History at your fingertips: celebrating the 180th anniversary of Henshaws

This year marks the 180th anniversary of Henshaws – a charity founded in Manchester which supports individuals, families and their carers who live with sight loss and other disabilities. The Henshaws archive is held at the Library, and we are delighted to be joining Henshaws to celebrate their birthday through two collection encounters in the Historic Reading Room: the first took place on Thursday 21 September, and another session is scheduled for Saturday 14 October.

Thomas Henshaw (1731-1810) was a businessman who founded a large and successful hatting business in Oldham. Also a philanthropist, he left a considerable sum to charitable causes in his will. This included £20,000 (equivalent to roughly £1.4 million today) to be dedicated to the foundation of a ‘Blind Asylum’ in Manchester. He stipulated that his legacy should not be spent on the purchase of land and buildings for the new institution; the money for this was to be raised by public donation, and a committee was duly established in 1833 to oversee this.

This original committee comprised 30 men – amongst them the Liberal MPs Joseph Brotherton and Richard Potter. The fundraising campaign and subscription scheme were a great success, and Henshaw’s Blind Asylum was opened, with a grand procession, in June 1837. The term ‘asylum’ was used in the sense of a place of safety, and Henshaw’s provided sheltered accommodation for elderly blind residents. It also opened a school offering education for blind children from the age of six – over 50 years before legislation made this compulsory.

This medical report from 1841 shows that smallpox was the leading cause of blindness for people registered at Henshaws. Smallpox vaccination wasn’t made compulsory in the UK until 1853.

Blind people could also take up occupational training as well as paid employment in the organisation’s workshops. Those with musical ability became musicians and piano-tuners. Other occupations included basket weaving, mat making, brush making, handloom weaving, boot making and repairing, and – later – braille shorthand and typewriting. Many people and institutions across Manchester purchased items manufactured by Henshaws’ workers. Training in massage was introduced in 1895, with Henshaws’ pupils being the first in the country to take up this profession.

The University of Manchester was founded as Owens College in 1851. This receipt shows that it was purchasing coir matting from Henshaws for its new laboratory building in 1852.

Henshaws was always awake to innovation and new technologies which could help blind people. Braille – which revolutionised education and communication for the blind – wasn’t widely adopted in the UK until after 1870; Henshaws introduced it in 1881. Before that, children were taught to read using embossed alphabets – raised letters which were readable by touch. The first governor of Henshaw’s, William Hughes, patented the ‘Hughes Typograph’, a machine which could produce both embossed and visible letters – legible by blind and sighted alike. This was widely used in schools for the blind during the 1850s, and won a gold medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851. You can see an image of a Hughes Typograph here.

William Hughes was appointed as the first governor of Henshaws after responding to this advertisement.

One of Henshaws’ most famous alumni was Ben Purse. Born in Salford in 1874, Purse lost his sight in childhood, attended Henshaw’s Asylum and became a piano tuner. He served as General Secretary for the National League of the Blind, a trade union founded in 1894 which campaigned for statutory rights for blind people. In 1920, to bring pressure on the Government, a protest march was organised, with blind people from three locations – including Manchester – marching on foot to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Purse and others addressed Prime Minister Lloyd George, and in 1920 the Blind Persons’ Act was passed; this enshrined certain rights for blind people in law, and for the first time required the compulsory registration of all blind people. It was passed at a time when people’s awareness of blindness had been heightened by the return of so many blinded soldiers from the First World War trenches. Purse was later awarded an OBE for his services to the blind.

This snippet from a minute book of March 1918 is the first record in the archive of a blind soldier being admitted to one of Henshaws’ residential homes.

Through various name changes, Henshaws continued to flourish throughout the twentieth century. Today the charity employs over 300 staff and many volunteers, working in three regions across the north of England. You can find out more about their work on their own website, along with information about the anniversary exhibition which is currently being hosted by Archives+ in Manchester’s Central Library.

Henshaws schoolboys in 1959 using a tactile globe for a geography lesson.

The Henshaws archive held at the Rylands contains minute books documenting the establishment and running of the organisation from its foundation in 1833 through to 1976. It also includes minute books of the Manchester Salford and Blind Aid Society which was founded in 1900 by Isabel Heywood and merged with Henshaws in 1980. As well as its value for charting the history of blindness in Greater Manchester, it provides an insight into changing attitudes towards blindness over the years, and evolving approaches towards supporting blind and visually impaired people.

Visit the Historic Reading Room at 11.00 on Saturday 14 October to see a selection of archive material held both at the Library and at Henshaws, and to find out more about the history of the charity.

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