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William Wheatley, a teacher at Exeter, Old Kent Rd and Margate

By Hugh Dominic W Stiles, on 8 March 2013

William Wheatley was a veteran teacher of the Deaf at the Margate school from 1868-1911.  He was one of a number of the ‘old guard’ of the later 19th century teachers who retired in a short period leading up to that – Dr. Richard Elliott, Miss Wilcher, Mr. J.P. Barrett, and Mr. R. Pepper. I wonder how this huge change in personnel affected the methods by which the children were taught.  Has anyone done research on the methods of education of Deaf/hearing impaired children at around that time?Wheatley of Margate 001  The major shift was of course from sign to pure oralism.

Wheatley was born in London in 1842.  His family moved to Exeter where he was educated at Hele’s school.  He began teaching as assistant to Mr Scott at the Exeter Institute in 1857.  In 1861 the school had about 40 pupils up to 14 or 15 years old, six of whom were born deaf (see the 1861 census).  Moving to the Old Kent Road school in 1868, William worked under the then head, the Rev. J.H. Watson.  At that time the school had 350 students in classes of about 22, and we are told (in an appreciation of his career from Teacher of the Deaf, 1912, p.18-20), he took “duty” on alternate days.  From 1872-4 he worked at the temporary relief school in Margate.  On returning to London he married in 1874.

When Margate took on the majority of the school pupils in 1881, Wheatley moved there with the head, Dr Elliott.  The Milan conference caused a re-organisation of the teaching methods which is now infamous in the Deaf world, and Wheatley became a teacher of the oral method.  It might sound flippant, but quite how children were supposed to lip read through that voluminous beard I really cannot guess!  This is in fact a serious point, and one that the Rev Gilby touched on when he recalled Sir Benjamin Ackers, the ardent and heavily bewhiskered oralist, and his poor daughter who was Deaf, and never learned to sign.

By the time he retired he was first assistant master. In words that I suspect are by his erstwhile colleague Richard Elliot, the tribute says (ibid)

Mr Wheatley’s high Christian character has always influenced those who came into contact with him, either teacher or child. Keen student of all that pertains to the betterment of the deaf, efficient labourer in their service as he has been, the underlying force that brought the success he achieved was his love for deaf children and his unsparing devotion to their welfare. Even the naughty child would unburden his mind to Mr Wheatley, conscious of the sympathy and affection with which his wrong-doing would be viewed. And yet, the offender would know beforehand that his fault would not be condoned: but he felt sure of justice, calmly and kindly administered; and this begat that mutual confidence between the teacher and the child which has, in the case of hundreds of deaf children, proved to be of such potent influence in the establishment of character upon motives of the noblest description.

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