The London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb

In examining the relationship and conflict between the medical and social perceptions of deafness, I began to evaluate how certain medical practitioners strove to implement their medical expertise and authority upon educational institutions for the deaf. John Harrison Curtis was no exception to the growing body of aurists who attempted to increase their reputation with positions in established institutions during the nineteenth century. Roughly between 1817 and 1830, Curtis argued that an aurist needed to be a necessary—and permanent—fixture in institutions for the deaf, in particular, the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb.

The Asylum for the Support and Education of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor was established in 1792 by Reverend John Townsend (1757-1826) of the Jamaica Row Congregation Church in Bermondsey, London. Townsend became acquainted with the plight of the deaf child when one of his parishioners, a Mrs. Creasey, sent her son to the Thomas Braidwood’s (1715-1806) academy for the deaf in Edinburgh. The boy’s ability and accuracy in mastering speech impressed Townsend, who then agreed with Mrs. Creasey on the necessity for a charitable institution that would counteract the privatization and expense characteristic of the Braidwood institutions.

London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb

With the support of Henry Cox Mason (c.1755-1804), rector of Bermondsey and the philanthropist and banker Henry Thornton (1760-1815), Townsend established the Asylum. Admission to the school was through a public selection process voted by the Committee of Governors of the Asylum, usually reserved for candidate between six to twelve years of age of “sound mind,” on the basis of their biographical sketch. Where six children were originally admitted in its founding year, at each yearly half-election, the governors of the Asylum accepted a few more; yet the number of children waiting to be admitted increased yearly, and by 1804, Townsend sought new dwellings for the growing institution. With the patronage from the Duke of Gloucester, the Asylum moved to Old Kent Road in London in 1807, and construction for the new institution completed in 1810. Braidwood’s dynasty in deaf education persisted as his nephew, Joseph Watson, served as the superintendent of the Asylum. Watson also published Instructions for the Deaf and Dumb (1809), which outlined the Asylum’s methods of education. Informally renamed the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, the institution eventually became an important national charity and its model of patronage and governing committee did much to transform the operating systems of charitable institutions in Britain.

In its initial formation, the Asylum was designed solely to provide religious instruction and “the groundwork of an average fair education.”[*] Later, fuelled by a notion of self-sufficiency and an ethic stressing the importance of personal religious work which could be expressed through individuated diligence in labor[†] the Asylum incorporated trade training for its deaf pupils to acquire skills necessary for survival in society. Devoted to a philosophy centered on the “moral management” of the minds of its pupils, the goals of the Asylum were therefore to:

render them, according to their various capacities, conversable and intelligence, able to receive and express ideas; to furnish them with moral and religious information; and to lay open to them, in a considerable degree, the sources of intellectual enjoyment, common to rational and cultivated minds; by teaching them to understand the power and use of language; not a language of signs peculiar to themselves; but the common language of the country to which they belong, and which is spoken and written by those around them (original emphasis).[‡]

The results would thus elevate the children “from a dark and dreary state of ignorance,” and place them into an active participation and employment of society. The success of education at the Asylum led to a greater a recognition of the necessity for educating the deaf, resulting in a rapid expansion of institutions for the deaf in Britain. The various institutions that were established all over Britain grew out of the “secretive, private [and] individual initiatives…characterized by nepotism, philanthropy and compromise,”[§] of the Braidwood dynasty. Armed with a secular agenda nurturing a comprehension of Christianity, these institutions attempted to engage rational beings by teaching them their duties towards God and man, while at the same time preparing the young pupils for responsible adulthood.

During the early 1800s, Curtis observed a large number of poor children were entering the London Asylum without proper medical examinations, despite the presence of William Babington, the consulting physician at the Asylum. Clearly expressing his objective was not to interfere with the governance of the Asylum but merely to raise awareness against the marginalized state of the deaf and dumb in society, Curtis suggested that the social perception of deafness as “incurable and hopeless” created a prejudice against deaf children:

“It is remarkable how very common has been the error of considering a child once deaf always deaf and consequently of abandoning all attempts at relief.”[**]

I’ll stop the narrative here, as the post is getting too long. To be continued…

[*] William Gilbert, “Deaf and Dumb Asylum,” in Good Words for 1873, ed. Rev. Donald MacLeod (London: W. Ibister & Co., 1873), p.253. Also: Anne Borsay, “Deaf Children and Charitable Education in Britain, 1790-1944” in Medicine, Charity and Mutual Aid: The Consumption of Health and Welfare in Britain c.1550-1950. Eds. Anne Borsay and Peter Shapley (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), p.73.

[†] Jan Branson and Don Miller, Damned for Their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2002), p.15.

[‡] Asylum for the Support and Education of Indigent Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor, Plan of the Asylum for the Support and Education of the deaf and dumb children of the poor, including purposes of instruction; rules of the society; and list of the officers and governors (Shackwell: Printed by T. Rutt, 1807), p.5.

[§] M.G. McLoughlin, A History of the Education of the Deaf in England (Liverpool: G.M. McLoughlin, 1987), p.2.

[**] John Harrison Curtis, A Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear, 6th Ed (London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1836), p.161.

Latest Comments

  1. Geraldine Charles says:

    I am trying to find out more about James Ruskin b 1818 in Cheshunt and who according to 1851 and 1861 census was deaf. between 1841 Census and 1851 he was living close to the Deaf and Dumb Asylum on Old Kent Road with his wife who was also recorded on the Census as deaf.

    I am interested in finding records od admisson that may confirm he and his wife might have been pupils at the Asylum and also more about life in the Asylum.

    Both must have left the Asylum before the 1840


  2. jaivirdi says:

    Hi Geraldine,

    Thanks for your comment.

    As far as I know, all the records of Townsend’s Asylum are now held by The John Townsend Trust, which incorporates the Royal School for Deaf Children Margate (formerly the Old Kent Road Asylum) and the Westgate College for Deaf People.

    They have archives, some of which dates back to the early-1800s, and there are records of children admitted. I do know, however, that researchers are not allowed into the archives (health & safety constraints), but they can dig around for you if you place a specific request.

    Their website is:
    and the email is there as well.

    Likewise, have you checked out Patrick Beaver’s “A Tower of Strength: Two Hundred Years of the Royal School for Deaf Children, Margate”? It’s a great overview of the history of the London Deaf and Dumb Asylum, and Beaver even outlines what life was like at the Asylum and provides some portraits of the pupils there.

    Good luck!


    • Geraldine Charles says:

      Thanks for this

      I have also found the following

      The East Kent record office has:
      EK-U1453 British Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb
      COBB OF MARGATE. 1577-1967.

      Ref No EK-U1453/10/2/2
      Title British Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb
      Date 1808-1858
      Description Reports, correspondence and voting papers
      Extent 3 bdls

      I have located some records for 1888-1972 (too late for me) :
      Asylum for Deaf and Dumb Poor, Old Kent Road; later Royal School for Deaf and Dumb Children, Margate

      (case 14751 or 10/1888): correspondence and papers A/FWA/C/D/180/001 London Metropolitan Archives
      Conditions of access: CLOSED UNTIL 2033
      Will let you know if I get anywhere with my research



  3. jaivirdi says:

    Also, the British historians Peter Jackson and Raymond Lee have a book, “Deaf Lives: Deaf people in History” that might be some help, as might Jackson’s “Britain’s Deaf Heritage” (but it focuses more on the education system and asylums than individuals).

    Hope this helps too!


  4. Altaf Gohar says:

    I have a boy of thirteen years who is deaf by birth. He is studying here in a deaf & dunb school but educational system here is not satisfectary as per my requirments and the need of time.
    Pl. help me out to get admited my son who is very sharp and intluctual to get admited in the best school in UK.


    Altaf Gohar


  5. Jai Virdi says:


    I’m sorry, but I’m not affiliated with the school in any way–I’m just a historian writing about the history of the school. I suggest you contact the school directly.



  6. Ian Forshaw says:

    Hi Geraldine,

    I came across your posting on James Ruskin b. 1818 in Cheshunt. I am researching my family history and he is my 3rd great Grandfather on my mothers side. I would be happy to share what I have, my email address is



  7. anna cowan says:

    I’m not sure if you’re still checking this blog…but I was wondering whether only boys were admitted? What were the options for deaf girls in the 19th century? Thanks!


    • Jai Virdi says:

      Hi Anna,
      From what I’ve seen, both boys and girls were admitted to the asylum. Some records indicate that they were housed in separate wings. Check out ‘Bermondsey 1792’ by Raymond Lee–it gives an overview of the institution based on some of the archival records.



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