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Hertfordshire Society for the Blind: Celebrating 100 years

PUBLISHED: 12:42 16 November 2015 | UPDATED: 16:48 17 November 2015

Blind First World War soldiers at St Dunstans in 1915

Blind First World War soldiers at St Dunstans in 1915

© Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

Formed during the First World War, the Hertfordshire Society for the Blind this month marks 100 years of supporting blind and visually-impaired people in the county. Charity trustee Colin Macleod gives a guide to its essential work then and now

British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by tear gas at Battle of Estaires, Belgium, 10 April 1918British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by tear gas at Battle of Estaires, Belgium, 10 April 1918

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, a debate on blindness took place in the House of Commons. The resolution carried was, ‘In the opinion of this House, the present system of voluntary effort in aid of the blind people of this country does not adequately meet their necessities and the State should make provision whereby capable blind people might be made industrially self-supporting, and the incapable and infirm be maintained in a proper and humane manner’. Less than two months later, the president of the Local Government Board appointed a departmental committee ‘to consider the present condition of the blind in the United Kingdom, and the means available for their industrial and professional training and their assistance, and to make recommendations.’

By late 1915 some of those who would become the founding members of the Hertfordshire Society for the Blind met for the first time in the drawing room at the Old Rectory in Hatfield. They had been working with The Metropolitan and Adjacent Counties Association for the Blind, and decided to establish a separate and independent organisation. The driving force behind this new organisation was Kenneth Gibbs, archdeacon of St Albans, who was chairman of the society from the first meeting on November 26, 1915 until his death 20 years later.

The core Hertfordshire Society for the Blind teamThe core Hertfordshire Society for the Blind team

At this time it was the duty of the charity to act as almoner for money paid specifically to blind people on the local register. As there were no formal state benefits, each person was assessed on their needs and means by a group of volunteers, who were known as the Honourable Representatives. The volunteers then reported their findings back to a committee who in turn decided whether any payment should be made. However, before a person was included in the register, they had to pay for a sight test - an expense which many blind people couldn’t afford - and so the number on the register was small. One of the first decisions made by the Hertfordshire Society for the Blind was to pay for the test, and as a result numbers on the register rapidly grew.

The first two blind people to benefit from the society’s role of almoner were a young blind epileptic boy from Rickmansworth, who was granted £5 a year for two years to enable him to go to a home for the blind, and Lizzie Gray of Hatfield, who was supported with a sum of one shilling per week for two years. In the early years the society organised a fundraising concert at Hatfield House banqueting hall. The concert raised funds in support of St Dunstans (now Blind Veterans UK), a charity formed by Sir Arthur Pearson in 1915 to help servicemen returning from the Front, who had suffered the effects of poisonous gases used by the Germans.

The introduction of the Blind Persons Act (1920) meant that funding of the society came from the Ministry of Health via Hertfordshire County Council, a partnership that has endured for 95 years. The Act also established the role of the home tutor. Home teaching was available to all blind people to enable them to live independently and to learn to read and write using braille or Moon. The tutor’s role was a cross between the current-day county council sensory impairment team and the society’s outreach support worker, the aims of which are to help reduce loneliness and maintain independent living.

The society remains the only local independent charity providing support services to blind and visually impaired people, their families and carers in the county. Many people experience a huge sense of loss and social isolation with the onset of a serious eye condition. The society provides much needed social interaction, practical and emotional support and advice, and a link to the community via news and information – all of which help a person to regain their independence and get their life back on track. The society continues to evolve its services, delivered by a team of eight skilled and dedicated, largely part-time staff, supported by 140 hard-working volunteers, which aim to help reduce loneliness while supporting independent living.

Dinner Dance Party

The Hertfordshire Society for the Blind will celebrate its centenary with a fundraising gala dinner and dance at The Old Palace, Hatfield House on Saturday November 21.

Tickets priced at £75 can be bought by calling 01707 880544 or by emailing

office@hertsblind.com

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