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“Heathen Bristol” – Matthew Robert Burns, first Deaf Headmaster (Part 1)

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 11 April 2014

Matthew Robert Burns (1798-1879) was the first deaf man to become a head teacher of a school for the deaf.  There is a brief account of him in Peter Jackson’s book, Britain’s Deaf Heritage.  Much of what follows is a based on the article that appeared in The Deaf And Dumb Times (1889, Vol.1 p.37-8).Matthew Burns

Burns was born in Dundee on 10th of November 1798.  His father was a major in the 84th Regiment  while his mother was the daughter of a Lombard Street banker.  “Little Matthew” as he was known, was educated with hearing boys, and the article says he claimed that because of that he ‘learned the ordinary idioms of society’.  He moved to London when he was a little older and he went to the Old Kent Road School for a while (I am not sure what year).  The article confesses ingorance as to what Burns did after leaving the Old Kent Road School until 1830, when he was back in Scotland at Edinburgh, where he helped set up a deaf church.  Assisted by Charles Buchan and Alexander Campbell he opened the Carubbbber’s Close Chapel day school in 1832.  Below we see a photograph of the card they issued with annotations by Burns, one saying “This school was given up in the month of June 1834 when I got an appointment to the Ins. at Aberdeen.”  After that Mr Drysdale took over both mission and school.

Carubbers Close

These were trying years for Mr. Burns who had to work through many obstacles that would have discouraged many a stout heart; however, he had done much to be proud of. Whatever he originated, continued and prospered, and he seemed to find no resting place himself. Indeed, between his being at Edinburgh and at Aberdeen, he appears to have endeavoured to establish a Sabbath school at Dundee, his birth-place; this we find in the Edinburgh Long Magazine for 1831; and in the sixth report of the Edinburgh Deaf and Dumb Benevolent Society, “regret” is expressed at their separation from a valuable fellow coadjutor, who from being appointed headmaster at “Dundee” was obliged to leave Edinburgh. Be that as it may, the Aberdeen Journal of 24th April, 1844, referring to the year 1834, quotes “The directors of the Deaf and Dumb Institution of Aberdeen hereby give notice that in consequence – of the resignation of Mr. Tayler, a new teacher, Mr. M.R. Burns, has been engaged to take charge of the pupils after Whit-Sunday.  First, the rates of board are £32 per annum for the higher class, and £16 for the lower class of pupils… Mr. Burns will be accompanied by his sister, who is well qualified to assist,” etc

He was in Aberdeen until 1841, then he returned to Bristol but was there for only for two years before he came into conflict with the management committee.  “Their main complaint seems to have been him having his sister as housekeeper.  Without his sister Burns appears to have been lost as she interpreted for him.  So if she had to go, he would not stay.

The Deaf and Dumb Times article says,

The Bristol folk did not contribute much for the instruction of deaf-mutes, and in comparing Bristol with Glasgow, Mr. Burns speaks of “heathen Bristol.”  Though others may have “founded” the Bristol school, yet Mr. Burns was, we believe, the first principal, and the first report speaks in glowing terms of the great success of the master.  “No labour or self-denial (your committee believe) would be deemed a sacrifice on the part of Mr.  Burns in the prosecution of his arduous and interesting labour.”  Thus runs a report of the school.  In the following year, August, 1843, Dr. Kay, (then the secretary of the Bristol society) wrote, accepting Mr. Burns’ resignation, as to “his zealous and efficient services as the instructor, and regret as to their loss.”

For some reason he seems to have made enemies who forced him out, perhaps on account of his (hearing) sister Rachel.  She was about eight years older than Matthew, had been born in Guildford.  It would appear that she devoted her life to being his helper and housekeeper.  One wonders what happened to upset people about him or his behaviour.

Note

The second part of this blog is the final one of my blog entries 14/5/2020

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