A Look at how the Blind Poor Survived the Slum- Rebecca Watterson

Sighted people live in the world. The blind person lives in consciousness” – John M. Hull [1]

The blind poor in the slum were acknowledged to be pitied above any other group. Philanthropic work and charitable giving towards the working class had come to dominate the culture of the upper and middle classes, particularly for women.[2] This was not, however, always as genuine as it appeared. Opinions concerning the blind were being shaped by new forms of investigative journalism, like that of Mayhew and Greenwood, which deemed blindness to be a tragic misfortune. My focus here is on Greenwood’s article, ‘At a Blind Beggars’ Tea Party‘ (1874), which gives a rich insight into Victorian attitudes towards blindness. Greenwood attends a meeting specifically for the blind in the slum, organised by Mr Orsman and held at his mission house. The blind were treated to a meal and entertainment for the night and Greenwood later recalls this event. While the source evidences sympathy for the blind, later arguments like that of Prochaska show how philanthropists were insensitive to the genuine needs of the poor.[3]

There was an understanding thslums-picat the blind were incapable of living productive lives and were often treated like children in need of protection. Greenwood captures this idea as he expresses “alarm for the sightless ones” because the dogs they used to guide them were not admitted to the mission house meeting.[4] The author is further surprised to find that “some few of the invited guests, however, were without ‘guides’ of any kind.”[5] His opinion was shared by Dinah Mulock Craik when an encounter with a blind man surprised her when she discovered that he could navigate the streets independently.[6] Middle-class ympathy for the blind poor is also apparent in Millais’ The Blind Man (1853) [Fig.1]. The man is helped across the road by a well-dressed young woman and also his dog who is carrying his begging tin. The woman is being charitable and we presume that this is something that she is used to since philanthropy was seen as a vocation for women of her class.[7]

Attitudes towards the blind poor were shaped as a result of the Victorian fascination with the idea of seeing and the ways in which they interpreted what they saw.[8] It was a common notion to those within the upper and middle class that religion and the visual were powerfully interlinked, especially in relation to art.[9] The blind, therefore, had lost an essential sense required to interpret the work of God, and so philanthropists were motivated through moral and religious beliefs to help them. Financial contributions were part of this as many people gave generously to charities for the blind. Greenwood was able to enjoy “a plentiful meal” at the mission house, suggesting money was not a concern for the charity. Lees and Ralph explore the development of charity for the disabled in the nineteenth century and note that by the end of the 1880s there were thirty two charities dedicated to the blind.[10] This included The Association for Promoting the General Welfareslums-pic2 for the Blind, founded by Elizabeth Gilbert, who was blind herself [Fig. 2]. While their argument highlights the positive impact these charities had on our modern understanding of disability, overall the Victorian blind encountered very strict criteria in order to be considered deserving of the aid.[11] They were judged on a wide spectrum, including their religious practice, good moral character, whether they were completely blind or partially sighted, physically fit of body and also whether they could dress themselves independently. Thus, while philanthropists appeared to be helping the blind poor, this was often only on the condition that the beneficiary met with middle-class standards.

There has been a renewed debate concerning the sincerity of middle class philanthropy towards the poor and Oliphant discusses institutions for the blind specifically. His argument follows that the institutions were divorced from the outside world and that the blind were subjected to enforced isolation.[12] Prochaska further asserts that philanthropy, more generally, was as a form of self-interest for the middle classes.[13] He states that by the end of the century there were 500,000 women working as philanthropic volunteers,[14] thus the popularity of the movement meant that there was a shift from genuine charity to that of appearing fashionable. There is evidence for this in Greenwood’s article, as the mission house provided the blind with a meal and entertainment in the form of music and singing by fellow blind men and women. However, there were few measures in place to help the blind in this unfamiliar environment. Not allowing guide dogs to the meeting meant that they were left only with a walking stick and “if this should fail them they should be lost indeed.”[15] Thus, it becomes more evident that the charity strips them of their independence as “the clumsy teacups were foreign to their touch,”[16] and so the blind were forced into difficulty at a meeting that was intended to cater for their disability. This account, therefore, holds true to the argument that charities gave the appearance of providing for the poor but failed to genuinely help.

Overall, Greenwood’s article provides a detailed account of just one of the ways in which the middle class tried to aid the blind poor. The source can also be used to analyse Victorian attitudes towards the blind and disabled Exploring this in the context of modern perspectives allows a greater insight into the contradictions of philanthropy. Although there was a more sentimental approach to the blind than the poor in general, often they were only eligible for charitable aid providing that they met standards which deemed them deserving. Yet, even when they received this it was in limited forms and sometimes isolated the blind and failed to meet their needs, while the middle-class individual gained the popular image of dedicated philanthropist.

Rebecca Watterson



[1] Hull, John M., ‘Touching the Rock’, cited in Flint, Kate, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 64.

[2] Prochaska, F. K., ‘Philanthropy’, in Thompson, F. M. L., (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 385.

[3] Ibid, p. 359.

[4] Greenwood, James, At a Blind Beggars’ Tea Party (1874). Available online: http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm (Accessed 28/11/2016), p. 51.

[5] Ibid, p. 52.

[6] Mulock Craik, Dinah, Blind, (1861). Available online: http://www.nineteenthcenturydisability.org/ (Accessed 20/10/2016)

[7] Prochaska, ‘Philanthropy’, p. 385.

[8] Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination, p. 1

[9] Matthews-Jones, L., ‘Lessons in Seeing: Art, Religion and Class in the East End of London, 1881- 1898’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 16:3 (2011), p. 390.

[10] Lees, Colin and Ralph, Sue, ‘Charitable Provisions for Blind People and Deaf People in Late Nineteenth Century London’, Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 4:3 (2004), p. 150.

[11] Ibid, p. 151.

[12] Oliphant, John, ‘Empowerment and Debilitation in the Educational Experience of the Blind in Nineteenth-Century England and Scotland’, History of Education, 35:1 (2006), p. 48.

[13] Prochaska, ‘Philanthropy’, p. 358.

[14] Ibid, p. 385.

[15] Greenwood, ‘At a Blind Beggars’ Tea Party’, p. 54.

[16] Ibid, p. 54



Figure 1 John Everett Millais, The Blind Man, 1853. Available online: https://www-bridgemaneducation-com.ezproxy.derby.ac.uk/en/ (Accessed: 30/11/2016)

Figure 2 Elizabeth Gilbert. From the Frontispiece of the book Elizabeth Gilbert and her Work for the Blind, Frances Martin, 1887. Available online: http://www.nineteenthcenturydisability.org/ (Accessed: 25/10/2016)