Ancestry UK

Academy for the Deaf and Dumb, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland

The Academy for the Deaf and Dumb was founded in 1760 by Thomas Braidwood, a 45-year-old Scot, who ran a private school for the teaching of mathematics. Braidwood was approached by a wealthy Leith merchant, Alexander Shirreff, who wanted him to teach his nine-year-old son, Charles, who had been deaf since the age of three. Braidwood accomplished the task and, in 1765, a second pupil followed — the thirteen-year-old son of a London doctor — whose progress was much more rapid. And so, the school slowly expanded but was limited by the fact that the process was relatively slow and therefore expensive.

In 1769, Braidwood suggested that a fund be established to to help parents who could not afford to pay the fees, and also that he should 'communicate his skill to three or four ingenious young men.' Neither of these proposals was taken up and he passed on his skills only to members of his own family, who swore not to reveal his methods. The first of these was his nephew, John Braidwood, who became his assistant in 1775 and who also married his daughter Isabella in 1782.

As well as using Britain's first school for the deaf was Thomas Braidwood's Academy for the Deaf and Dumb, founded in Edinburgh in 1760. As well as using existing techniques such as teaching his pupils to write, finger spell, speak and lip-read, Braidwood is credited with devising a system of hand gestures, an approach which eventually evolved into the British Sign Language.

The reputation of the Academy received a considerable boost following a visit in 1773 by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, and Johnson's account of it in his book A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1775:

There is one subject of philosophical curiosity to be found in Edinburgh, which no other city has to shew; a college of the deaf and dumb, who are taught to speak, to read, to write, and to practice arithmetick, by a gentleman, whose name is Braidwood. The number which attends him is, I think, about twelve, which he brings together into a little school, and instructs according to their several degrees of proficiency.

I do not mean to mention the instruction of the deaf as new. Having been first practised upon the son of a constable of Spain, it was afterwards cultivated with much emulation in England, by Wallis and Holder, and was lately professed by Mr. Baker, who once flattered me with hopes of seeing his method published. How far any former teachers have succeeded, it is not easy to know; the improvement of Mr. Braidwood's pupils is wonderful. They not only speak, write, and understand what is written, but if he that speaks looks towards them, and modifies his organs by distinct and full utterance, they know so well what is spoken, that it is an expression scarcely figurative to say, they hear with the eye. That any have attained to the power mentioned by Burnet, of feeling sounds, by laying a hand on the speaker's mouth, I know not; but I have seen so much, that I can believe more; a single word, or a short sentence, I think, may possibly be so distinguished.

It will readily be supposed by those that consider this subject, that Mr. Braidwood's scholars spell accurately. Orthography is vitiated among such as learn first to speak, and then to write, by imperfect notions of the relation between letters and vocal utterance; but to those students every character is of equal importance; for letters are to them not symbols of names, but of things; when they write they do not represent a sound, but delineate a form.

This school I visited, and found some of the scholars waiting for their master, whom they are said to receive at his entrance with smiling countenances and sparkling eyes, delighted with the hope of new ideas. One of the young Ladies had her slate before her, on which I wrote a question consisting of three figures, to be multiplied by two figures. She looked upon it, and quivering her fingers in a manner which I thought very pretty, but of which I know not whether it was art or play, multiplied the sum regularly in two lines, observing the decimal place; but did not add the two lines together, probably disdaining so easy an operation. I pointed at the place where the sum total should stand, and she noted it with such expedition as seemed to shew that she had it only to write.

It was pleasing to see one of the most desperate of human calamities capable of so much help; whatever enlarges hope, will exalt courage; after having seen the deaf taught arithmetick, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides?

Braidwood's Academy became so well known that by 1780 it had admitted four pupils from the United States. In 1783, perhaps wanting to be nearer the centre of things, he decided to up sticks and move the Academy to Hackney, then a village outside London.

Braidwood's house, later known as Dumbie House, and then as Craigie House, stood at what is now the southernmost tip of the road that became known as Dumbiedykes. The building was demolished in 1939.


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