Ancestry UK

Aberdeen Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

On 25 August 1817, Robert Kinniburgh, head of the Edinburgh Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, visited Aberdeen to give a talk about his work at a public meeting. He was accompanied by some of his pupils, who gave demonstration of the result he had achieved. The aim of the visit was to encourage the formation of an auxiliary branch of the charity, which would raise funds to send deaf children from Aberdeen to the Edinburgh Institution. However, such was the enthusiasm that resulted from his visit that, at a subsequent public meeting, a Society for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in Aberdeen was formed, with the intention of raising funds to start a similar institution in Aberdeen.

At the outset, subscriptions were slow in coming forward, and a private venture was started by a Mr. England. This appears to have been unsuccessful and closed after two or three years. By March 1818, enough capital had been accumulated to take the charitable institution forward and a divinity student named Robert Taylor was selected to be its first teacher. Because of a secrecy agreement that had been imposed on Robert Kinniburgh by his teacher, John Watson, no suitable training was available in Britain. Accordingly, Taylor was sent to Paris to receive instruction from the Abbé Sicard, a leading teacher of the deaf in France, where the 'manual' method — the use of signs and finger-spelling — was predominant.

The Institution's first premises were opened at Whitsun 1819, in a house in Upper Kirkgate, By 1824 it had moved to 53 School Hill, then 58 School Hill from about 1827. The latter property was at the east side of the junction of School Hill and Belmont Street. When it was sold in 1848, it was advertised that:

The House contains, on the Sunk Floor — Kitchen, Scullery, and ample Cellarage ; on the Ground Floor — Dining-Room, Parlour, and Bed-Room; on the First Floor — Drawing-Room, and Three Bed-Rooms, with Water-Closet; and in the Attics — Two Bed-Rooms, and a large Room 19 feet by 15.

Besides the above accommodation, there is in the New Wing at the end of the House, a School-Room, 20 feet by 15 feet; and a Room over the School-Room of the same size.

After Robert Taylor resigned in 1834, he was succeeded by Matthew Robert Burns, who was himself deaf. Burns departed in 1841 and was replaced by John Weir, with Mrs Weir acting as the institution's matron.

In 1848, the Institution moved to larger premises at 31 Belmont Street, shown on the 1867 map below.

Institution for the Deaf and Dumb site, Belmont Street, Aberdeen, c.1867.

In 1851, several years after Parochial Boards had been given the power to pay for the education of poor children who would not otherwise receive it, the directors of the Institution expressed the hope that this might be a route to providing it with a new source of pupils. This turned out to be wishful thinking, however, with parishes apparently being reluctant to make the necessary expenditure.

A regular part of the annual meetings of Institution's supporters was an examination of the pupils and their attainment. The 1851 examination was reported as follows:

The examination of the pupils, who were all present, their number being thirty — was then proceeded with, under the direction of Mr Weir, the teacher and superintendent. The order of examination was as follows:— 1. Senior Class, Composition: exercises written by Senior Classes after taking their seats on the platform — application of abstract words by written language. 2, Junior Classes — give the names of objects pointed out — the meaning of words explained by signs, the natural language of the deaf mute. 3. Answers to general questions on various subjects by the finger language. 4. Examination of all the classes on religious subjects. 5. Geography, and definition of abstract terms, both by writing and the manual alphabet or finger language; and arithmetic. The exercises written by the senior class were excellent specimens of calligraphy and style, while their matter was also interesting and appropriate. Two chose the Crystal Palace as a topic, which was well handled — a strong wish being expressed to see it, but this was declared to be impracticable from lack of funds. Another gave bits of personal history; while a fourth discoursed wisely and well on religion. One little fellow gave some most expressive signs for abstract ideas, such as diligence, contentment, and the like; his illustrations, in some cases, might have afforded a model to a sculptor. Another intelligent little fellow, in the senior class, repeated in succession (by means of signs, of course,) the name of every sovereign of England since William the Conqueror, with the date of his accession and that of his death, &c. On the whole, the examination evinced a degree of intelligence on the part of the interesting pupils which, considering their circumstances, must be pronounced altogether remarkable and astonishing.

John Weir retired in 1857 and was succeeded by Robert Scott from Donaldson's Hospital in Edinburgh. From 1859 to 1881, the headmaster was Franklin Bill, during whose tenure an experiment was made in admitting day pupils, though very small numbers were involved. Bill was succeeded by Alexander Pender who was to head the Institution for the next thirty-nine years. Pender was a hearing child born of deaf parents and did not learn to use his voice until the age of eight when he entered Donaldson's Hospital. As his parents could not speak they used signs, and it was in the same way that young Pender communicated until he was found at school to have normal hearing and encouraged to use his voice. His background almost certainly made it difficult for him to adapt to the oral method — based on vocal articulation rather than manual gestures — which was becoming popular when he took charge of the Institution.

In 1890, the admission regulations for the Institution were stated as being:

By schedules. Application must be made to the Secretary, 30 Belmont Street, Aberdeen. Applicants must be at least six years old, and furnish certificate of health, having, been vaccinated, &c., and recommendations from any respectable person known to any of the Directors, which must be sent in any time before the first Monday of every month. Security is required for payment of board. Payment from £16 per annum; clothes are not provided. Inmates need not necessarily leave during the vacations. Paupers are eligible. London cases are eligible. Children so intellectually weak as to be incapable of instruction, are ineligible. Private pupils are taken, subject to arrangement. Payment for day-boarders, £1. 10s. per quarter. The oral system has been introduced. No trades are taught. Inmates remain until the age of 15, sometimes longer, when they are apprenticed if they wish, but the Directors do not profess to find situations.

From around 1892, the address of the Institution was given as 37 Belmont Street, due to a renumbering of some of the properties on the road.

In 1898, the syllabus of the various classes at the Institution was as follows:

Class 1.Grammar, Composition, Reading, Picture Lesson, Geography, History, Arithmetic, Object Lesson, Bible History, Vocabulary, Commands and Actions.
Class 2.As above, but not so advanced.
Class 3. Grammar, Composition, Reading, Geography, Object Lesson, Arithmetic, Bible History, Vocabulary, Questions, Commands and Actions.
Class 4.same, but not so advanced.
Class 5.Grammar, Picture Lesson, Object Lesson, Arithmetic, Bible Lesson, Vocabulary, Questions, Commands.
Class 6.(Beginners) Deaf Mute alphabet in writing as well as on fingers, and learning of words of three or four letters.

Practical manual instruction was also beginning to be given at around this time. By 1898, it included wood-turning and in 1910 lantern-slide-making was introduced. In 1898, gymnastics was taught for an hour a week.

In 1901, the Institution moved to larger premises at 10 Mount Street, which had previously been occupied by the Girls' Industrial Asylum.

Under the Education of Blind and Deaf-mute Children (Scotland) Act of 1890, local School Boards in Scotland were required to pay for the education of blind and deaf children if their parents were unable to do so. Boards could also establish or contribute to the costs of schools for such children. In its early years, Aberdeen School Board paid for the maintenance of pupils to attend the Institution. In December 1900, with the Institution's finances at a low ebb, its Directors applied to have it adopted by Aberdeen School Board. The Board initially declined to do this but in 1903, offered to run the school, so long as the oral method of teaching was completely adopted. As the Institution favoured a combined system of teaching, which made use of both oral and manual methods, though with a strong bias towards the latter, the Directors advised against this. However, fearing the School Board might establish its own oral-based school, the Directors proposed allocating a classroom in the Institution for such teaching, so long as its running costs were funded by the School Board. The Board declined this proposal and on 16 August 1904 opened a new day school for deaf children, based on the purely oral system, at Beech Lodge, View Terrace, Aberdeen. The two schools ran independently for several years, during which time the Board continued to maintain a small number of pupils at the Institution. In 1913, when the Beech Lodge school had grown to having 23 pupils and 3 teachers, was transferred to new premises at Westburn Road.

Former Aberdeen School for the Deaf, View Terrace, Aberdeen

Despite intermittent efforts for the Institution and School Board to come to some reconciliation, each maintained their views on the best mode of teaching. In 1913, the School Board made a small concession in agreeing that if any child in its school was not found to be benefitting from the oral system after a two-year trial, it could be transferred to a fingers-spelling school.

A Local Government Act in 1919 replaced Scotland's School Boards by Education Authorities. Following the passing of the Act, the Directors of the Institution, which was financially even more hard-pressed following the years of the First World War, entered into negotiations with the new body for the amalgamation of the two schools. It was suggested that the former Board school had become less rigidly oral-centred than it had been in the past, allowing the Directors to feel more comfortable with the move. Arrangements were finalised at the end of 1920, at which date Alexander Pender retired. In 31 January 1921, the Institution's ten remaining pupils transferred to the Authority's school at Westburn Road. The Aberdeen School for the Deaf, as it was known then had 34 pupils on its roll and a staff of four teachers, the headmistress being Miss Barron. The school then operated a combined system of instruction.

When Miss Barron retired in 1932, the future of the school was uncertain and no new head was appointed. For several years, memebers of the teaching staff took charge for a period in rotation. Eventually, in 1938, Miss Jolly was appointed as the new head.

After the amalgamation, the School gradually increased its number of boarders, the number rising to 14 in 1938.

Apart from a short period of closure between 4 September 1939 and 8 January 1940, the School remained open throughout the Second World War.

In 1945, the School moved from Westburn Road to new premises on Polmuir Road. In 1957, its teaching facilities were relocated to the former Linksfield Primary School on Linksfield Road. Part of the Polmuir Road building was converted into a hostel for older deaf children, the building being enlarged in 1970.

The Linksfield Road site closed in 1987, when the school moved to a new building at Regent Walk, connected to Linksfield Academy. It catered for around 50 pupils from nursery to 17 years, although the secondary department was closed in 1998. The Polmuir Road hostel was closed in the same year.

The School is now co-located with Sunnybank Primary School, on Sunnybank Road, Aberdeen.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.

  • Aberdeen City Archives, Town House, Broad Street, Aberdeen AB10 1AQ, and Old Aberdeen House, Dunbar Street, Aberdeen AB24 3UJ. Has Leavers Register (1998-2005); Lefts Registers (1998-2007).
  • University of Aberdeen Special Collections, The Sir Duncan Rice Library, Bedford Road, Aberdeen AB24 3AA. Holdings include Institution Directors' Minutes and Reports (1840-1918).