When Was the First School for Blind Pupils Established in Britain?

Former Royal School for the Blind
Hardman Street, Liverpool

Listed: 1975
Grade: II
NHLE entry: List entry for the former Royal School for the Blind

In 2013, English Heritage [now Historic England] launched the 'Disability in Time and Place' project, which revealed how the built environment is linked to the stories of disabled people throughout history.

As part of that project, the National Heritage List Entries of a number of protected buildings were amended to highlight their special historic interest and role in the history of disability. Among these was the former Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool.

A pioneering institution

The Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind (later the Royal School for the Blind, Liverpool) was founded in 1791 by a group of eight men, including the blind musician John Christie and William Roscoe and Edward Rushton, both of whom were poets, writers and strong supporters of the abolition of the trade in enslaved Africans. Like Christie, Rushton was also blind: he had contracted ophthalmia (an eye inflammation with traumatic consequences if left untreated) while working as a sailor on ships transporting enslaved people from Africa to the West Indies.

The school was the first of its type in Britain and the second in the world after the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institution for Blind Youth), established in Paris in 1785-6, where Louis Braille attended as a pupil and worked as a teacher. Built in 1849-51, the Hardman Street building, with its grand classical entrance range and rear wings radiating out from a domed rotunda, was the Liverpool school's second purpose-built premises.

As well as providing pupils with accommodation and a general education, the school encouraged them to be self-supporting and independent, giving practical training in a range of trades and activities. These included worsted weaving (a type of regional yarn), basket making and music classes that enabled pupils to become music teachers, piano tuners and church organists. A shop near the main entrance allowed the pupils to sell results of their work to the general public.

Changing times

Although the school was ground-breaking in terms of what it offered, it was found wanting after educational reform in the late-19th and 20th century. The introduction of school inspections led to the raising of standards and requirements in teaching, accommodation and equipment that many schools across the country could not fulfil. The blind school was seen to have neglected its provision for young children, so a new junior school was built in the Liverpudlian suburb of Wavertree in 1898. Sixty years later, the whole school moved out to the Wavertree site, where it remains to this day.

A future for the past

The Hardman Street building has undergone changes of use and alteration over the years, some sympathetic and some less so. Yet it remains an important and rare surviving example of this type of specialist education institution, which is why it was first listed in 1975.

The building has been empty since 2004, but a new owner has now come along who intends to breathe life back into it, with plans to convert it for a variety of uses, including a coffee shop, restaurants and an aparthotel.