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Marriage, Work, Family and War - the Daily Life of People with Disabilities in the 16th and 17th Centuries

This section describes how many disabled people living in their communities in the 16th and 17th centuries worked, married and raised children, though some were cared for by families or the parish and some disabled soldiers and sailors received pensions.

St Botolph without Aldgate, where an early sign language marriage was held.
St Botolph without Aldgate, where an early sign language marriage was held. © St Botolph without Aldgate, photographed by Graham Lacdao

An unusual wedding

When Thomas Speller married Sara Earle in St Botolph, Aldgate, London in 1618, it was an unusual occasion. Thomas, a blacksmith, was a 'dumbe person' and he indicated his willingness to marry Sara by making 'the best signes he could, to show that he was willing to be maried'.

Once the Lord Chief Justice had decreed that marriages could take place without the vows being spoken by one of the parties, Thomas and Sara could marry. Theirs was the first known English wedding conducted in sign language.

Exterior view looking up at the spire of Lichfield Cathedral, Cathedral Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary And St Chad, The Close, Lichfield, Staffordshire from where a deaf soldier shot a member of Cromwell's army during the Civil War.
Exterior view looking up at the spire of Lichfield Cathedral, Cathedral Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary And St Chad, The Close, Lichfield, Staffordshire from where a deaf soldier shot a member of Cromwell's army during the Civil War. © Historic England Archive

Lichfield's deaf hero

Another deaf man made his mark on history 25 years later. As the Civil War reached Lichfield in Staffordshire in 1643, John Dyott, nicknamed 'dumb Dyott', was a soldier with the Royalist forces defending the town against Oliver Cromwell's army.

From the battlements of the central cathedral spire, Dyott fired a bullet and killed Lord Brooke, commanding officer of the parliamentary army. Dyott was led back into Lichfield to a hero's welcome from the townspeople.

The Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity and the town centre, Norwich, from the south, 1920
The Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity and the town centre, Norwich, from the south, 1920 © Britain From Above Collection, Historic England

The disabled poor of Norwich

In the crowded and unhealthy cities of Elizabethan England, conditions that resulted in disability were very common.

The city of Norwich carried out a 'census of the poor' in 1570, gathering information about the lives of 1,400 of the poorest people in the city. Among them were 63 disabled men and women with 'lameness' or 'crookedness' of the arms or legs, missing limbs, blindness or deafness.

Work and family

Their lives were surprising. Although poor, many were in work; the women were spinners or knitters, while some of the 'lame' men were labourers. William Mordewe, a blind baker, was still working at the age of 70, aided by his young wife Helen.

Almost all the disabled men and most of the disabled women were married to non-disabled people and many had children. Their marriages were stable and long-lasting (even though two disabled women were identified as 'harlots'). Although they were often poor, disabled people were very much part of work and family life and they lived at the heart of their communities.

The Chatham Chest , which held a fund for paying pensions for disabled seamen, described as the world's first occupational health scheme.
The Chatham Chest , which held a fund for paying pensions for disabled seamen, described as the world's first occupational health scheme. © Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust

People with learning disabilities

People we would recognise today as having learning disabilities also lived in their communities rather than in institutions. Known as 'natural fools', 'innocents' or 'idiots', they were expected to stay with their families and work if possible.

If the families were struggling because of ill health or extreme poverty, they might receive assistance from the parish. When Alice Stock became old and lame in the parish of St Botolph Bishopsgate, London, she received sixpence a fortnight to care for her 'foolish girle' Martha.

If family care broke down or parents died, 'keepers' or 'nurses' in the local community would be paid to care for people. John Shusock of Wapping, London was paid two shillings and sixpence a week from 1649 to 1653 to 'keep' the 'innocent' Thomas Walker, and given extra payments for his 'clothing and other necessaries'.

Disabled soldiers and seamen

Attitudes to disabled soldiers changed over this period. Horrified at the sight of wounded men left to die on the streets, senior officers agitated for hospitals, sick pay and pensions for soldiers who were discharged from the army with disabilities.

A small hospital for 'maimed soldiers' was founded in Berkshire in 1599, preceding many grander efforts in Chelsea, Greenwich and elsewhere in the later 17th century. In Elizabeth's reign, laws were passed to provide pensions for soldiers and sailors who had 'lost their limbs or disabled their bodies'.

In 1590 the 'Chatham Chest' was established to pay pensions to disabled seamen - it has been described as the world's first occupational health scheme.

Watch the BSL video on the daily life of people with disabilities in 16th and 17th centuries

 

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Daily Life of People with Disabilities

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Exterior view looking up at the spire of Lichfield Cathedral, Cathedral Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary And St Chad, The Close, Lichfield, Staffordshire from where a deaf soldier shot a member of Cromwell's army during the Civil War.
  • The Chatham Chest , which held a fund for paying pensions for disabled seamen, described as the world's first occupational health scheme.
  • The Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity and the town centre, Norwich, from the south, 1920
  • St Botolph without Aldgate, where an early sign language marriage was held.