This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Blind Persons Act. So, here’s what you need to know about this historic piece of legislation.
This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
Warning: This article uses outdated terms which contain offensive language that some readers may find upsetting.
First things first we must mention Henry Fawcett.
He was the first blind MP that we know of and became a well-renowned figure in Victorian Britain. Before his death in 1885 he’d enjoyed a nineteen-year Parliamentary career. Making a name for himself as a political reformer focusing on voting rights. This extended to female enfranchisement where he was greatly influenced by his wife Millicent, a prominent suffrage campaigner. Though it must be noted he never spoke in the House on the rights of the blind community.
You can read more about Henry Fawcett here. https://archives.blog.parliament.uk/2020/06/24/the-talented-mr-fawcett/
The 1889 Royal Commission on the Blind, Deaf and Dumb was a game-changer.
Its aim was to investigate and report upon the living conditions of those with disabilities and made a recommendation for the government to provide greater education & employment opportunities in the future. William Woodall MP chaired the Commission and was the first great champion of the cause sponsoring the 1893 Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act.
By the turn of the 20th Century a blind workforce was now established in the labour market.
They were prominently employed in craft trades such as weaving, basket making and piano tuning. In an era dominated by unionisation the National League of the Blind (NLB) was registered in 1899 and was soon affiliated with both the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and Labour Party. By 1912 they had called their first strike in Bristol over non-existent pension schemes for their members a majority of whom were living in poverty.
One of the many horrors of World War One was the number of soldiers who returned home after being blinded in conflict.
Persistent lobbying by the NLB forced the Government to set up an Advisory Committee for the Welfare of the Blind. It was chaired by Benjamin Tillet MP a socialist firebrand who had led the infamous 1911 Dock Strikes. His 1920 Private Members Bill titled Blind (Education, Employment and Maintenance) began the dialogue towards a new way of thinking. He set the tone when telling the chamber, 'I do not wat a period of war to be the only period when we sit up and take notice. Physical deterioration should be a thing of grave concern to all of us at any period'.
Tillet’s Bill was supported by one of Parliament’s most iconic names.
Since entering the House two years previously Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat, had frequently spoken out on what was considered moral issues. On this matter, she was unequivocal in her support stating,
‘The thing about this Bill which appeals to me most is that it is not to encourage indiscriminate charity, but it is to give a real chance to the blind of working out their own salvation. Personally, I would far rather see the blind employed and given work and education than all the charity in the world’.
Unfortunately, the Bill hit the buffers which meant a new course of action was required as the NLB took the decision to march to London.
Marchers came from Manchester, Leeds and Newport to make the pilgrimage to the capital.
Leaving on Easter Monday the marchers arrived in London three weeks later to a tremendous fanfare. A demonstration took place at Trafalgar Square where personalities such as Herbert Morrison addressed a 10,000 strong crowd. A request for an audience with Lloyd George was demanded but the Prime Minister seemed to be playing hardball and a week-long waiting game prevailed. In the meantime, the NLB leaders took up the invitation of tea with Nancy Astor in the halls of Westminster which drew much press attention.
When a Piano Tuner met the Prime Minister is probably the best way to describe the meeting of Lloyd George with NLB leader Ben Purse.
Accompanied by Stephen Walsh MP the meeting notes show that he was not intimidated by the Downing Street surroundings. Purse bluntly told the Premier that, ‘scanty wages are being paid resulting in an ever-increasing number having to go into the streets for the purpose of asking alms’. Before the delegation left, Purse requested, ‘We do not want to expose these men to all the hardships and difficulties of tramping back again’. Lloyd George replied, ‘Tell me what sort of help you want?’ to which Purse said, ‘We want railway passes, something like that’. Despite not making any promises the Government couldn’t ignore the issue and left a resolution plan in the hands of a Cabinet leading light.
As the first Minister of Health, Dr Christopher Addison was not afraid to commit to large public spending programmes.
This was the right man to have in your corner for pushing a bill through Parliament. Less than a month after the Downing Street meeting he presented a new version with the all-important caveat of reducing the blind pension age from seventy years to fifty. Samuel McGuffin was inspired enough to bless the debate with a Milton recitation, ‘Doth God exact day-labour, light denied’. Benjamin Tillet came off the proverbial bench to make certain that the Standing Committee scrutiny procedures were up to standard. Himself and Addison were an unlikely alliance in getting the bill into the statute book.
August 1920 saw the Act given Royal Assent.
Along with the pension age reduction it also gave local authorities the power to promote blind persons welfare and regulated the operation of charities specifically for this sector. Between that summer and the outbreak of World War Two an additional 20,000 people claimed the pension at an annual cost of £695,000. However local council disparities did cause a lack of cohesion and the absence of a national blind register proved a hindrance. Ben Purse would leave the NLB to form the National Union of Industrial and Professional Blind with a clarion call for a national minimum wage for blind workers.
The Jarrow Crusade of October 1936 was hugely influenced by the events of sixteen years before.
Ironically a revival of the 1920 Blind March took place a month later culminating in Hyde Park, but this time around it failed to capture the public imagination. However, reform was in the air and a new group of socially conscious MPs sought to build on the previous good work. Robert Bernays drafted a new Act two years later to establish greater state control of the pension system and lower the pensionable age to forty in the hope of eliminating the prospect of destitution for anyone in the blind community.
LG/F/230/3 - National League of the Blind to the Prime Minister, April 1920
HL/PO/JO/10/10/672/770 - The Blind Persons Bill, 10 August 1920
House of Commons Hansard – 1920 Blind Persons Bill, 14th May 1920
HC/OF/SC/5 – Standing Committee debate – 1920 Blind Persons Bill, 21st July 1920
National League of the Blind and Disabled, Working Class Movement Library, https://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/working-lives/national-league-of-the-blind-and-disabled/