Adrien Célestin Soret, radiologist, meteorologist and inventor of the first binaural hearing aid in 1915

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 26 June 2015

Since his death, Adrien Célestin Marie Soret, (7th July 1854- 1931), Chevalier Légion d’honneur (1924), has fallen into obscurity, yet from what little I have discovered, he deserves to be much better known.  He was the son of a lemonade maker and was educated at Tonnerre, Beauvais, Orléans and Havre.  A commemorative plaque at his birthplace tells us “Driven by a concern for popularizing science, in 1886 he organized municipal courses which dealt with current scientific issues such as the effects of electricity and the discovery of X -rays.”  He then turned to photography, creating the Le Havre Society of Photography.

He is here as he is the inventor of the first binaural hearing aid, a fact that seems to have been forgotten by many.  I came across this in the book Binaural Hearing Aids by Andreas Markides (1977), where Soret gets a very brief mention.  That was because of this U.S. patent for a binaural hearing device, in 1915.  However, it is hard to find out how widely it was used and I could not find his name in Berger’s The Hearing Aid: its Operation and Development (1984).

AudiphoneIn Learning to Hear (1970), Edith Whetnall & D.B. Fry of the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital’s Nuffield Centre, wrote

The man with the monacle excites immediate attention.  The ophthalmologist who prescribed only a monacle for a patient with defective vision in both eyes would be regarded as a little odd.  The situation is completely opposite with hearing aids.  Here the tradition has been to prescribe only one aid.  It is probable that the origin of this tradition lies in expense but it is now so hallowed by custom that advocates of binaural hearing aids are told that they must produce evidence that these have an advantage over monaural aids.  As the normal person is born with two ears the onus of proof would seem to lie in the other direction and the advocates of the monaural hearing aid should prove their case.(pp.131 & 134)

Perhaps those who have threatened to reduce NHS patients to one hearing aid might reflect on that.

Soret’s death made it into Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Newspaper on August the 15th 1931, as “A MAN’S SACRIFICE FOR THE WORLD – Another Great Hero of Peace – SCIENTIST’S LIFE GIVEN TO HUMANITY”

The sunny South of France has experienced a great shadow of grief in the death of an eminent scientist, Professor Celestin Soret, who died at 77.  His life was sacrificed to the, X-ray, for he associated himself whole-heartedly with Dr Röntgen in bringing this invention to the aid of the medical world. The doctors were very sceptical as to the help which they could get from this new invention, and Professor Soret diagnosed over forty thousand cases through the X-ray in his own house, besides the thousands that he was asked to help in the hospitals.  He began life as a schoolmaster in Havre, where he taught physics. Many thousands, not only in France but in other parts of the world, owe him a great debt of gratitude, for he was an international figure.  He was the inventor of apparatus by means of which the sufferers from partial deafness could listen to concerts and conversations with the help of earphones and other pocket instruments. He tried to imagine how much the deaf must miss in life, and he used his knowledge to help them in their difficulty.

Soret was also involved in work at the Hydrographic School of Havre, where he lectured on naval hygiene, and he established a meteorological  observatory on the coast. The article concludes, “Like many other great men of science this French professor died comparatively poor. He placed his knowledge at the disposal of the world to save lives and not to make profit out of it ; and he gave up more than wealth to the cause of knowledge : he sacrificed both his hands.”

In fact, the brief obituary in The British Journal of Radiology Vol.4, p.368, the only other obituary I have so far tracked down, says he died as a result of his early X-ray work, which caused radiodermatitis.  “Through various operations carried out since 1923, Dr. Soret had lost both his arms, which had to be amputated.”

The memorial plaque also says (with the help, I admit, of Google Translate),

A year after the discovery of X -rays (1895) , he set up at his home a ray generator and the first radiography experiments. Four years later he was head of the radiological service in the Hospital of Le Havre.  […] Appointed honorary professor in 1907 , he devoted himself entirely to research and practice of X-rays.  […] In 1928 he received the Medal of the Order of the Crown of Belgium in recognition of the care given to Belgian fighters during their stay in hospital of Le Havre.

It has proved difficult to find these few details of Soret’s life.  One problem is that he shares the same birth year and initial as Charles Soret, the Swiss mathematician and physicist, and some people seem to have confused the two of them.

There is a photograph of him here, and a more poignant photograph with one hand amputated here.

He was a remarkable man.  If you know anything more about him please add a note below.


Sorel et Soret, Un cas d’elephantiasis avec troubles nerveux, gueri par les rayon X. La Normandie medicale, 1″ mars, 1898, p.97.
[I have not seen this article]


Whetnall, E. and Fry, D.S., Learning to Hear (1970)

Hie is remembered as a pioneer of radiology on the Ehrenmal der Radiologie in Hamburg.

His Legion d’honneur citation documents are here.

The Evil of Frankenstein… Portrayal of a Deaf person on film (1964)

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 19 June 2015

One of our more unusual items in the collection that I recently came across is a Hammer Horror film script, The Evil of Frankenstein (1963).  film script The copy we have belonged to Katy Wild (b.1941) who played a ‘deaf and dumb beggar’ girl, which is presumably why it came to us, perhaps donated by her many years ago.  The film starred Hammer favourite, Peter Cushing.  Here is a page from the script where the beggar girl comes into the story.  I suppose one of the themes of the story would be how the girl and the ‘monster’ are both outcasts from society, and are linked together.  It was written by ‘John Elder’  which was the pen-name of Anthony Hinds, son of the Hammer Films founder William Hinds.  The back cover of the script has seven photos from the production enclosed.

There are interesting questions raised by this script, for example, the portrayal of Deaf People in the media, whether there were hearing actors in the roles of Deaf people, and to what extent things may have changed in the past century since we have had cinema and television.  The script will be of interest to anyone studying film.  We should all as consumers of media and entertainment, think critically about how media such as film and TV depict deafness.

Evil of Dr FrankensteinJohn Elder, The Evil of Frankenstein, 1963

John S. Schuchman, Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the entertainment industry (1988) RNID UTB TJY

Katherine A. Foss, Constructing Hearing Loss or “Deaf Gain?” Voice, Agency, and Identity in Television’s Representations of d/Deafness
Critical Studies in Media Communication Volume 31, Issue 5, 2014

Hamilton, Allyson P, A pedagogical content analysis of deaf culture in feature films Ed.d. dissertation, 2013

“And woven loops of silence circle you; Though none may know The secret of your devastating woe” – Deaf Poet Annie Charlotte Dalton O.B.E.

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 12 June 2015

A while ago I came across a book of poetry in our collection, and for a long time wondered why we have it.  It is from a small print run, numbered 220 on nice paper with black and white prints to illustrate it.  annie Dalton 001The author, Annie Dalton O.B.E. (1865-1938) was born Annie Charlotte Armitage in Birkby, Huddersfield.  Annie was brought up by her grandparents.  Her grandfather, James Stoney, was a cloth dresser.  Perhaps the family considered it a stigma that she was deaf – it would not be the first time,  but any rate, it is only in the 1901 census that she was first described as ‘Deaf from childhood’, a decade after she had married Willie Dalton (1891).  This shows that we should use the information on census returns with an element of caution.  In 1903 they emigrated with their daughter Edith Evelyn, to Vancouver.

It seems that Annie was privately educated, and lost her hearing through illness when aged seven, and this was her stimulus to begin writing poetry (Campbell).

Compared with great poets in her lifetime, she has not fared well since, being seemingly forgotten.  Simon Armitage, the modern poet and translator came across her while ‘ego surfing’.  He says “it might fairly be said that she is no undiscovered genius.”  Wanda Campbell writes that, “Though honoured in her own lifetime as a member of the Order of the British Empire, the only woman poet then included, Dalton has not fared well at the hands of critics, in part because they have tended to assess her poetic achievement in the light of her disability.”  She also says “Her work is uneven but she is nonetheless intriguing in her efforts to make science and anthropology acceptable themes in poetry, and in her efforts to voice the challenges faced by the deaf.” (ibid)

The quotation in the title comes from stanza III of The Silent Zone.

Neighing north 001

You can read more of her poetry here and decide for yourself – Canadian Poetry.

There is a photograph of her here – Photograph.

1871 census Class: RG10; Piece: 4371; Folio: 42; Page: 29; GSU roll: 848086

1881 census Class: RG11; Piece: 4385; Folio: 158; Page: 27; GSU roll: 1342047

1891 census Class: RG12; Piece: 3571; Folio: 110; Page: 18; GSU roll: 6098681

1901 census Class: RG13; Piece: 4105; Folio: 161; Page: 4

Annie Charlotte Dalton, by Wanda Campbell  [Accessed 12/6/2014]

Annie Charlotte Dalton, illustrated by J.W. Galloway MacDonald, The Neighing North (1935)

“I have found the glass, and you are destined to make the spectacles!”

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 5 June 2015

The  Mirror of literature amusement and instruction was an early 19th century journal published from 1822-47 by John Limbird.

MirrorIn the March the 6th 1824 edition, this letter appeared, which shows us that even in the early years of what we might call modern education, the methods for teaching deaf children were a deeply divisive issue, and of course not in the hands of the Deaf themselves.  It begins with a defence of the teaching methods of the Abbé de l’Épée, saying that Sicard, his heir in deaf education in France, along with others in Britain, misrepresented him, ‘that he taught his pupils “words by signs” and not “words by things,” and suppressed all his valuable books and manuscripts.’ (p.147)  Our critic (he signs himself ‘A Friend to the Unfortunate’) goes on to lambast Sicard further, saying he fabricated evidence that said the Abbé ‘acknowledged that he taught his pupils only to write, under the dictation of signs, without their knowing question or answer.’ He continues,

and after all such fallacies, he had the impudence to add another, the greatest of all, in the following words :- “But does it become a scholar to push his master so hard, above all when he told me frequently that his success satisfied all Europe, and that so great a glory ought to be sufficient for those who wished to imitate him;” adding this modest confession, moreover, “I have found the glass, and you are destined to make the spectacles!”

To prove the fallacy of this assertion, I refer the reader to the books published by the good Abbé de l’Épée, in which there is not a single sentence to justify the imputation of so gross a calumny.

Our author tells us he lent a copy of one of the Abbé’s books to a a teacher at a Deaf Asylum (unnamed), who said it ‘the true method of instructing the Deaf and Dumb is clearly exhibited.’ (ibid) He tells us also that Watson of the Old Kent Road Asylum, censured the Abbé basing this criticism on Sicard’s testimony (p.148).

The writer goes on to quote extensively from the Liverpool “report of the Committee of the Methodist Day and Sunday Schools for the year 1822,” which noting the lectures of Mr. Humphreys on the Dublin Claremont Institution, says that the Abbé’s works were suppressed (p.149).  They then resolved to take the advice of Mr. Arrowsmith, who had written The art of instructing the infant deaf and dumb… illustrated with copper plates, drawn and engraved by the author’s brother, an artist born deaf and dumb. To which is annexed The method of educating mutes of a more mature age, which has been practised with so much success on the continent, by the Abbe de l’Eppe (together with The manner of instructing the deaf and dumb to articulate) (London: Taylor and Hessey, 1819).  We have this book and will take a closer look at that in a future post.

Read though the article if you can, and particularly note the paragraph that begins at the bottom of page 149.  Proposing that young men who will become teachers go to the Asylum for the gratuitous instruction of the Deaf and Dumb Poor (I assume they mean Old Kent Road?), to acquire a knowledge of teaching deaf children and the manual alphabet.

A residence for two months at this institution would, we are almost certain, enable any young person of ordinary capacity to acquire a competent knowledge of the system there pursued. It would not, surely, be unreasonable to require of all the teachers of the national schools, at least in populous districts, a preparation which would qualify them to undertake the instruction of the Deaf and Dumb with the other children of parents in better circumstances. This would relieve the public from the enormous additional expense, at present unnecessarily incurred in boarding and instructing them: and it would save the pupils themselves from the danger, by no means imaginary, of contracting tastes and habits, inconsistent with their subsequent situations. (p.150)

The whole article is below.

1Mirror 147

2Mirror 148

3Mirror 149

4Mirror 150


Roots of Audiology – the Audiometer

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 15 May 2015

Modern audiology was only really possible with late 19th century advances in technology and the understanding of electromagnetism that allowed for the measurement of hearing ability.  This allowed the invention of the audiometer, then the development of transistors to replace valves enabled the amplification of sound in a convenient portable device, which became the ‘modern’ hearing aid in the 1940s.

The audiologist has roots in both the medical and the technical –

  • there were the otolaryngologists, doctors who treated and investigated hearing,
  • then there were those who sold instruments like ear trumpets and their ilk, the dispensers,
  • and there were the scientists who developed the theories of acoustics, and the instruments that were used to measure hearing.

One of the latter was David Edward Hughes who was a pioneer of the microphone (which we covered in a previous blog).  Hughes, a great experimenter, developed his ‘audiometer’ at around the same time (1879), and it was first mentioned in his article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, On an Induction-Currents Balance, and Experimental Researches Made Therewith.

During the course of these experiments with this instrument I noticed my own hearing powers varied very much with state of health, weather, &c., that different individuals had wide differences of hearing, and that in nearly all cases one ear was more sensitive than the other; thus whilst my degree of hearing was 10, another might be 60 in one ear and 15 in another.*

*To this portion of my instrument when used as a measurer of our hearing powers, we have given the name of audiometer.

( Hughes 1879 p.58)

AudiometerThe Illustrated London News (see picture with the sonometer to the left and the audiometer numbered 4) described the device –

The audiometer, an adaptation of the sonometer, being an instrument for exactly measuring our power of hearing and chronicling the progress of recovery from deafness. It was first applied by Dr. Richardson to some very remarkable investigations relative to our hearing powers.  a is the scale measured into 200 millimetres.  bb are the two primary fixed coils, both exactly similar to those in the sonometer as to length and size of wire, although what should be the thinner coil is here padded out, so that they look both alike as to depth.

The wires from these coils are connected with the microphone, c, and Leelanche’s battery cells, dd; e, secondary and moving coil, connected through the binding screws, ff, to the telephone, h. The switch, g is a brass arm pivoted on an ebony plate, on which are also fixed two brass studs. The free end of arm placed over either of these gives either the force of one or, when desired, two cells, the stronger current being used only for very deaf patients. (Illustrated London News , 1879)

Benjamin Ward Richardson, a great friend of Hughes, experimented with this instrument, and coined the name.

“In this preliminary report I have omitted many subjects of interest, but I hope I have related enough to show that the world of science in general, and the world of medicine in particular,is under a deep debt of gratitude to Professor Hughes for his simple and beautiful instrument, which I have christened the audimeter, or less correctly but more euphoniously, the audiometer.” (Richardson, 1879)

Richardson was a close friend of John Snow of cholera fame, and a remarkable man in his own right, being a physician, sanitarian, anaesthetist and historian of medicine.

In his 1979 article on Hughes and his audiometer, Stephens says Hughes “does not appear to have been interested in the application of his audiometer”.  Hughes was awarded a Royal Society Gold Medal in 1885, and his funeral in Highgate was attended by the U.S. ambassador as well as representatives of the governments of Serbia, France and Greece (Stephens, p.3).  Richardson was also diverted by his many other interests and did not pursue research with the audiometer.

T.Hawksley, who manufactured and sold hearing devices, went into production with the “Hughes’ Sonometer” in 1883, and it seems it was still available as late as 1912 (Stephens p.4).

Audiometers do not seem to have taken off however, and Stephens says there are few references to them in the otolaryngological textbooks of the period.  It was only with the increased use of valve audiometers in the 1930s that audiology as a separate discipline began to find its own place.

Hughes, D.E., On an Induction-Currents Balance, and Experimental Researches Made Therewith, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1879 Volume 29, pp. 56-65

Hughes’s Electric Sonometer and Balance, and Audiometer.Illustrated London News (London, England), Saturday, November 15, 1879; pg. 463; Issue 2109

Richardson, B.W., Some Researches with Professor Hughes’ New Instrument for the Measurement of Hearing; the Audiometer, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1879 Volume 29, pp. 65-70

Stephens, S.D.G., David Edward Hughes and his audiometer. Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 1979, Volume 93 pp.1-6

“Then you’re a fool,” said my father – Arthur Upson – deaf missioner in Egypt

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 8 May 2015

As anyone who has read even a small amount about Deaf History will know, there is an intimate relationship between religion and mission work, and deafness, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, with positive and negative effects on those involved.   Usually this takes the form of religious missions among deaf people in the country concerned, sometimes bringing them together into communities by the formation of institutions with educational or religious aims.  A different example is Arthur Thomas Upson, who lost his hearing when a young man when he was already determined to lead the life of a missionary abroad, but whose missionary activities were in Egypt.

UpsonArthur was born is Essex in 1874, the son of Arthur Upson of Rayleigh, a harness maker, and his wife Sarah.  In the picture we see Upson in the back row, third from the right.  We read about his gradual ‘conversion’ to mission work in his memoir, High Lights in the Near East (1936), p.14-15).  He worked as a student teacher in Rayleigh after finishing school, and in the wet summer of 1890 the new term was delayed by one week so the boys could help with the harvest.  Walking by Southend pier, Arthur was asked by Alex Nielson of Forest Gate if he was a Christian.  He replied that he hoped he was, was given a pamphlet “Safety, Certainty and Enjoyment”, which when he had read it gave his his first Damascene moment. Later, when he decided to become a missionary, he was accepted by the North Africa Mission.  His father’s response to his determination to go abroad was, “Then you’re a fool”.  He started to learn Arabic, and soon found himself engaged to Miss Kitty Philpott, but the marriage was delayed until 1901.

Upson dedicationUpson became ill in 1899, while he was in Egypt learning Arabic.  He had ‘confluent smallpox’, which damaged the hearing in his right ear, then underwent an operation on a ‘burr’ in his left nostril (whatever that means), supposedly causing hearing problems in his left ear.  The operation did not address the problem and seemed to make it worse as he started to lose his hearing in that ear as well.

It is hard to gauge how successful Upson was as a missionary.  Then, as now, apostasy from Islam was not allowed.   The memoir is not a great piece of writing or a narrative of his life, but it is a collection of ‘episodes’ and reminiscences.

The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the start of a massive troop movement into Egypt.  Where there were soldiers there would be prostitution and Upson was greatly exercised by this.

“Brands plucked out of the fire” (Zech. 3:2). What imagery!  What urgency!  How the fire burned within me at the very thought of the thousands of troops and hundreds of officers that were being destroyed in the fires of Cairo and Alexandria. Twenty-five streets and lanes in our one city of Cairo were given over to the detestable traffic in girls and women. And still the area was continually being enlarged until much of what is commonly called the “European Quarter” was involved. Near us, a single building of about 40 rooms, formerly a well-known hotel, was used by “Officers Only.” Further, there had been almost a complete breakdown of attempts to make vice “safe” (?), and not a few of the bolder men, such as Anzacs, had taken matters into their own hands and several brothels had been burnt down in revenge for disease taken from the women.
many were greatly worried at the mounting percentage of V.D. cases.
One can hardly walk past those beautifully-kept cemeteries at Cairo, Jerusalem, and other places in the East without wondering how many were victims of Turkish bullets and how many of unmentionable diseases! (ibid p.68-9)

Upson’s answer was to distribute ‘purity’ leaflets in English and Arabic, over four years 40,000 of each.  We might wonder if his use of ‘brands’ was deliberately suggestive!

He continues,

The matron of one hospital wrote to ask my help to try to stop “Sandbagging,” a species of crime that I have never heard of in any other connection.  On going into the matter, it appeared that soldiers – Anzacs, if possible, for they carried more money – were invited into certain brothels, taken up to balcony rooms, made drunk, and then violently struck in the centre of the spinal column by something hard enough to benumb the victim but without wounding him – originally a bag of sand was used – then the poor wretch would be pitched over the balcony into the street, and perhaps killed, or one or more limbs would be broken.  Needless to say, the victim was always robbed of all he carried before he was thrown into the street.  When picked up by the Military Police, there was every evidence of drunkenness and so it became easy to conclude that he “Fell over the balcony whilst drunk.”  Terrible!  But we made urgent representations to the Authorities and the patrols of Military Police were strengthened and a better look-out was kept, and in time that particular form of crime seemed to come to an end. (ibid p.70-1)

Upson letterAs you will see, Upson sent copies of his two books to Selwyn Oxley, and into one, Oxley has stuck a letter from the author.  Upson returned to Essex around 1934, dying there in 1958.

Abdul-fady, Evergreen and other Near East Bible Talks London ; Edinburgh : Marshall, Morgan & Scott, (1938)

Abdul-fady, High Lights in the Near East London ; Edinburgh : Marshall, Morgan & Scott, (1936)



Ernest Seton Thompson, William Tomkins, & sign language of the American Indians

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 1 May 2015

Before Europeans went to North America, it seems there were already extensive sign languages there, which were used for inter-tribal communication.  In the introduction to his book Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America (1st ed. 1926), William Tomkins says,

There is a sentiment connected with the Indian Sign Language that attaches to no other. It is probably the first American language. It is the first and only American universal language. It may be the first universal language produced by any people. It is a genuine Indian language of great antiquity. It has a beauty and imagery possessed by few, if any, other languages. It is the foremost gesture language that the world has ever produced.

The author lectured on Indian problems to many audiences, and at all times the keenest interest was shown in sign language demonstrations, and he was asked, hundreds of times, to make the record permanent, and to thereby preserve and perpetuate the original American language which otherwise is fast passing away.

This is shown by the fact that in 1885 Lewis F. Hadley, at that time a foremost authority on sign, claimed that as a result of extensive investigation he had determined that there were over 110,000 sign-talking Indians in the United States. (ibid p. 3)

Tomkins grew up, he tells us, in Dakota Territory, at Fort Sully. I have been unable to uncover any further biographical information about Tomkins (please contribute below if there is anything you can add), but his book was adopted by the Boy Scouts of America and used at the World Scout Jamboree of 1929.  I suspect that is when this copy was signed by him.  Tomkins is pictured with one of the last great Sioux chiefs who helped preserve his nation’s culture, but whose life reflects his nation’s eclipse, Chief Flying Hawk.

TTomkinsSouth Shields born Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), was a skilled artist and writer who started modern scouting in America, inspiring Baden Powell, and was one of the pioneers of the conservation movement.  He was also father of the historical novelist Anya Seton.  There is plenty to be found about this fascinating man so I will not repeat it.

We have a copy of Seton’s book, Sign Talk, A Universal Signal Code, without Apparatus, for Use in the Army, the Navy, camping, Hunting, and Daily Life (1918), that was owned by Sir Richard Paget, and perhaps influenced his sign system.  Here we see some of his marginal notes – click on the image for a larger size.

Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Device (6)
Sign Language – Indian Sign Language [accessed 1/5/2015]

Davis, Jeffrey E. Hand talk : sign language among American Indian nations, CUP 2010

Tomkins, W., Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America, 1st ed. 1926 and 4th ed. 1929

Seton, Ernest Thompson, Sign Talk, 1918

NOTE: I use the term ‘American Indians’ because that is the term Seton and Tomkins used.

“his slow and painful, yet most joyful death” – Deaf Author Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and John Britt ‘The Happy Mute’

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 24 April 2015

In a passage about the Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, I cam across this line – “one of the most fascinating writers of our day, […] who, having become deaf in her youth, is obliged to hold communications by means of an interpreter, – Charlotte Elizabeth, – a name known throughout the world” (Report of the Ulster Society for 1838, p.13). Since she seems to have faded from memory, I thought her a fitting subject.   Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, (nee Browne)  was born in Norwich on 1st October 1790, where her High Tory father was a minor canon (ODNB).  He mother was of Scottish covenenter descent, and with such parents she grew up inculcated with strongly anti-catholic views (Murphy 2005).  A sickly child, she became deaf when aged 10, then threw herself into reading and literature.  “Later in life she came to see this fascination as sinful because it served no useful, religious purpose, but her early reading in drama, poetry, and fiction provided excellent preparation for her future writing career.” (ibid)  She influenced both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Gaskell.   CharlotteElizabethTonna

She married Captain George Phelan and moved with him to Canada for two years, then to his estate in Kilkenny.  He was abusive to her, and we are told this was a symptom of oncoming insanity.  After he died she married a much younger man, the evangelical writer Lewis Hippolytus Joseph Tonna.

The complex and contradictory nature of her attitudes to the Irish is best illustrated by her relationship with John Britt, a deaf mute from Kilkenny.  She regarded him as her adopted son and educated him and converted him to Protestantism, even alienating him from his own family. Yet ultimately, she treated him as a servant rather than as a child of her own. (Murphy)

Early in her book about Britt, The Happy Mute, she  says,

in truth, every one of us is born dumb, and must remain so until reason dawns, and we begin to imitate the words used by others.  But when a person is born deaf, he continues dumb because he hears no language spoken ; or, at best, he will only make strange noises, in attempting to imitate the movements that he observes in the lips of others, who can use their organs of speech.  Thus are the poor mutes shut out from communicating their ideas, except by such signs as they can devise to express themselves by ; and these are seldom understood or regarded, unless by those very nearly and tenderly interested in the welfare and comfort of the afflicted creature who uses them.  Of course, all moral instruction is confined to mere tokens of approval or displeasure, as the child’s conduct is correct or not ; and religious teaching seems to be out of the question, where words are wanting to convey it.  We may teach a child who was born deaf, to kneel to hold up his hands, to move his lips, and often he will do so with the most affecting aspect of devotion ; but we can tell nothing of God the Creator and Preserver, the Redeemer and Sanctifier of our fallen race. (Elizabeth, 1841 p.9-10)

The collected Memoir of John Britt (1850), collated from various of her writings after her death, lays on the fiery evangelical terror with epistrophe –

Oh remember, reader that they have, as you, an evil heart of unbelief – that they are, like you, born in sin and conceived in iniquity, and that nothing but the blood, the all cleansing blood of Christ can sprinkle their consciences and make them clean. (ibid p.7)

In 1823 in Kilkenny she came across a deaf boy called Sylvester, aged 12 to 13, but though he seemed to be intelligent, “he had no thought beyond his personal gratification, of which one part indeed, consisted in pleasing his friend” (p.9), but then in October he brought along ‘Jack’ (John), who made much better progress while Sylvester ceased to come to her. Large alphabet letters were used to teach him words like ‘dog’ and ‘man’, while the illustration shows how she tried to show him that there was a God by puffing bellows – he then said “God like wind! God like Wind!” (p.27).

We learn from the  Memoir of John Britt that Charlotte was expert at ‘Dactylology’ or finger spelling (p.13).  One wonders if there was a little confusion and if the compiler was aware of the possibility that she was signing with people as well as finger-spelling.  The aim of her education seems to have been to take him from a ‘natural’ Atheism through to a belief in God, and not the Popish God she so disliked – “Two things his soul abhorred – Satan and Popery” (Memoirs p.52).  These were her prejudices, or perhaps rather genuinely held beliefs, that she was filling him with, that she had absorbed from her parents.

When she left Ireland, she took him with her, moving to Clifton with her brother for a time. John Britt died in 1831 of consumption after a long illness of over a year – “sometimes when greatly oppressed, leeches were applied, and once half a dozen were put on his side, at his own request”(Memoir p.124).  The Happy Mute begins with the quotation in the title of this page, “a year and a half has scarcely passed since I saw him depart to be with Christ ; and often do I look back with thankful wonder on his short but happy life – his slow and painful, yet most joyful death ; and I look forward to the period when, through the blood of that saviour whom he so dearly loved, I hope to meet my precious charge in the mansions of glory” (p.7).

he was buried in Bagshot church-yard, near the Eastern window. It was a four miles’ walk through melting snow, under a drizzling rain, on a comfortless day, yet all the boys of the Sunday School, and a few of the girls, appeared, attired in their best, and formed in procession, following on foot the carriage which bore the dumb boy’s remains to their final resting place. (Memoirs p.137)

BrittIn 1844, “a schirrous induration  appeared under the left axilla, which soon rapidly took a malignant form, and after being an open cancer for more than eighteen months, eventually caused her death by its attacking an artery, and causing exhaustion from loss of blood.” (Obituary p.434)

She died on the 12th of July 1846,  “and about half an hour before her departure showed manifest signs of joy, altough unable to speak, when he who tended her death-bed, spelled on his fingers the name of ‘Jack,’ and reminded him that she would soon meet him again.” (Memoir p.140)

The happy mute; or, The dumb child’s appeal. 8th ed. London, L. and G. Seeley, Dublin, William Curry, and Robertson, 1841. 

Memoir of John Britt, the happy mute; compiled from the writings, letters, and conversation of Charlotte Elizabeth. 2nd ed. London, Seeleys, 1854.

Memoir of John Britt, the happy mute. 18–? Title page missing, information taken from front cover. (the two Memoirs are different slightly in pagination and it is possible I have used both editions in the quotations above)

Obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine

David Murphy, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 94, No. 373 (Spring, 2005), pp. 105-107 Published by: Irish Province of the Society of Jesus Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30096012 Accessed: 24-04-2015 12:52 UTC



Francis Lieber: “Every blind-surd shows a decided consciousness of Mine and Thine”

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 1 April 2015

In 1845 Francis Lieber  published A Lecture on the Origin and Development of the First Constituents of Civilisation (1845).  Lieber (1798 or 1800-1872) was a German born jurist who formulated ‘rules of war’ that became the basis of the Geneva Conventions.Lieber 3

His date of birth is uncertain as he lied in order to sign up for the Prussian army, fighting at Waterloo where he was  wounded, and later he fought in the Greek War of Independence.  Moving to America,  he became Professor of History at South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina.  Three sons fought in the Civil War, two for the Union and another was killed fighting for the Confederacy.  He was the first person in the U.S.A. to call himself a political scientist.

This essay links several remarkable people, with Lieber introducing the deaf-blind, or as he terms them, ‘blind-surds’, into his discussion, Laura Bridgeman, Oliver Caswell, and James Mitchell among others (p.9).

Every blind-surd shows a decided consciousness of Mine and Thine, and a consequent perception of the value of exchange.  They deeply blush if detected filching.  All show a decided sense of decorum; a consciousness of right and wrong, and resentment at injustice; all willingly acknowledge superiors, even among themselves, which latter is at least the case in the only instance in which, to my knowledge, two blind-surds have been brought in contact, namely Laura Bridgeman and Oliver Casswell.  All have shown the internal necessity of language, which promptly manifested itself so soon as ingenuity and wisdom had contrived the means of breaking through the thick walls which kept their souls immured and of establishing a bridge of communion with the outer world. (p.8-9)

Lieber 1Our copy was sent ‘with the authjors resp[ects]’ to a famous Norfolk-born British judge, Baron Alderson (1787-1857).  He was a cousin of the novelist Amelia Opie, Quaker friend of the Gurney family (Elizabeth Fry etc) and Mary WollstonecraftLievber 3



“What an uneducated deaf mute can do” – Joseph Watson of Ayrshire

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 27 March 2015

Joseph Watson was born circa 1811, and was unfortunate to never have the opportunity to get an education.  In a publication of the Ayrshire Mission (bound in the library as Talks about Jesus to our silent ones) we are told

He grew up without any knowledge of reading, or writing, or language. He learned his trade as a weaver, and afterwards started on his own account as a barber with wonderful success until his death. He was intelligent and industrious. He possessed a measure of wit, which could make long faces “laugh and grow fat”. Any hearing or deaf person could easily understand him by signs. He often lamented his want of education. He made correct models of scenes in the land of Burns. The models, which are shown at Kilmarnock, are said to be the best and most correct that were ever made. It cost him many years’ labour to finish them

Joseph WatsonIn the article before this one, the Ayrshire Mission reprinted an Address on What an uneducated deaf mute can do, first published in the Ayr Observer of 15th May, 1886, in which the writer describes an address by the Ayrshire Deaf missioner James Paul, we learn that, in addition to his model making skills,

How skilful he is as a canary breeder, and also as a cultivator of flowers.  What do you think of the fact that this uneducated deaf mute bought a small property with his savings, and how able he is in attending to the duties of a landlord?  How intelligent he is as manifested by his conversation in signs with any one who can understand him.

Our Deaf and Dumb (published by Roe at the Derbyshire Institution) adds, “The fact that his birds were amongst the best warblers in the district puzzled many of the barber’s customers but the secret was that Watson had been careful to get a good whistling bird to set the example to the others, and so he had no difficulty with his young birds.”

His end, sometime on the night of the 22nd to the 23rd of September, 1888, was however tragic.

The body of an old man was found on the railway near Auchinleck, on Sunday morning, 23rd September last. The name of Joseph Watson on a slip of paper, with £15 and a gold watch, were found in the deceased’s pockets, and the remains were supposed to be of Joseph Watson, deaf mute, who resided in Ayr, and being away from home, was expected back on Saturday but did not return.  The watch had stopped at 9.30, which had just allowed time to walk from the traiin to the spot where he met his death.  He had been to Edinburgh by the excursion viaMuirkirk, on Saturday.  He had evidently left the train at Cumnock, where the engine of the train was being supplied with water.  The reason for his leaving the train is unknown, but it is supposed he might have mistaken Cumnock for Ayr, and proceeded along the line towards the bridge where his body was found.  There was no parapet wall, and in the darkness he had missed his footing and slipped over.  Apointsman at the Templand Viaduct identified him as a man he had called to not to proceed along the line, but of course his warning was not heard.(see Death of Joseph Watson)
cork modelAbove one of his models.  I wonder if any survive?  Any Scottish readers in Ayrshire, let us know!

1841 census – Parish: St Quivox; ED: 5; Page: 8; Line: 1390; Year: 1841

Death of Joseph Watson, p.21 of an unnamed issue bound in Talks about Jesus to our silent ones.

The Late Joseph Watson, Our Deaf and Dumb, vol.2, p.200-1