Charles Dickens has been widely celebrated this year under the ‘Dickens 2012’ banner with events including new TV and film adaptations of his novels, such as the BBC’s three part series of ‘Great Expectations’, exhibitions and many special events. But less well known is the fact that Blind Veterans UK used to have a centre called the Charles Dickens Home for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors!
The centre, located at St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex and also known as Bannow House, dates from 1877 and was designed by the influential architect Richard Norman Shaw. Bought and equipped for Blind Veterans UK by the Dickens Fellowship, the association for people interested in the life and work of Charles Dickens, the centre opened in 1920 and was used by blind veterans who needed time for convalescence or who were long-term invalids.
So why was the Dickens Fellowship so keen to help our blinded soldiers and sailors? Looking through the Fellowship’s journal, The Dickensian, it reported on the purchase of the home “in conjunction with Sir Arthur Pearson’s Hostels”, who most notably is Blind Veterans UK’s founder. It was bought not as a “monument or memorial” but in an effort to apply Dickens’s teachings to present needs. The Fellowship had previously raised money to produce a number of Dickens’ books in Braille, and taken the decision to proceed with doing so for the rest of them.
Dickens himself was certainly interested in the situation of blind people. Take a look through his stories, you’ll find the character Bertha Plummer, a blind dolls’ dressmaker, in ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’, and in the non-fiction book ‘American Notes’, he writes about his visit to the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. There he observed the work that was being done with a young deaf and blind girl, Laura Bridgman, who later became a teacher at the school and famous in the United States as the first deaf-blind person to be educated there. Dickens was also an early supporter of the General Welfare of the Blind charity and paid for the production of 250 copies of his novel ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ in raised letters for the use of the blind.
Sadly, we only had the Charles Dickens Home for a brief period of time. Falling numbers of those needing to stay there and financial pressures meant that the centre closed on 18 February 1922. The building was later used by the National Institute for the Blind (now the RNIB) and is currently a privately owned retirement home.
Have a look at the Dickens 2012 website for more information about the celebrations and accompanying events.
Many thanks to Liz Velluet of the Dickens Fellowship for her help in providing information for this article, and Rob Baker, Blind Veterans UK’s Collections and Archives Officer.