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“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, although 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

 

 

“the deaf […] were specially liable to consumption for want of properly exercising their vocal organs”: Edmund Symes-Thompson

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 11 July 2014

Edmund Symes-Thompson (1837-1907) was born in Keppel Street in London, in the house next door to that where Anthony Trollope had been born in 1815.  His father Dr Theophilus Thompson F.R.S. (1807-60) was one of the founders of the Brompton Hospital, where he was an expert in Consumption, and according to his DNB entry “is credited with being the person who introduced cod-liver oil into England”, no doubt endearing him to generations of children then yet unborn.Edmud Symes Thompson

Edmund followed his father into the medical profession, training at Kings College London where he won several prizes.  He too went to work at the Brompton Hospital and became an expert in chest diseases.

In addition to his work as a doctor, he was Professor of Physic at Gresham College and lectured there for many years.  Although some of his ideas seem bizarre now, he was was accepting of the scientific discoveries of his lifetime, but sought to reconcile them with his deeply held religious beliefs.  He expressed this through membership of the Guild of Saint Luke, an organisation founded by some surgeons in 1868.  At it height it held annual services in St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey attended by large numbers of the medical profession.*

Symes-Thompson subscribed to the view that Deaf people were more likely to suffer from pulmonary diseases than the hearing, promoting those views at the Milan Congress in 1881 (Esmail p.245).  Here is the Symes-Thompson Milan paper.  After his death his wife gathered together materials to produced  a book about his life called Memories of Edmund Symes-Thompson M.D., F.R.C.P. A Follower of St. Luke In it we can read about the origins of the Ealing College for Training Teachers of the Deaf and Symes-Thompson’s links with that organisation.

The college was oralist, founded by Benjamin Ackers, and we have mentioned it before as it features strongly in the promotion of the ‘German’ system in the late 19th century.  Mrs. Ackers contributed a short history of the Society to the Mermories –

An English gentleman of high abilities, the late Mr. Arthur Kinsey, was sent by Mr. Ackers to Germany and elsewhere and thoroughly trained, and then in 1877, with the warm sympathy and aid of Dr. and Mrs. Symes-Thompson and other friends of the deaf, the ‘Society for Training Teachers of the Deaf and for the Diffusion of the German System’ was formed. Dr. Symes-Thompson threw himself the more heartily into the scheme because, as Senior Physician to the Brompton Hospital for Consumption, his long and keen observation led him to note that the deaf – in those days not taught to speak – were specially liable to consumption for want of properly exercising their vocal organs. The following year the Training College for Teachers of the Deaf, with Mr. Kinsey as Principal, was opened at Ealing, with a small practising school attached; for, needless to say, students cannot be trained unless they can see how deaf children are taught, the way in which sounds have to be developed, ideas drawn out, and language imparted.

Edmund Symes-Thompson was a member of the Society for the remainder of his life, ending as Chairman.  It may be instructive, if slightly shocking to a modern reader, to see quite how determined the Society was to stop children signing – this ‘Appendix C’ below comes from the 1906 report, the year Symes-Thompson died.

appendix c

In 1899 Charles Mansfield Owen, who was a member of The Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb, wrote a pamphlet where he set out his opposition to the views on oralism and societies for the deaf, that Symes-Thompson had expressed to the English Bishops in a circular letter on Missions to the Deaf and Dumb.  Owen wrote “His letter (however unintentionally), is likely to do considerable injury to the cause of these Missions” and proceeded to give answer in the Spiritual Care of the Adult Deaf and Dumb.

We should note that despite Symes-Thompson’s interest in the deaf, I cannot find a mention of him in Neil Weir’s Otolaryngology: An Illustrated History  and he was not an otolaryngologist.  It would be interesting to see what his contemporaries who were otolaryngologists made of his ideas regarding deafness.

Over to the researchers!

*I can find no evidence of this particular guild after the 1920s of some newspaper reports of the annual service.  Perhaps it ended with the Second World War.

Grave

Family

Esmail, Jennifer, Reading Victorian Deafness. 2013

T. B. Browning, ‘Thompson, Theophilus (1807–1860)’, rev. Kaye Bagshaw, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27277, accessed 3 July 2014]

E. Symes-Thompson, Memories of Edmund Symes-Thompson, M.D., F.R.C.P.: a follower of St. Luke (1908) – Our copy is signed by the authoress, Lilla Symes-Thompson, and inscribed to the Bishop of Gibralter

The first ordained Deaf Church of England clergyman

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 17 February 2012

PEARCE, Rev. Richard Aslatt (1854-1928)

Richard Pearce was born in Hampshire, the son of solicitor and Southampton Town Clerk Richard S. Pearce. Three of his four children were deaf. He was educated entirely on the manual system at the Brighton Institution as a private pupil of William Sleight for twelve years. His father paid £50 a year for this personal tuition, which was a large sum at the time.  Having left school at 18, Richard Pearce met the Rev. C. Mansfield Owen, who had a Deaf cousin and knew sign language. Pearce became involved in mission work with Deaf people in the Hampshire diocese and with Owen’s support took Holy Orders in 1885, becoming “the first ordained deaf mute clergyman of the Church of England”. According to the Deaf and Dumb Times,

Her Majesty the Queen, who, as is so well known, is always interested in the deaf and dumb, having heard much of the good work done by both Mr. Pearce and Mr. Owen, expressed her wish to see both gentlemen, and accordingly they had the honour of being presented to the Queen and Her Royal Highness the Princess Beatrice, at Osborne House, on the 16th of January 1886.

In 1887 in St. Saviour’s Church in London, Pearce met Frances, the deaf daughter of the former Governor-General of Canada Charles Monck, (4th Viscount Monck). They married in April 1888. Frances was 43 at the time, and her father, reluctant to give his consent, said “they will be very poor” (Eagling). The couple settled in Southampton where Pearce was working for the Winchester Diocesan Mission to the Deaf and Dumb.

In 1891 the mission opened a new church in Southampton, the building of which was partly financed by Sir Arthur Fairbairn and his sister (Eagling). Richard Pearce spent his life in the area continuing his mission activities, ministering to the local Deaf community. He acted as interpreter at the funeral of his old teacher William Sleight in Brighton in 1912. He retired in  1924, dying at his home in Winchester in 1928. His wife Frances survived him by just two years.

Deaf missioner Rev. Richard Pearce

Deaf and Dumb Times, 1889, 1, 24-25. (picture)

Deaf history. British Deaf News, 1997, Nov, 7.

EAGLING, G.J., A deaf clergyman. Deaf History Journal, 2002, 6(1), 16-31.