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Chapter 3: Famous Deaf People


blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Etienne de Fay (1669 - 1747?)

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) The Meusnier Brothers (1709-??)

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Pierre Desloges (1742-??)

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Deaf People in the UK

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Francis Maginn (1861-1918)


In this section we will examine the history in terms of the deaf people who have been involved and why they are known to us. It is easy to try to think of the history which is in the books and to see that most deaf people are ignored. If we think back 100 years there were very few hearing people who could communicate with deaf people. Since deaf people were regarded with suspicion, they were not valued, they got poor jobs and there were no chances for them to tell their story.

Etienne de Fay (1669 - 1747?)

One of the first deaf people we know about with any detail was Etienne de Fay. He was deaf from birth and was sent to the Abbey of Amiens in France when he was 5 years old. As far as we know he always used sign language but it is not clear how he learned it. He lived in the Abbey all of his life and became an architect, sculptor, librarian and teacher of deaf children. He came from a wealthy family yet he seemed a grass roots type of deaf person. He was a very good architect and his drawings can be seen in the book by Fischer and Lane (1993). His work as a teacher was interrupted when his pupil was taken away by parents to study with Pereire (a Portuguese man, working in France) who said he could teach deaf children to speak. His story has been lost in the past until recently when it was re-discovered.

The Meusnier Brothers (1709 - ??)

They were educated with Etienne de Fay in Amiens. Their father held a good post at court but the children were a disappointment as they could not follow on from the ir father. When he died he reduced their inheritance, as far as we can tell because of their deafness.

Pierre Desloges (1742 - ??)

He was born in the Touraine region of France and moved to Paris as a young man, where he became a bookbinder. In 1779, he wrote a book, which is claimed to be the only book written completely by a deaf person in that century. In it he corrected the view that people had, that de l’Epee had invented sign language. He showed that sign language had come from deaf people. He wrote a number of works around the time of the French Revolution and these received quite a lot of notice. He was a member of the deaf community but he was never trained by de l’Epee who seemed to keep his distance. We do not know when he died but it was after 1794.

In each country there have been important deaf people - teachers, artists, writers even. You can follow up on these in Fischer and Lane’s book.

Deaf People in the UK

Probably the best source for information on British deaf people is Peter Jackson’s Book, "Britain’s Deaf Heritage". You will also find the videotape of the Deaf Culture Festival in Derby of some help.

The earliest records of deaf people in the UK are probably around the time of Bulwer’s book when he mentions about 25 deaf people that were known. However, there are mentions even further back.

Edward Bone (1570) was a servant living in Cornwall. He was linked to another deaf man in a neighbouring village and it was known that they used sign language.

Sir Edward Gostwicke (1630-1696) was a baronet, who inherited an estate at the age of 10 years. He had a deaf younger brother. As a deaf man, it seems his estate was spared during the English Civil War.

Sir George Downing was a hearing politician from Kent who was able to use sign language and he is mentioned in Samuel Pepys writings. What is significant is that he came from the same area of Kent where the deaf people who went to Martha’s Vineyard in America, were said to have lived. See Nora Groce’s book - Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language.

Alexander Popham and Daniel Whalley were important in the 17th century as deaf people who were taught to speak. So they were shown off in public by their tutors.

Richard Crosse (1742-1810) was a famous portrait artist who seems to have become wealthy from his work. There is a long account of his meeting with his cousin just before she died, in Jackson’s book, and although there is no signing in it, it gives some indication of what a deaf person might have felt.

John Goodricke (1764-1786) became deaf in childhood and was educated at Braidwood’s Academy in Edinburgh. He became a famous astronomer and a Fellow of the Royal Society. However, he died very young, it is said after catching a chill from working outdoors in the cold night air.

Matthew Robert Burns (1798-1880) was the first deaf man to become a head teacher of a school for the deaf. There is a brief account of him in Jackson’s book, but a much more detailed account in the history of deaf education in Bristol, by Dan Hershon, which is in the library. He was born in Dundee but as his father was a major in the army, he moved to London and he went to the Old Kent Road School. He moved back to Edinburgh where he helped set up a deaf church. There seemed to be a very active community in Edinburgh at this time; there were deaf artists, and teachers. It is hard to know but it is almost certainly a result of the development of the school for the deaf which began in 1810. In 1834 he moved to Aberdeen as a head teacher. As far as we know this makes him the first deaf head teacher in the UK. From there he came to Bristol, the first deaf headteacher in England. But he lasted only for two years; he left after he came into conflict with his management committee. Their main complaint seemed to be against his sister as housekeeper. Without his sister, he seemed to be lost as she interpreted for him. So if she had to go, he would not stay. He gave up teaching. He moved back to London and became a "social worker" (or the equivalent of that time) and was active as secretary of an organisation which led to the development of what became the RADD (Royal Association for the Deaf and Dumb). His work after Bristol was mainly religious and he taught only in bible classes but preached widely.

James Howe (1780-1830) was an animal painter who became very famous. There is no account of his signing but he was deaf. He became an alcoholic and died in Edinburgh.

Walter Geikie (1795-1837) was another artist. He was taught through fingerspelling by his father. He went to the Braidwood school which opened in 1810 in Edinburgh and was a star pupil. He was involved with Matthew Burns in setting up the deaf church. He died at an early age of 41. His paintings and etchings are still available.

James "Deaf" Burke (1809-1845) was a young man who became a prize fighter. His claim to fame was that he became heavyweight boxing champion. But he had the misfortune of being involved in the first fight where someone died. He went to America and then returned to the UK. He died penniless.

John William Lowe (1804-1876) was a deaf man who followed his father’s profession and became a barrister. He went to the Old Kent Road School and was a private pupil of the headteacher - Joseph Watson. He spent some time in Edinburgh as he was registered as a member of the deaf church there. He wrote down messages to hearing people but fingerspelled to his family - and probably signed to deaf people. He became a conveyancer - a specialist in house and property transfers. He learned many languages including Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He became ill in the 1870’s and so missed out on the big development for deaf people at that time.

John Kitto (1804-1854) is a well known name in the deafness field as he wrote a great deal in English. He became deaf after a fall from a roof at the age of 12 years. He wrote a book, The Lost Senses, where he explains his feelings about the loss of his hearing. He travelled a great deal and wrote about his visits to many countries as the Deaf Traveller. He was given an honorary doctorate in the University of Giessen.

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was similar to Kitto in that she lost her hearing in childhood and made her name as an authoress. She wrote many books about her travels to the USA and was a well-known figure in the literary world. It is not clear that she ever associated with the deaf community but she was a public figure.

Edward Kirk (1848-1917) was famous as a deaf teacher who became the headmaster of the Leeds school. He built it up from a few children to over 100 pupils and was praised by the Director of Education at his funeral.

Francis Maginn (1861-1918)

He was born in Mallow, Southern Ireland to a family which was well connected. His father was a vicar but his mother came from one of the leading families in Cork. They reserved a place for him at one of the top schools in England - Christ’s Hospital School. When he was 5 years old, he contracted scarlet fever and became deaf. As a result he was educated as a private pupil at the Institute in Bermondsey in London which was run by Rev. James Watson. He did not have to live or to mix with the ordinary pupils. He became part of an elite group of pupils. This might be compared with the existence of Mary Hare nowadays. He went to school when he was 9 years old.

He was an exceptional pupil and he learned quickly perhaps because he was taught individually. He was made a pupil teacher at about 14 years, and then later became an apprentice teacher at the Royal School for the Deaf in Margate. By the age of 17 years he was offered a Junior Teachership. He stayed there until 1883. He returned to Ireland for a year before going to Gallaudet College (the National Deaf Mutes College). His experience in Ireland was of deaf deprivation and so his stay at Gallaudet was a complete contrast.

"Every deaf mute in the United States has it in his power to climb to a higher grade of attainment, and in the College at Washington the studious and earnest youth receives all encouragement. I never had the honour of mingling with such intelligent mutes until I entered this College."

It had a great impact on the 23 year old. From this three year period he developed his major idea of an association on American lines and the development of real opportunity for deaf people. Although he did not finish the course at Gallaudet, he was highly regarded and received supporting letters from the Institution. He left with a clear view about the injustice of the British approach to deaf education and a strong faith in what deaf people could do on their own.

He must have been very impressed with his visit. It shaped his vision of the possibilities for deaf people and he came back to tell deaf people what was happening make them take part in the changes. More than anything it was Maginn’s vision which was important. He anticipated many of the aspirations of deaf people in the 1990s.

Try to think what it was like for him to go off to America. He arrived in New York and had to make his own travel arrangements to get to Washington. He found himself in strange surroundings but began to meet deaf people. At first they used foreign signs and then gradually he learned. His eyes were opened for him.

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What would it be like if you were Maginn going to America?

He was invited to become the President of the first association to further the cause of the deaf and dumb throughout the UK. This set up a small association which had a magazine the Deaf Mute. It grew quickly but in the end despite the fact that it had very capable deaf people involved, it failed in 1889. It had managed to recruit 239 members. This was a significant year.

The new association took shape during the period of the Paris centenary of the death of de L’Epee. At the same time, the report of the Royal Commission on Deaf Education was published. This was welcomed in that it ensured official deaf education, but it was outspokenly oral and dismissive of deaf marriage. Deaf people were outraged at the ideas expressed. Maginn had first hand knowledge of Alexander Graham Bell and he had made his views clear earlier. He was not able to give evidence to the committee but he wrote a lot.

" ….know something of Dr Bell …. The deaf mutes of the US recognise the fact that he is acting in all sincerity and with the best of intentions and that their esteem for him is not lessened by the contempt in which they hold his theories."

The first national deaf conference took place in London in January 1890. Maginn proposed the adoption of the American combined system which was like Total Communication. He said he had been opposed to the teaching of speech until he went to America but was convinced by the practices at Gallaudet.

Nevertheless, at the age of 27 years, Maginn was asked to be the President of the first organisation in 1888. Although it failed Maginn continued to work for his goal and presented a draft constitution for the new organisation in 1890. This was presented to the first national deaf conference in St Saviour’s Church in London. They debated the Royal Commission Report and criticised it greatly. . A steering group was set up and eventually the association was formed. Maginn’s views were accepted except for two aspects: he wanted the National Association for the Deaf, and the steering group went for the British Deaf And Dumb Association (even though it was pointed out that in America they had dropped the word dumb altogether); and he wanted only deaf members, but they allowed hearing friends who were proposed by 5 deaf people. The committee were prepared to allow hearing missioners and persons who can hear and take an active interest in the welfare and education of the deaf and dumb.

The result was that William Sleight a last minute entry in the ballot, was elected as President - a hearing man who could sign. The committee met in Leeds to form the association. Maginn was given a regional vice-presidency - an honorary position with no real power. He could have kept his position on the committee but he was never really involved again. He objected to the "benevolent paternalism" of the hearing friends of the deaf.

Maginn gradually withdrew from the Association - it would seem he was disillusioned. He became the head of the Ulster Institute. The BDDA finally dropped the extra D in 1970. He was given an honorary degree by Gallaudet College but confined his later years to work in Ulster. The BDA became dominated by hearing people, until Jeff MacWhinney was appointed two years ago.

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What do you think of Maginn’s position? How could the other deaf people ignore his contribution? Is it possible that he became detached for the ordinary deaf people - the grass roots deaf. Do you think it made a difference? Would deaf people’s lives be different these days if Maginn’s vision had been accepted?

It is very hard to tell. What is interesting to consider is that so much happened in this period of time. The knowledge of deafness and sign language was much more than it has been until the last ten years. Deaf people were asserting themselves and the community was very active. It could have been ideal if it had lasted.

Jackson says that the period of the 1890s was a very important time for deaf people and he describes many of the developments which occurred in Glasgow. See his book pages 132-136.

James Paul (1848-1918) was a Scottish deaf man who became deaf in infancy and was educated at the Glasgow School for the Deaf. He was one of the key people in proposing a National Association. He saw the priority as stetting up missions for deaf people throughout the Country. He was said to be very upset when the first national association failed and although he was involved in the early development of the BDDA, he gave more of his attention to his work in Kilmarnock.

George Frederick Healey (1843-1927) was a deaf man who became deaf through fever when he was very young. He had a private education. He was a key person in setting up the Liverpool Society for the Deaf. He was the secretary for over 50 years! He was a founder of the National Deaf Society and then Treasurer of the BDDA.

Reverend Richard Aslett Pearce (1954-1928) was the first deaf person to be ordained as a clergyman. He set up the Winchester association and was said to meet with Queen Victoria who knew deaf people on the Isle of Wight.

Samuel Bright Lucas (1840-1919) was a deaf artist who was educated in Bristol. He was very involved in the RADD and was not so keen on the national deaf association. He did not become part of the BDDA when it was formed.

William Agnew (1846-1914) was famous for his paintings of Queen Victoria. He was educated in Glasgow and he used only sign language. However, he wrote a great deal about oralism and the problems. He was responsible for setting up the bazaar of 1891 which raised the money for the building of the Glasgow Institute. He was made a Director by the deaf people.

Queen Alexandra married the Prince of Wales in 1863. She was deaf and used fingerspelling. She went to the deaf church in London and communicated with deaf people. This was supported by Queen Victoria as she had a friend who was deaf. Queen Victoria seemed very positive about deafness and allowed a number of schools to become Royal schools for the deaf.

You will find many more examples of short stories which involve deaf people in Jackson’s book. These can be used as the basis of your presentation for your assignment.

You will also find the story of Betty Steel very interesting. It happened much earlier in the 18th century when she was caught stealing and sent off to Australia. She must have had a terrible time as she had no interpreters and no explanations for the one year trip to Norfolk Island in Australia. She was not a famous person in the way that Maginn was but her story tells us a great deal about ordinary deaf people in the poverty of London.

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This course was prepared by
Centre for Deaf Studies
1997 Centre for Deaf Studies
University of Bristol

This course was funded under
the FORUM Project
in the EU Horizon Programme