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Sir Richard Paget – “5 is much too old!”

By Hugh Dominic W Stiles, on 24 May 2013

Sir Richard Arthur Surtees Paget, second baronet (1869–1955) was another extremely capable & multifaceted late Victorian, and late in life was President of the B.D.D.A. (now the B.D.A.). He studied chemistry at university before being called to the bar. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of him,

He contributed to both scientific and artistic departments of knowledge, such as acoustics, music, architecture, town planning, agriculture, anthropology, and human speech, besides cultivating practical music and artistic crafts such as pottery and drawing. His penetrating foresight made him appear ahead of his time. This was certainly true with regard to the streamlined car he designed in 1910, and to some aspects of speech: his book, Human Speech, first published in 1930, was reissued in 1964 because of its connection with developments in communication engineering.

In the First World War Paget worked on an Admiralty board dealing with the threat of submarines.  After the war he became interested in the problem of voice production, inventing a model to demonstrate the voice which could actually ‘talk’, demonstrating it before an audience from the National College of Teachers of the Deaf (Ephphatha Obituary). From speech his interest spread to Chinese pictograms, and from there to the use of signs and the invention of the language of gesture. “In 1938, he came into touch with people working with the deaf, and his ingenious mind was quick to see the possibilities of a sign language in helping the education of the born deaf.” (ibid). In fact the Paget Gorman Society web pages say that it was prebendary Albert Smith who got Paget interested in the subject in 1934. Below we see the fruits of this work as presented in 1952 to the Wellcome Research Institute. Click onto the image for a full-sized readable picture (Ephphatha Vol 2 no.7 1952).
Paget Ephphatha vol.2 pt.7 001Clearly dissatisfied with British Sign Language, his sign language followed spoken and written English word order. It is now used for children who have speech and language difficulties rather than with Deaf children.

I came across this short leaflet which I have scanned in full. It is a letter written to the BMJ in March 1937 by the teacher of the deaf Blanche Nevile, and while that link will take you to the BMJ pages, the reason I scanned it is because of the fascinating marginal notes that Paget added in his neat hand, which we have in the library.

Nevile talks of the need for ten years of special education starting from the age of five; “5 is much too old!” Paget notes in the margin. At the end he writes a distillation of his New Sign language (N.S.L.) idea –

There is good reason to believe that if the deaf child were educated from, say, the age of 2, in a special (boarding) school where all conversation was carried on in N.S.L. he would acquire as complete a vocabulary (of signs equivalent to words) as a hearing child of equal intelligence & that he wd. Also learn how to use these signs in the normal English word order & idiom. It wd. then be easy for him to learn the written English equivalents and to make much greater progress in speech & lipreading than is possible under the present “oral” system.
All explanations could be given to him in a language (N.S.L.) which he fully understood; he could formulate his own questions; and he would also fully understand the objects of his education.
If N.S.L. were taught – as a form of play to all children, in all countries – it would greatly widen their understanding of language & of the meaning of words, and their powers of expression. It would give the world (in less than one generation) an auxiliary international language. It would also break down the barriers between the deaf & the hearing members of all nationalities.

After his death, his wife carried on developing the system with Pierre Gorman, sometime R.N.I.D. Librarian. His Ephphatha obituary says

He had a genius for making friends. He was a delightful host, with a rare fund of wit and anecdote.

Obituary Ephphatha Vol.3 (8) 1953

Harry Lowery, ‘Paget, Sir Richard Arthur Surtees, second baronet (1869–1955)’, rev. John Bosnell, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35358, accessed 24 May 2013]

While we have some items, there is an extensive collection – twelve boxes – of Paget correspondence and papers in the UCL Special Collections.

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