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Rev John Townsend (1757-1826), Founder of the London Asylum

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 7 September 2012

Founder with Henry Cox Mason, Rector of Bermondsey, and the MP Henry Thornton, of the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the Royal School for Deaf Children, Margate) in 1792, Townsend has been described as “the de l’Epee of England”.

Born in London, John Townsend was the son of Benjamin Townsend.  Benjamin was a pewterer of Whitechapel and a Calvinistic Methodist who was a follower of George Whitefield. John began to attend the Tottenham Court Chapel (where the American church is now, and where UCL students sometimes sit exams). John became an ordained minister in 1781 and was first at Kingston then in 1784 moved to the Independent church in Jamaica Row, Bermondsey.

A Benedictine monk in Spain, towards the close of the sixteenth century, first made the essay to instruct the deaf and dumb. Our own country man, Dr. Wallis, succeeded in the seventeenth, and about the same period, Amnion, a Swiss physician, published a treatise on the subject. These all exerted their energies to relieve the children of the rich; the benevolent mind of John Townsend aimed to extend the blessing to the poor. […]

In his ministerial relation, Mr. Townsend be came acquainted with a lady, whose son was deaf and dumb, and who had been a pupil of Mr. Braidwood’s almost ten years. The youth evinced an intellectual capacity which caused delight and surprise to the good pastor, who was astonished at the facility and accuracy, with which ideas were received and communicated. Mrs. C, the lady referred to, sympathising with those mothers whose circumstances precluded their incurring the expense of 1500 £, (which was the sum paid by herself,) pleaded the cause of those afflicted and destitute outcasts of society, until Mr. T. entered into her feelings of commiseration, and decided with her on the necessity and practicability of having a charitable Institution for the deaf and dumb children of the poor. (Memoirs p.37-8).

Townsend was also involved in founding the London Missionary Society in 1794, and the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1802, coining the name of the latter institution. “In 1807 he also helped initiate the London Female Penitentiary, which housed and rehabilitated repentant prostitutes.” (DNB modern online version)

Townsend died on on the 7th of February 1826.

We came close to losing much of what is known from his memoirs – as the book’s preface says, “During his last illness, Mr. Townsend intended to consign his papers to the flames, but the voice of affection pleaded for their preservation.”

Click onto the image for a larger size.

British Deaf Times, 1905, 2(21), 200.

Memoirs of the Rev. John Townsend, founder of the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, and of the Congregational School. London, J.B. and John Courthope, 1828.  Available in full on line (also in the library historical books collection).

Wikisource old Dictionary of National Biography entry for Townsend

Philip Carter, ‘Townsend, John (1757–1826)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2005 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27612, accessed 7 Sept 2012]