“A letter arrived in May which sent me to Psalm 46:10” – Mary Corbishley’s Oral School at Cuckfield (1937-96)
By Hugh Dominic W Stiles, on 5 April 2019
It seems peculiar, but there were a large number of privately run Deaf Schools in Sussex in the 19th century. We might suppose it was the comparative closeness to London and the rural setting – also perhaps cheaper large buildings or houses suitable as small schools – that made it attractive. Cuckfield House was one such. It was founded by Mary Stephens Corbishley (1905-1995). She was born in Worcestershire, and was a sickly child, enduring a number of bouts of illness. She began working as a nurse to a Jewish family in Brighton in 1928, then the following year started to look after the 5 1/2 year old daughter of a doctor in Worthing, a girl who was then discovered to be going deaf (Stewart, p.14). Mary taught herself lip-reading by watching herself in the mirror.
Around that time she met Frank Barnes (1866-1932), the Teacher of the Deaf who had recently retired to the south coast, after being head of the Penn School. She had no school diploma and was therefore ineligible for a teacher training course such as that in Manchester, however, Barnes was sufficiently impressed by her to nominate her for associate membership of the National College for Teachers of the Deaf in 1929/30 (Stewart, p.18). She was offered a trainee teacher post by Mary and Ethel Hare’s Dene Hollow School, in 1931. While at that school she met and made friends with Miss Jessie B. Hancock, who had gone to America as nurse to a deaf boy, then trained and taught at the oralist Central Institute for the Deaf, St. Louis for a while (Stewart, p.31).
Some years previously, Corbishley had had a ‘spiritual’ conversion and became quite religious (Corbishley, p.25). It seems that eventually this spirituality began to conflict with the more secular nature of Mary Hare’s school, and Corbishley resigned on the 10th of March 1937 (she called it her ‘Thanksgiving Day’), although Mary Hare wrote her a nice reference (Stewart p.21-3). She soon happened upon a bed-sitter flat in Hassock, and was asked to take on teaching an eleven-year-old girl, Jean. Two more pupils quickly appeared, along with the threat of legal action by her former employer – “A letter arrived in May which sent me to Psalm 46:10” (Corbishley, P.40). Her landlady’s son who was studying law, helped her with advice and the firm of solicitors he worked for wrote a letter in return and the matter was quickly closed (ibid).
Corbishley found a permanent home for the school in Cuckfield in May, 1939. A copy of the school brochure from an uncertain date, but perhaps 1940s, tells us that fees were £50 a term. A brochure tells us,
The Aim of Cuckfield House is that deaf children should grow up in a healthy environment, with a variety of interests and the ability to enter into the normal activities of hearing children. To achieve this, special attention is given to Language, Speech and Lip-reading. A wide experience of the needs of the deaf has proved the necessity for constant intercourse with hearing people. A child accustomed to read only the lips of the teachers is at a disadvantage in both social and business spheres. Cuckfield House is fortunate in that it has a large circle of hearing friends, who frequently visit the School. The School stands in its own grounds, with playing fields adjoining, and is situated in the village of Cuckfield, one mile and a half from Haywards Heath.
During the war Ian Stewart tells us that Deaf London pupils from the Randall Place L.C.C. School, Roan Street, Greenwich, were evacuated to Cuckfield, but although orally taught (under a Miss G.A. Kirby in 1939), Corbishley was ‘disturbed’ to see them signing, so they were segregated from her pupils, lest they teach them signs (Stewart, p.42)!
Miss Hancock left in 1947 and worked privately in Midhurst, before moving to South Africa (Stewart, p.59).
The school closed on July 19th 1996, shortly after Corbishley’s death.
School Brochure, circa 1939/45?
CORBISHLEY, M., Corby. 1980
Stewart, Ian M., Mary Stephens Corbishley M.B.E.: A biography of her life and work at her Oral School for Deaf Children in Cuckfield, East Sussex, the U.K. 2010