“the deaf who had been taught by the manual method were more intelligent & much better educated…” Agar & Rosa Russell
By H Dominic W Stiles, on 13 January 2017
Rosa Brommage was born in Wolverhampton in 1862, fourth child of Alfred, a clerk for a cemetery company, originally from Kidderminster, and his wife Caroline. Her older sisters, Caroline and Annie, were both, like Rosa, deaf ‘from birth’ according to the census return. Her five younger siblings all had normal hearing. On the 18th of April, 1892, she married Agar Russell, who had lost his hearing aged 12. Agar’s father was originally Samuel Gunster, from a Jewish family in Posen, although Agar said that they did not know his nationality – whether Polish or German. Samuel went to America as a young man, but somehow avoided conscription and ended up in London, where he met his ‘wife’, though Agar was never sure whether they were married (various pages in his Reminiscences).
We have the manuscript of Agar’s memoirs, Surdus; Reminiscences, written it seems in the war years. They are rather higgledy-piggledy, with chapters that are themed rather than being chronological, for example “Workhouses and other Institutions,” or “Holiday Adventures.” Some things you would like to know are not mentioned in much detail.
Agar Russell had grown up in London, where he was acquainted with the Rev. Fred Gilby and various people in the St.Saviour’s Deaf church congregation. When he was 16, it was suggested that he become a teacher to the deaf, yet, as he says, “having never met a deaf and dumb person, or seen the manual alphabet.” He went to the Llandaff School for six years as assistant to Alexander Melville. The children of the school “gave a smiling welcome, and then began to make remarks to one another in a gesture language which I felt I should never be able to understand.”
Agar paints an interesting picture of life in the school. He does not seem to have particularly liked the headmaster, Alexander Melville, and was not impressed by his teaching methods. Melville “expected the children to answer his questions on subjects of which they had not sufficient written instructions.” “Mrs Melville was deaf and dumb, of a quiet and gentle disposition and of no unusual attainments, and evidently in awe of her husband. We cannot but conjecture that this union was due to her being the means of his requiring funds for the purpose of establishing the school” (see his Reminiscences). When Mr Clyne of Bristol Deaf School came to take over temporarily after the death of Melville’s first wife, Agar says he used instructions in writing before he put questions to the pupils –
Who? – Does? – What?
Mary – sweeps – the floor
What? – Done? – By Whom?
The floor – is swept – by Mary
In his Reminiscences he also said, “From my own experience I found that the deaf who had been taught by the manual method were more intelligent and much better educated than those brought up on the manual system.” In the Ephphatha interview in 1896, Agar’s questioner, ‘C’, asked him,
“Speaking of the need for special services, have you ever met with a deaf person who could follow an ordinary discourse, by watching the lips of the speaker?”
“No, never; only a few who could with more or less difficulty make out short sentences uttered in an exaggerated manner by the speaker. […] To suppose that children educated on the oral system can read everybody’s lips, even if everybody is patient enough to try them, is fallacious; and to assert that they can follow an ordinary viva voce lecture or sermon, is absurd. The training of the mind of the deaf is more perfectly accomplished by the manual method and writing. Many of the graduates of the oral system have a very poor grasp of language, and a very inferior mental development, as a consequence of their having been forced through many weary years to learn mere articulation and lip-reading.” (Ephphatha, p.67)
Agar took photos when he was in the Staffordshire mission, many being stuck into the annual reports that we have for the mission. I expect that these were Agar’s own copies and that they were donated or willed to the library when Agar died in 1956, aged 91. Unfortunately for us, this means that his photos are still in copyright for another ten years, so without knowing who inherited the copyright and holds it at present, we cannot legally reproduce his photos taken in the 1890s.
Rosa died in 1942, after fifty years of marriage.
Mr Russell Agar, an interview. Ephphatha, vol.4 p.66-7, 1899
Russell, Agar, Surdus – Reminiscences. Unpublished manuscript in library.
1891 Census – Class: RG12; Piece: 2229; Folio: 20; Page: 34; GSU roll: 6097339