audience of three thousand. The sum of pounds 7,000 was paid out to various musicians and ticket sellers.11


George Findlay received his Bachelor of Music from the University of Melbourne in 1927. He began teaching at the Institute the following year. Donald Forbes received his Bachelor of Education and was studying for a Diploma of Education in 1928. The Board had already offered him a position at the Institute's school.


But hard times were on the horizon, with the Great Depression looming. The 1930 Annual Report declared that ordinary expenditure had exceeded income by pounds 6,000. The Institute had no choice but to take the amount from its Endowment Fund.


A Victoria-wide appeal was launched in 1931 to raise pounds 50,000, but this was to prove more difficult than it had been ten years earlier when Stan Hedger was a new Superintendent in more optimistic times. A total of pounds 40,000 was raised. The appeal was launched from Government House by Lord Somers, Governor of Victoria, and was further supported by the Mayor of Melbourne, Cr Harold Luxton, the Chief Secretary, the Hon. T. Tunnecliffe on behalf of the Premier of Victoria, and Atlee Hunt, Chairman of the Charities Board. The list of donations raised through activities such as


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dances, concerts, raffles and fetes covered seven pages of small type in the 1931 Annual Report. These were all on top of the normal, suburban and country subscriptions. There were now hundreds of Life Governors. Eight hundred people attended the Annual General Meeting at Ormond Hall and there was a musical program including 'fancy dancing' by students.12


Many of those involved in such dancing were students with low vision. These were also the students used as guides by the Institute. In some ways they experienced greater difficulties than those who were totally blind, because they were given no opportunity or encouragement to develop skills using the sight they had. Like other students, they learned Braille, but often with their hands covered to prevent their looking at the text. Since no provision was made for material to be produced in large print, they were not taught to read ordinary type, although it was within their capabilities to do so. It proved very frustrating for them. This situation persisted until the 1950s.


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White Sticks for Blind Men


'After having heard the circumstances of the death of Stephen Henry Howard, labourer, aged 63 years, Little Hanover street, North Fitzroy, at an inquest yesterday, the city coroner (Mr D. Grant, PM) suggested that to prevent accidents of the kind, blind or partially blind men should carry white walking-sticks to distinguish themselves from those who could see. Howard died in the Melbourne Hospital on February 25 of a fractured skull after having been knocked down by a motor-lorry at the corner of Swanston and Latrobe streets on the morning of February 22. He was partially blind.


'Mr Grant found that the death had been accidental.'

(Source: Argus, 7 March 1933, p. 6.)


White Walking Sticks - Blind Reluctant to Use Them


'The suggestion made by the city coroner (Mr D. Grant, PM) that blind and partially blind persons should carry white walking-sticks is not new, but, coming from such a source, is expected to have some influence in breaking down the resistance hitherto shown by blind persons to fall in with the proposal. Only a week ago the 150 people under the care of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind, St Kilda road, spurned a suggestion that they should carry white walking-sticks, though 12 were inclined to favour the idea; and shortly before that, the Association for the Advancement of the Blind also rejected the plan.


'It is stated, however, that the institutions for the blind in South Australia and Western Australia have adopted the white stick policy and have supplied all blind and partially blind persons in those States with the distinctive staves. This distinctiveness, it is believed, is the reason for the reluctance by blind persons in Victoria to countenance such an innovation. It is hoped, however, that a sense of the dangers that beset them when walking abroad will eventually prevail and that the protective white staff will be adopted. In the meantime, the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria has offered to supply - through the institution - the white walking-sticks to as many blind persons as may need them.'

(Source: Argus, 8 March 1933, p. 5.)


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To try to overcome some of the difficulties of fund-raising, the Blind Institute took steps to end the competition that existed between itself and the Association for the Advancement of the Blind (AAB) over public support. Amalgamation had been tried, but due to a divergence of opinion as to who should control the lives of people who were blind or vision impaired, the most that could be achieved was a financial consensus with regard to fund-raising. Twenty per cent of all money raised by the Institute's Auxiliaries would go to the AAB. The latter, in turn, would abandon their city and country parties and their collectors would be withdrawn from all areas where the RVIB had an Auxiliary. Even this arrangement would prove difficult at times, but it was expedient.


Despite all efforts the financial situation remained at crisis point. Subscriptions fell by pounds 715 in 1932 and the five-year funding from Municipal Council came to an end.13


By 1933 there were 267 children, workers, apprentices and pensioners on the Institute's books. All would have been adversely affected by the Commonwealth Government's measure to lower pensions by two shillings and sixpence, had not the Institute made up the difference. Ordinary expenditure exceeded income by pounds 2,666. Certainly the Auxiliaries raised pounds 7,587 - a substantial amount, considering the difficulties of the time. But pounds 1,800 of this went to the AAB under the arrangement to share consolidated fund-raising. And the Industrial Department lost pounds 5,000. This situation was never going to be turned around, because all products were handmade and competed with machine-made goods, the production costs of which were necessarily much lower. Then there was the wage supplement. Compassionate allowances of almost pounds 8,000 were paid to workers to bring them up to a living wage. Many people who were sighted were also employed to prepare and finish work that could not otherwise be produced.14


Birth control by order


The Brisbane Daily Telegraph of 4 October 1930 ran an article on the sterilisation of blind people who wanted to marry. A British statutory committee had made it a rule to compel persons in their employment who were blind and contemplating marriage to produce medical assurance that the marriage would be childless. Defiance of the rule entailed


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dismissal. 'On the subject of sterilisation of the mentally, and physically unfit, Dr Bond (of the Modern Churchmen's Conference at Oxford) said: "… This Committee, rightly wishing to discountenance the marriage of blind workers under their care, has passed a rule which provides that persons marrying without consent of the committee shall cease to receive benefits … Two blind young couples under the care of this committee have expressed in writing their willingness to undergo sterilisation and so comply with the committee's rule".'


Although no such rule ever existed in Australia, people who were blind were sternly discouraged from engaging in any but a platonic relationship. Many people living and working at the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind in the 1930s, and even into the 1950s, remember being threatened with expulsion from work if they entered a sexual relationship.


Despite all the praise for the achievements in music and scholarship of people who were blind, and all the talk about their being able to lead useful lives, voice was given to the idea of sterilisation and even euthanasia for 'infants with gross defects', including blindness. These were considered as possible 'solutions' to the 'problem' posed by growing numbers of people with physical and mental disabilities. Though the issue arose more in Britain than in Australia, many people in authority here agreed with this way of thinking. The 1934 the Institute's Annual Report clearly stated that it 'deprecated inter-marriage of the blind'. Small wonder that organisations like the Association for the Advancement of the Blind insisted that people who were blind should have greater agency in their own fate. People who were blind did have their supporters - in September 1933 the Brisbane Worker published an article under the title 'Problem of the Unfit', with the subheadings 'Danger of Sterilisation' and 'Hasty Action May Rob Mankind of Its Geniuses'. This article criticised the cult of eugenics, pointing out that its only perpetrator was the then Nazi Government of Germany. The journalist also signalled that 95 per cent of children who were mentally disabled were not born of similarly disabled parents. The article went on to list people with disabilities who possessed real genius.

(Sources: Brisbane Daily Telegraph, 4 October 1930, 'Birth Control by Order'; Annual Report, 1934, p. 22; Brisbane Worker, 7 September 1933, 'Problem of the Unfit'.)


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Financial difficulties did not prevent the Institute from taking on a new and very demanding function at this time - that of setting up a nursery school for babies who were blind or vision impaired. In 1934 it took in two girls and a boy aged between two and three. J.A. Heyman gave pounds 500 to fund the school and the new space it occupied was duly named after him.15 Although the nursery cost money to set up, it was also a great money-spinner. David Ditchfield was the first boy and the very first child to enter it, and Joan Neich (née Morice) was the first girl. When interviewed by Alan Nuske in 1990, Joan still remembered the nursery fondly. But she was keen to point out that, in her opinion, part of the reason it had been set up was to raise funds for the Institute.16 Joan and David were both mentioned in a half-page article of the local newspaper, the Leader, on 14 September 1935. The article carried two large photos of the children with Sister Lindsay, who was in charge. Joan was shown leading a group of visitors around the nursery, pointing out everyone's beds and particularly demonstrating the new silver baths.17


Conditions were certainly better for all children at the Blind Institute than they had been before the arrival of Stan Hedger. And it was not altogether mercenary thinking that led him to establish the nursery - he had a firm belief that the sooner a child was educated, the more independent they could become.


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Hedger's ability to get publicity for the Institute can be judged by the huge number of newspaper articles that he managed to generate in its favour. A trip by students to the P&O liner Narkunda on 10 April 1934 was mentioned in the Herald on the day it was to happen. The next day all the Melbourne papers - the Argus, Age, Herald and Star - had photos of the children on board with the ship's Captain, Fred Sudell.18


A month later, the Leader carried almost a full page titled 'A Melbourne Letter' that detailed the reception given by children from the Institute to the St Kilda Road cavalcade of the new Governor and his wife, Lord and Lady Huntingfield.


On two lorries drawn up beside the road sat between 40 and 50 little blind children, waving their flags, their heads turning quickly from side to side as their keen ears followed the direction of the sound. The blind orchestra mounted on another lorry, played cheerful music … and the officials of the Blind Institute waited with the children. Tiny Dorothy Nuske, fair-haired and shy, waited with her hand in Mrs Frost's, for as president of the Institute Auxiliaries, Mrs Frost was to lead Dorothy to the car to present a basket of flowers …19


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The rest of the letter described the vice-regal car and its mounted escort, the presentation to Lady Huntingfield, the continuation of the parade down St Kilda Road as well as the conversation had by the Huntingfield children in the car.


Every new piece of equipment and innovation, fund-raising occasion or celebration relating to people who were blind or vision impaired made the papers. A huge photo appeared in the Argus on 6 April 1934, showing a press


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for the printing of Braille operated by its inventor, Miss M.H. Crabbe, a librarian at the Victorian Association of Braille Writers. This press was used for printing the Association's monthly magazine. There was also an article on the same subject in the Age. On 19 July of the same year the Age ran a photo of the meeting held at Ormond Hall of the Central Council of Auxiliaries of the Institute. Two months later, several articles appeared about Arthur McKay, who 'gained a prize against 109 children of normal sight' in a


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competition conducted by the Music Teachers' Association of Victoria. These pieces appeared in the Herald, the Sun and even in the Sydney Telegraph.20 Also in the Sun was an article praising Mr D.L. Palmer, Arthur McKay's teacher at the Institute. He had been teaching there for more than thirty years. 'Mr Palmer has taught every member of the Blind orchestra of 20 to master their instruments … To do this he has had to transcribe a full Orchestration into Braille for various instruments.' Over a thousand sheets of music were transcribed every year for the orchestra, whose members learned fourteen new dance compositions every week.21


The Auxiliaries were now playing a huge part in annual fund-raising. By 1934 there were eighty of them in metropolitan Melbourne and 180 in country areas. They raised a total of pounds 8,214, with amounts from various branches ranging from a few pounds to several hundred.


Grants were still being received from cities such as Caulfield, Geelong and Mildura, boroughs such as Clunes, Echuca and Queenscliff, and shires such as Bass, Stawell and Yarrawonga.


There were also contributions from Lodges such as the Australian Natives' Association, the Masonic and the IOOF. Of them, the Masonic, which had hundreds of 'branches', contributed the most.


Just how successful the Blind Institute was at raising funds during this extremely difficult period is shown in the figures for 1936, when it drew on its capital to the extent of a mere pounds 2,526. This was despite its distributing pounds 25,110 in adult wages, spending pounds 4,660 on the education of children and babies and allocating pounds 2,700 to the Association for the Advancement of the Blind. (The Institute agreed to raise its contribution to the AAB to a minimum of pounds 2,500 for three years ending in 1937.)22


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