Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

157 : Upper Norwood’s blind school, 1890s-1910s

The road along the ridge of Sydenham Hill is dominated by two television masts, visible from many places in London to the north. Until its destruction by fire in 1936 the eastern part of the ridge was where the massive glass exhibition centre, the Crystal Palace attracted thousands for eighty years. The district is still called Crystal Palace. The western part of the ridge has some substantial Victorian houses. Near the furthest end, towards one of the broadcasting towers, is a park. This was the location of the Royal Normal College for the Blind, Upper Norwood. Opened in 1872 and relocated due to the threat of bombing in 1939, it continues in Hereford.

Male inmates were usually trained in music, notably piano tuning, and the easy access to the Crystal Palace concerts of maestro August Manns is one reason why the school was established here. The first years were in houses that are today obscured by shops at their street level, but as funds were collected larger premises were purchased and gardens laid out. One of the governors was the immensely wealthy Duke of Westminster, who was accompanied to the annual prize festival at the Crystal Palace (19 July 1899) by America’s most famous black man – educator Booker T. Washington. This was reported in The Times (20 July 1899, p 11) as was his praise for the ‘common sense’ manner in which the Upper Norwood college was run. His own experiences in Virginia and Alabama had alerted him to the basic problem of reliable finances and regular assistance from patrons. That the blind pupils had access to over fifty pianos and three organs was impressive. There was a concert hall that seated 500 (and named Grosvenor after the Duke of Westminster). Female students were taught typing and Braille shorthand. Basic training in order to earn a living – reducing the problems faced by Americans of African descent, and by blind people in Britain.

The visit by Booker Washington was not the only black connection, for I was told about a student from the Caribbean by Sean Creighton. James Augustus Alves (1883-1969) was born in Berbice, British Guiana (Guyana) and blinded in an accident at school. Around 1903 he went to England and attended the school in Upper Norwood where he became aware of developments directed at aiding blind people. He returned to the Caribbean and by 1913 had interested the authorities in Trinidad and Tobago, and so a small school for the blind was opened in Port of Spain in 1914.

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This page was aided by Richard Offer’s article in the Norwood Review 189 (Summer 2010), pp 4-10 and, also on line, www.eyecarecaribbean.com.