First Deaf Person on TV in Britain – “Topsy,” or Eileen Guy, from Central Asia (ca.1914-1998)
By H Dominic W Stiles, on 29 September 2017
In the early part of the 20th century, three bold and independent women made a name for themselves as the ‘Trio’ of missionaries in the far east of China, in Gansu. They were Mildred Cable (1878-1952), and the two sisters, Evangeline French (1869-1960) and Francesca French (1871-1960). They travelled widely in the deserts and moutains of that region, attempting to convert local people. One day they heard a ‘tap, tap tap’ at the door, and it was a young child of six or seven nicknamed ‘Gwa Gwa,’ that is ‘little lonely’ (Cable & French p. 9-14). The girl was deaf, the daughter of a Tibetan mother and a Mongol chief. She had been fostered, then the foster mother sold her when she discovered she was deaf. She was then sent out to beg (ibid p.19-22). The Trio bought her freedom, and changed her name to Ai Lien, meaning ‘Love Bond.’ The three missionary ladies called her Topsy for some reason. After some difficulties with one of the warlords in the area, they eventually escaped to Urumchi, then Chuguchak. To get through Russia, they had to give Ai Lien a British name and passport, so they anglicized it to Eileen with the surname Guy as one of the three, the ‘Blue Lady’ as she is called in the book, had the Chinese surname Gai. Eventually they had permission to cross Russia, and they arrived back in England, where they divided their time between living in Dorset and Watford. Once in England she started to get an oral education (p.123-4)
The French sisters died within a short time of each other in 1960, leaving Eileen a comfortable inheritance.
According to one of our old library index cards from Selwyn and Kate Oxley, Topsy was the first Deaf person to be on television in Britain, with the Trio, at Alexandra Palace. That would have been before the war. It may be that the BBC archives could confirm that.
I have not discovered whether Eileen/Topsy had any contact with the Deaf community in Britain – I did not see an obituary in the British Deaf News. She died in 1998 in Penge. If anyone knew her, please do comment below.
“Former Slave Girl Benefits In Wills.” Times [London, England] 27 Sept. 1960: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Sept. 2017
Cable, M., and French, Fr., The Story of Topsy, (1937, reprinted 1957)