The word ‘asylum’ does not generally evoke positive thoughts, instead sparking images of horror films and scary stories, creepy corridors and echoing screams. But this cannot be said for the Old Kent Road Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, which for 176 years provided hope and support for the forgotten children of London.
Founded in 1792, the school devoted itself to helping children who were otherwise shunned and given up on by the education system. These “unfortunates” were often thought to be intellectually deficient, resulting in a life working menial jobs and social exclusion. In extreme circumstances, these children were seen as embarrassments to the human race, with some radical eugenics advising a ban on deaf and mute people marrying each other, in a cruel attempt to weed out the conditions.
The school in Old Kent Road aimed to change all this. Reverend John Townsend helped to found the school after meeting a deaf and mute child in his parish. He was stunned by the boy’s intellect despite his condition and outraged that his mother was forced to send him to Edinburgh to be suitably educated at a specialist (and expensive) academy.
The school, funded by generous donors including members of the royal family, accepted just half a dozen students in its first year. However, before long the number of children clamouring for a chance to learn grew and grew. He took on new teachers, including Joseph Watson, and moved the school from its first home in Grange Road to a “handsome brick building” in the Old Kent Road. Here, they had the space and facilities to help up to 200 children reach their potential. Watson, who would go on to become headmaster, was adamant that deaf and mute children should be treated the same as anyone else in the classroom.
He said: “Persons born deaf are, in fact, neither depressed below, nor raised above, the general scale of human nature, as regards their dispositions and powers, either of body or mind.” He also discouraged the learning of sign language, which helped communication between deaf and mute people but not with others. Lip-reading was preferred, and he emphasised “the power and use of language – not a language of signs peculiar to themselves, but the common language of the country to which they belong, and which is spoken and written by those around them.” A book with 4000 illustrations was created, helping the children write and identify common words.
While still referred to as “inmates” and “unfortunates” in contemporary documents, these deaf and mute children were treated more fairly than ever before. This helped the children progress “from a dark and dreary state of ignorance” to become more integrated members of society. As well as writing and lip-reading, they were taught skills such as mechanics and design, providing them with an opportunities for real careers. Arnold George, who attended the asylum in the mid-1800s, for example, went on to work as part of the team that tailored for King Edward VII. John P Gloyn, another student during the mid-19th century, set up in business as a mathematical instrument maker – an unimaginable fate for the capital’s deaf and mute children before the school’s founding. However, as the school became more popular, and the application list for limited spaces grew, criticisms mounted.
John Harrison Curtis, an aurist (an ear doctor), slammed the policy of accepting children to the school not based on need or the severity of their condition but on a vote between board members. He also accused the school of failing to properly push for the treatment of deafness, instead admitting students with minor ear ailments that could potentially be fixed – children he felt were being unnecessarily “doomed to perpetual silence and hopeless despair”.
He advised the asylum to open a medical wing, where deafness could be investigated and treated. The school management rejected this proposal. Dejected, he said: “It is remarkable how very common has been the error of considering a child once deaf always deaf and consequently of abandoning all attempts at relief.” Nonetheless, the school’s popularity continued into the 20th century and it became increasingly clear that the Old Kent Road site was becoming too small.
The building, once surrounded by green spaces and clear air, was becoming more and more hemmed in by the industrial landscape. In 1902, most pupils moved to a new site by the sea in Margate, where the Royal School for Deaf Children still remains.
The Old Kent Road school was taken over by the London County Council, who opened a small academy teaching physically disabled students on the ground floor and continued teaching a smaller number of deaf students upstairs. Academic techniques developed and technology advanced, with deaf children in the school’s later years benefiting from an interactive screen which showed how loudly they were talking.
The school continued in this form until 1968, when it was finally closed for good. 176 years after it was founded, the school had served its purpose. Deaf and mute children, once doomed to a life of frustration and contempt, were now presented with a once-unimaginable range of prospects. While the Old Kent Road site is now closed, the pioneering institute’s influence is reflected in every school or business today that sees potential, not futility, in deaf or mute people.