A few times a week, I walk down a quiet path through Edinburgh’s residential Southside. This well-used and well-maintained path follows the foot of the Salisbury Crags and offers a magnificent, up-close view of Holyrood Park. It’s also a stone’s throw from my flat.
This path borders one of the largest council-built estates in southern Edinburgh called “Dumbiedykes.” (Pronounced as dumm-ee-dykes). While this is a strange name, I had once been told that it derived from the fact that there was once an old school for the “deaf and dumb” nearby. (Of course, no one in modern PC language would ever call it that nowadays).
A tall stone wall separates this walk path from Queen’s Drive, the road that skirts the Salisbury’s Crags and is annoyingly closed every Sunday or during major events to all road traffic. (Often due to royal events at nearby Holyrood Palace, an inconvenient reality for us plebs who live so close to royalty). Thus, a walker such as myself must walk along this wall when using the path. Here’s a crude representation:
Upon closer inspection of this marvellous stone wall, you begin to notice the remnants of fireplaces, walls, and numerous inexplicable nooks and crannies that have no logical order.
Every time I pass this wall, I try to imagine the stone cottages or stables that might have been attached to it so long ago. Of course, just like so many other parts of Edinburgh’s dark grimy history and confusing urban landscape, I merely shrug my shoulders and continue my walk.
Not today, I vowed myself. Not today!
After an afternoon of researching my local area, learning about this deaf school, its founder, and discovering British Sign Language’s status in Scottish society, I thought a blog post would be a perfect forum for my findings.
Who founded this “deaf and dumb” school? When? And, why?
Born in 1715 in South Lancashire, Thomas Braidwood studied at the University of Edinburgh and began a career in education to the children of wealthy families. At his home in Edinburgh’s Canongate, Braidwood privately instructed local students and especially enjoyed teaching mathematics. However, this changed in 1760 when a wealthy Leith wine merchant, Alexander Shirreff, asked Braidwood to teach his 10 year old deaf son, Charles, how to write.
Evidently, Braidwood was eager for the challenge. In 1764, he founded Braidwood Academy just south of the Royal Mile along a street called St. Leonards. The building, which came to be known as “Dumbie House,” was the very first (private) school for deaf children in Britain and, some claim, in the world.
Despite Braidwood’s good connections and enthusiasm towards this untapped educational market, Charles Shirreff (who would become a celebrated painter and portrait miniaturist) was his only pupil. However, soon enough, Dumbie House welcomed other wealthy pupils, including astronomer John Goodricke (1764-1786), Governor of Barbados Francis McKenzie (1754-1815, also Clan Chief of Highland Clan McKenzie, British MP, and a botanist with the Royal Society of London), and Scottish biographer John Philip Wood (1762-1838).
Remarkably, Braidwood became a pioneer in sign language. During the mid-18th century, deaf education mostly comprised of teaching how to speak clearly enough to be understood. But Braidwood’s new technique was unusual; he combined the vocal exercises of articulation with lip-reading and, for the first time, hand gestures that we recognise today as sign language. This combined system became the forerunner of British Sign Language (BSL).
Braidwood Academy also received attention from famous contemporaries. Sir Walter Scott mentioned Braidwood Academy in Heart of Midlothian (1818) and even the famous author, Dr. Samuel Johnson, described the school after a short visit en route to the Western isles: “There is one subject of philosophical curiosity in Edinburgh which no other city has to show; a College for the Deaf and Dumb, who are taught to speak, to read and to write, and to practise arithmetic, by a gentleman whose name is Braidwood. It was pleasing to see one of the most desperate of human calamities capable of so much help: whatever enlarges hope will exalt courage. After having seen the deaf taught arithmetic, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides.”
Dumbie House eventually boasted 20 students, including women (Jane Poole, for example, set a major legal precedent when a court accepted her last will as valid, even though she had communicated her wishes to the drafter exclusively by fingerspelling as she was both deaf and blind – a massive victory for legal rights of the disabled in Britain). By 1780, Thomas Braidwood moved to London to begin a new school in Hackney. Notably, his three daughters also became teachers for the deaf and continued to practise his combined approach to new generations of pupils. Dumbie House continued to operate as a school until it was shut in 1873 and Dumbie House was demolished in 1939.
But Braidwood’s Influence Spreads Across the Seas….
Another very important Braidwood Academy pupil was Charles Green. Born deaf, Charles was the son of fourth-generation American and Harvard graduate Francis Green (1742-1809). Just prior to the American Revolution, the Green family moved to England and in 1780, Charles was enrolled at Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh.
Francis watched his son learn how to communicate orally, but was astonished at the speed of which sign language could allow his son to communicate with other students. He was so impressed, apparently, that Francis published a book anonymously that praised Braidwood’s work called “Vox Oculis Subjecta: A Dissertation on the most curious and important art of imparting speech, and the knowledge of language, to the naturally deaf, and (consequently) dumb; With a particular account of the Academy of Messrs. Braidwood of Edinburgh” in 1783. “Vox Oculis Subjecta” translates to “voice subjected to the eyes.” Francis wrote in the introduction that:
“Man as a social being has an irresistible propensity to communicate with his species, to receive the ideas of others, and to impart his own conceptions.”
The first half of Vox Oculis Subjecta surveys the natural capacity of humans for language (quoting various famous authors extensively), and then describes Braidwood’s methods. As Braidwood himself never wrote about his own teaching practises, Green’s Vox Oculis Subjecta (1783) is invaluable record of deaf education.
Although Charles tragically drowned at age 15 while fishing, Francis continued to take an interest in deaf education. According to historians Melvia M. Homeland and Ronald E. Homeland, in the 1790s, Francis visited Paris and London to see how other institutions taught deaf students to communicate (The Deaf Community in America: History in the Making, p. 31). He eventually returned to the US. Before his death, he not only advocated through his writings for free education to all deaf children in America, but in 1809, had collected the names of 75 deaf individuals in Massachusetts (the first ever census of the deaf) with plans to start a school.
In 1812, just three years after Francis Green’s death, Col. William Bolling, who was a sibling to some Braidwood Academy’s pupils who studied alongside Charles Green, and himself a father of two deaf children, attempted the first US school for the deaf. Even Thomas Braidwood’s grandson, John Braidwood II, who had moved to America by then, assisted with the school. Although the school closed in 1815, it just two year later when another educationalist, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, successfully started what is considered today to be America’s first school for the deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut.
It seems rather odd that such an instrumental school for deaf education and British Sign Language is so little acknowledged. When I stride past its demolished foundations and the fireplace in the stone wall, I note that its commemorative plaque was not installed there until 2015 (admittedly with a great turn out by the Lord Provost, British Deaf History Society, Deaf History Scotland, and multiple Scottish officials). But this delayed promotion of deaf history is inconsistent with the remarkable work of Edinburgh’s numerous charities and societies (Historic Scotland, National Trust, Old Edinburgh Club, Lost Edinburgh, etc) that are outstanding in their ability to conserve, protect and promote local history…
So perhaps my perception of Braidwood Academy’s neglect speaks to some of the larger attitudes towards disability. Of course, during the 18th Century, deafness – like all disabilities – was poorly understood and it wasn’t until institutions like Braidwood Academy that some began to realise that intellect was not affected by disability. Being deaf was certainly not synonymous with being “dumb.” Compounding this ignorance was the issue of class. Initiallly, only the rich could afford to educate their children at Braidwood Academy. Fortunately, in 1792, the London Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb Poor at Bermondsey, became the first public Deaf school in Britain. Again, Braidwood’s influence was also felt there too – it was one of his previous employees, Joseph Watson, who founded it.
British Sign Language (BSL) was not recognised as an official language by Westminster until 2003. Ironically, Braidwood Academy’s Dumbie House is just half a mile from where the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act was passed unanimously in 2014 by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament – giving BSL the same legal protection as languages such as Gaelic. In Scotland today, an estimated 12,500 people speak BSL. However, in Wales and Northern Ireland, BSL has no legal status or protection.
While I’m pleased that BSL is legally protected and that a commemorative plaque was mounted on the original foundations of Braidwood Academy, I do not believe that deafness, or disabilities in general, are given the recognition they deserve. But Braidwood’s remarkable influence on language, teaching and disabled rights is at least an excellent starting point for repositioning deafness as a critical aspect of Scotland’s broader history. As Ella Leith, secretary of Deaf History Scotland, said at the unveiling of the plaque in 2015:
“It’s partly about pride for the deaf community in seeing their history recognised, but also about raising awareness among hearing people that Scotland’s heritage should include deaf people too. Their heritage is as much part of Scotland as general heritage.”