Ancestry UK

Edinburgh Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, Edinburgh, Scotland

In 1760, Edinburgh had been the home of Thomas Braidwood's Academy for the Deaf and Dumb, Britain's first school for deaf children. In 1783, however, Braidwood had moved his establishment to Hackney, then a village near London.

In 1795, a certain Mr Geikie of Edinburgh, had a son, Walter, who became deaf at the age of two. In 1804, Geikie came across a copy of the manual alphabet used by Braidwood's nephew and former assistant, John Watson, at London's Asylum for the Support and Education of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor. Armed with the work, Geikie began, with considerable success, to teach his son articulation. A friend of Geikie, Robert Cathcart, suggested that Geikie should open a school to extend his work. After the latter declined the proposal, Cathcart began to try and generate interest in establishing an institution for teaching the deaf. John Braidwood, a grandson of Thomas Braidwood and also an assistant at Hackney, was then approached and he greed to run such an establishment if sufficient funds could be raised. On 3 June 1809, supporters of the scheme met at Fortune's Tavern and opened a subscription list, which included a £200 donation from the Duke of Buccleuch. The Edinburgh Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, as it was named, began operation in the summer of 1810, which is usually given as its year of foundation.

Before the Institution had its own premises, its pupils attended daily for instruction at John Braidwood's house at 14 George Street, Edinburgh. Braidwood was allowed to collect what fees he thought the better-off parents could afford for their children, whilst the whole of the income from the existing funds was paid to him to cover the cost of instructing children of poorer parents. Walter Geikie was one of the first pupils to be enrolled and paid nine guineas a, quarter. However, he seems to have received little instruction himself and was employed-by Braidwood as a an assistant with the other pupils. By the summer of 1811, the Institution was using its own premises at 54 Rose Street.

In August 1811, Braidwood abruptly resigned his post and left the city, possibly having misused Institution funds. Geikie was approached to take over the role, but again declined. Eventually, Robert Kinniburgh, an unsuccessful Congregational Minister was appointed and sent for training at the Braidwood Academy at Hackney. The Braidwoods, who were secretive about their techniques, imposed strict conditions on the arrangement. Kinniburgh was not to pass on the methods of instruction and was only to teach "charity scholars" for a period of seven years, else he would forfeit a £1000 bond. The ban on private pupils was actually lifted after three years, but Kinniburgh had to pay half of the fees he received for his private work to the Braidwood family until their arrangement ended in 1819.

In 1814, Kinniburgh took some of his pupils to Glasgow where his methods of teaching and their results were demonstrated. The enthusiasm that this generated resulted in the formation of the Glasgow Auxiliary Society, which raised funds to send poor children from Glasgow to the Edinburgh Institution. This was followed in 1819 by the formation of the Glasgow Society for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, which opened its own institution.

In 1814, with the number of pupils at Rose Street having reached thirty-six, larger premises were needed and a new house was bought at Chessels Court in the Canongate. After it came into use, in October 1814, twenty-nine of the pupils were in residence, of whom twelve received free board and education, ten received free education, and seven paid for both board and education. There were seven day pupils.

At around this date, training in shoe-making was introduced for the older boys, an occupation which became a traditional trade to be taught to the deaf. At the same time, Mrs Kinniburgh, wife of the headmaster, began to give the older girls 'house-training' and instruction in sewing. The girls also learned how to bind shoes and to do the upholstery work required for the maintenance of: the furniture in the house.

In 1817, Kinniburgh and a group of his pupils made a fund-raising tour of the northern part of Scotland. As a result Auxiliary Societies were formed in Perth and Inverness. At Aberdeen and Dundee, however, the demonstrations of the work, as had happened at Glasgow, resulted in the opening of local institutions in the two towns. At Dundee, the enterprise was relatively short-lived and by 1826 it had formed an Auxiliary Society to send its pupils to Edinburgh.

By 1821, with 51 pupils on the roll, a further enlargement of the the accommodation was needed. A two-acre site was feued in Distillery Park, Henderson Row, and plans for a new building were provided, without charge, by the architect James Gillespie. A major fund-raising campaign was launched with money being raised from personal subscriptions, parish collections, another exhibition tour, and the sale of Chessels Court. These efforts were no doubt helped by the beginning or royal patronage of the Institution in 1823. The new building, whose final cost was around £7,300, was completed in May 1824.

The Institution site is shown on the 1852 map below.

Institution for the Deaf and Dumb site, Edinburgh, c.1852.

In 1837, a rival to the Institution appeared in the form of the Deaf and Dumb Day School, located at 18 St John Street and run by Alexander Drysdale, who was himself deaf and dumb. By 1840, it had thirty pupils on its roll, of which twenty were boarders. The latter paid £10 a year for their board and lodging if aged under 12, or higher if older, and 12s. a year for education. The day pupils paid between 3s. and 5s. a quarter. The two establishments had a rather fractious relationship but in 1845 agreed to amalgamate. In January 1846, the fifty pupils of the day school moved to Henderson Row, which also began to admit day pupils at a a charge of 3s. a quarter. It was also agreed that Drysdale should join the staff of the Institution. However, he instead moved to Dundee, where, in March 1846, he opened the Dundee Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb.

At around the same time, plans were in progress for another institution for the deaf in the city, namely Donaldson's Hospital. Founded by the bequest of James Donaldson, an Edinburgh publisher, construction began in 1842 of what had originally been envisaged as an asylum for destitute children. However, one of the gentlemen elected as a governor of the new hospital, George Forbes, who had acquired an interest in the education of deaf children, suggested that part of the building might be reserved for the deaf. The idea gained momentum and also won the support of Kinniburgh and his counterpart in Glasgow, John Anderson. When the establishment opened in October 1850, half of the accommodation was for deaf children. Although the opening of Donaldson's Hospital brought about some reduction on the number on the roll at the Institution, they gradually crept up. However, at both institutions, financial constraints always limited the numbers they could receive and the levels of the charges they needed to make.

In 1864, a newspaper report described in detail the Institution's building, educational methods and daily regime. A section of the report is reproduced below.

The building occupied by this institution is a large and plain but suitable four-storey edifice at Stockbridge, erected expressly for the institution in 1823. It has recently undergone some internal alterations and improvements. It is finely situated within a large open space, a portion of which in front is devoted to a large flower and vegetable garden and bleaching-green, while behind are ample playgrounds for the children. In the girls' playground is a swing, and in the boys' a complete set of gymnastic apparatus, on 'which they exercise themselves at playhours. In the gymnastic training of the boys the directors have, we believe, the able professional assistance of Captain Roland, who kindly devotes some of his spare time to this benevolent purpose. All the rooms in the house are tolerably lofty, admirably lighted, and, from the clear open space both in front and behind, have very cheerful prospects from the windows. The passages are spacious and airy, and the sole defect of the house appears to be a want of some sufficient means of warming so large a building, through the lobbies and staircases of which cold draughts cannot, in winter, be excluded. This is a defect which ought not to be permitted to remain unremedied; for as many of the children afflicted with deafness and consequent dumbness are of delicate, often scrofulous, constitution, the absence of a due degree of warmth is calculated to have a very prejudicial effect upon their health. It may be said that such children are the better of plenty of fresh air; but fresh air need not necessarily be cold; and half of the exclusion of air in winter so pernicious in places where it is being consumed by gas-light and human lungs is due to the desire to shut out the cold.

The first floor of the building contains two classrooms — a larger and a smaller — communicating with each other. These are fitted with desks and forms after the ordinary schoolroom fashion, the walls are plentifully adorned with coloured prints, and are also abundantly supplied with large slabs of slate used as blackboards. On the day of our visit there were forty-seven children n the room, but more were expected, all the scholars not having then returned from their holidays. Except that their voices are silent, there is nothing to strike a visitor to the schoolroom in the appearance or demeanour of the children different from what is observed in any ordinary school. There is much of that movement and restlessness natural to their years. They pursue their lessons, or the furtive conversations with each other in which, like other children, they indulge when the teacher's back is turned, with great animation and vivacity, expressed, of course, by signs and movements, though not by speech. The only sound that breaks the silence, save the voices of the teachers and visitors, is an occasional laugh. The expression of their faces is generally cheerful and intelligent. The course of instruction given in the institution is based upon a system which practice and experience have shown to be the most successful and the best adapted to the peculiar necessities of the deaf and dumb. When untaught pupils enter the seminary, the first care of the teacher is to ground them thoroughly in the alphabet. Thus, the letter A is written upon a large slate, and the sign for A is made by the teacher upon his fingers. By means of the writing, the eye of the pupil, after considerable practice becomes familiar with the distinctive shape of the letter, and the particular curves and lines requisite for its formation: and the symbol made by the fingers teaches him its equivalent manual sign. In process of time the scholar learns to associate the written signs on the hoard with the signs formed by the fingers; and in this way is taught to distinguish the various letters of the alphabet and understand their meaning and significance. He comes to know that a certain combination of the fingers represents a particular form or letter upon the slate, and that this mark on the slate, again, can be expressed by a certain sign with the hands. The alphabet properly mastered, the pupil enters upon the second stage of his education. It can easily be understood that, by the help of the process we have explained, the children soon become competent to write the letters of the alphabet upon the board, to distinguish them when they are written, and to give the particular sign with the hands that represents them. But then the mere writing of certain letters upon the board cannot to the deaf mute convey any idea of the of the object to which the combination of letters refer. Thus, for example, the pupil may be quite able to write down the letters which form the word “window,” or may be able when these are written by the master to recognise and name them one by one; but such a combination of letters gives him no conception whatever is meant by the word, or what may be the object to which it applies. To meet this difficulty, the efforts of the teacher are accordingly directed. One of the windows of the school-room is pointed to by the teacher, and the word “window” is written upon the slate. By this, the pupil is led to understand that the particular letters or characters which he sees chalked down are meant to represent the object which had previously been pointed out. The next step is to make the scholar spell over the letters of the word which are set down for “window.” This he does by making use of the alphabetical signs upon his fingers; and he thus learns what letters go to form the word, the order in which they should be placed, and the object to which the word so formed refers. In process of time the pupil's eye becomes so accurate in distinguishing words placed upon the slate that he or she is able, so soon as the word is written, to give the name of the object to which, it has reference. Following out the same principle, the pupil is further enabled to write down upon the slate any word which the teacher spells upon his hands, or the name of anything to which he points with his finger. By this double process of writing on the slate and spelling on the hands, the children are gradually made acquainted with all the familiar objects in the school-room, such as chairs, forms, tables, books, slates, maps, &c. — and become capable of interchanging ideas regarding them with readiness and precision. Having taught the children to distinguish objects that come more particularly under their daily observation, the teacher next instructs them how to use and express numbers. This is also accomplished by the employment of the fingers. The thumb held aloft with the other fingers closed represents one, the forefinger is added for two, the middle finger for three, the next finger for four, and the open hand signifies five. The little finger alone is raised for six, and so backwards to the fore-finger, which held aloft with the other three represents nine. The cipher is represented by the closed hand. By changing the position of the hand from perpendicular to horizontal, the thumb held out alone indicates ten, and every finger in succession adds ten till ninety is reached. There are other signs for the higher numbers which need not he particularised. The colours and qualities of objects come next in the order of instruction; and the meaning of these is imparted to the pupils according to the same principle on which they are taught the alphabet A large card having the different colours painted upon it is suspended from the wall of the schoolroom, and the attention of the pupils directed to it. One of the colours is pointed to by the teacher, and, its name written upon the slate. The double process of writing and finger-spelling is then again carried on till the scholar has mastered the whole of the names of the various colours, and is able at request to write them down. One of the greatest difficulties experienced by the teacher is in making his pupils understand the construction of sentences. The deaf and dumb naturally realise in their minds the most important object first; so that their mode of expression, instead of being “I carry a slate,” is, “A slate carry I.” By perseverance and proper training, however, this habit is conquered.

It may be mentioned that what is called the “single-hand” manual alphabet is now generally used in preference to that which demanded the use of both hands. The former appears to be as expressive and distinct; and it has the great advantage of being available in circumstances where the other is not — that is, when, one of the hands is otherwise engaged. Drawing is largely introduced as an element in the education of the inmates. It is apparent that considerable difficulty must lie in the way of getting the children to comprehend the names and meaning of objects which lie a little beyond the environment of the school, and which probably many of the younger pupils may never have seen. To remove this difficulty as far as possible, the teacher employs drawing. A building, an animal, or an object is drawn upon the slate, and its name appended in writing. In this way the child gains a knowledge of many things which it may never have an opportunity of actually beholding. When the pupils walk abroad, moreover, the teacher, by means of the finger language, takes pains to direct their attention to objects, and to explain the meaning of them. But, after all, the most natural language of the deaf mute is that of mimic-signs, or pantomime. This mode of expressing his wants and feelings comes most readily to him, and is most easily comprehended. The system of signs, accordingly, forms a very prominent part of their education. In this language the touching of the beard indicates a man, and the holding of a piece of wood or other substance between the teeth, after the fashion of a bit, signifies a horse. Following out the same principle, the turning down of the under lip by the fore-finger represents red; and the motion of the teeth, as in eating, is intended to indicate green, the idea being derived from the movement made by cattle cropping grass.

Object lessons, as they are called, also form part of the tuition given in the institution. A small collection of vegetable, mineral, and animal substances ore kept in the schoolroom, and their uses explained to the children by writing and spelling. Should, therefore, the words “wheat,” “wool,” or “straw” occur in the lessons, the teacher presents the substance itself to the scholar, and in this way familiarises him with its name and quality. Writing and drawing are taught in the institution in the same manner as in hearing schools. The specimens of both which were submitted to our inspection were very well executed. The pupils write letters every Tuesday to their relatives and friends.

On the same floor as the school-room is the directors' board-room, and other rooms and bed-rooms of the head master and matron — Mr. and. Mrs. Hutchinson. The boys and girls receive their school instruction and their meals together, and are separated through the day only in their play-grounds and play-rooms. The upper floors of the house, however, in which are the dormitories, are divided at the centre, one side being reserved for the girls, another for the boys, each entering by a separate staircase. On the first floor are the sewing-room — a large and cheerful room — bed-rooms for the parlour boarders, and two sick-rooms — both remarkably cheerful apartments. On the second floor are the dormitories. In the dormitory for the older boys the beds are single, but, the younger boys sleep two in a bed. Both the boys' dormitories and the girls' are commanded by windows opening into the adjoining apartments, in which a tutor or governess sleeps, so as to be at hand in case of any disturbance or call for aid during the night. The bedsteads are of iron, and. the bedding appears to be good and ample. On the upper or attic floor are lavatories for the girls, the same room being fitted with simple wardrobes in which they keep the clothes they are not using. Descending from the attics to the ground-floor, we find on it a large well-lighted kitchen, a good, laundry, and a run a somewhat confined washing-house. A small room adjoining the girls' playground is appropriated to their use in wet weather. On the same floor is the rather cheerless-looking dining-room, a sitting-room for the boys, and the boys ' lavatories and bath. All the children have a tepid bath once a week in winter; in summer they bathe at Granton.

The girls are taught to assist in the house work, make their own beds, clean out their bed-rooms, and assist in turns at the laundry. The boys also make their beds and clean their bed-rooms. In the sewing-room the girls receive instruction in plain sewing, &c., the older girls being also taught the use of the sewing-machine. They make and mend their own clothes, all the children, boys and girls, being dressed in a simple sort of uniform. Besides the children who are “on the charity,” both boys and girls are received, as parlour boarders at rates varying from £40 to £100 per annum. There are five boys of this class at present in the house. Of the present inmates, six are tailors, four shoemakers, and four printers. The printers are under the care of a skilled compositor, and the Institution prints its own reports as well as those for other charities, and also does a little job printing in the way of bills, &c. It is extremely doubtful whether letter-press printing is a branch of industry which can be efficiently taught in an institution of this kind. No boy can in so short a time as he remains in the school receive, alone with his other education, sufficient knowledge of so detailed and minute a business to enable him to pursue it as his trade in life. And even were he to do so, no printing office could, on account of his comparative proficiency, abridge the term of seven years' apprenticeship which the rules of the trade demand as essential to its regular pursuit. In the shoemaker's shop, which, as well as the tailor's, is situated at the lodge, a skilled workman attends for two hours every afternoon. Here the boys repair their own boots and shoes and occasionally make shoes for the girls. In the tailor's workshop, they make and mend their own jackets, trousers, &c. A small library furnishes the children with a variety of useful and instructive reading suitable tor their age. Illustrated works are greatly in request, and the Illustrated London News is received weekly, handed round and read by the pupils, and bound at the end of the year.

The children who are admitted into the Institution are found to be generally tractable; but in some cases where they have been badly brought up at home they give considerable trouble to the teachers. As a rule, the deaf and dumb are not found to be more jealous than other children, or more violent in their temper. If they are teased, however, they grow angry, and their wrath seems greater than that of other children, because they can express their feelings only by violent gestures. Seven years require to be spent in the education of deaf and dumb children before they can thoroughly master the English language; but some, of superior capabilities, become proficient in six years.

The children rise at six, and attend school, which is opened with prayer, from half-past six till eight, when they breakfast on porridge and sweet-milk. School is resumed at half-past nine and continued till twelve, when they go through a sort of military drill, dine, and play till two o'clock. The dinner on four days a week consists of broth and beef, with vegetables and bread; on two days, of rice and milk; and on one day, of potato or pease soup. From two till four o'clock the children are again at school, and at four they each receive a piece of bread by way of afternoon luncheon. They are at their trades and sewing-lessons from half-past four till half-past six, when they have supper of bread and milk; after which they have lessons and play till bed-time at eight. The dietary appears to be sufficient, but is not so varied as could be wished. The monotony may perhaps be accounted for or excused by the somewhat primitive, not to say defective, cooking apparatus in the kitchen.

The whole of the pupils attend the Episcopal Church regularly every Sunday. We understand that the friends of parents who themselves belong to different denominations offer no objection to this course being followed, in the face of the obvious advantage which the service of the Episcopal possesses over that of the Presbyterian Church for the deaf and dumb in their being able, by use of the liturgy, to follow the service intelligently throughout.

Swimming was begun as a course of 'instruction at Henderson Row in 1870, when the boys were taken for lessons to the public baths. In 1894, a swimming bath and gymnasium were included in one of the two new wings added to the main building, which also provided a residence for the headmaster. The extensions enabled separate classrooms to be devoted to three classes instead of them having to be taught in the same room. The layout of the Institution in 1894 is shown on the map below.

Institution for the Deaf and Dumb site, Edinburgh, c.1894.

In 1911, on the accession of George V, the Institution was granted the privilege of incorporating the word Royal into its title, it then becoming known as the Edinburgh Royal Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb.

In 1930, a government Commission of Educational Endowments concluded that the maintenance of two separate schools for the deaf in Edinburgh was both educationally and economically unsound, and proposed that the Institution amalgamate with Donaldson's Hospital. Hearing children would cease to be admitted to the latter and the combined endowments of the two institutions would be amalgamated for the sole purpose of providing an efficient education for deaf children. The scheme was strenuously opposed by the Governors of Donaldson's Hospital who believed that it would destroy the Donaldson system of associating deaf children with those of normal hearing. A revised scheme was eventually accepted and the merger took place on 1 August 1838, the new institution being named Donaldson's School for the Deaf. The Henderson Row site became the School's junior department and the Donaldson's Hospital site at West Coates became the senior department, with a major new building added to it facilities.

In 2008, the School moved its operations to a new campus at Preston Road, Linlithgow. Both the Henderson's Row and West Coates buildings have now been converted to apartments.


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  • National Library of Scotland, 92 Cowgate, Edinburgh EH1 1JN, Scotland. Holdings include Admission records (1850-1916); Registers of Former Pupils (1855-1938); Minute books (1845-1945); Letter books (1835-1912, 1938-51); Financial records; Annual reports; Photographs; Films; etc. Full inventory available here.