Two Cambridge ladies, Mrs Stace and Mrs Lilley, enjoyed the friendship of a blind neighbour, Mrs. Chandler. It was Mrs Chandler who suggested that a space should be made available for local blind people to come together for recreation and support.

Mrs Lilley Mrs Stace

Photos: Mrs Lilley (left) and Mrs Stace (right)

Mrs Stace rented a parish room at St Andrew’s Church for the afternoon of 28thOctober 1912. They planned a programme which began with a reading, then provided a class in basket weaving. This was followed by an entertainment and finally, tea.

From that time Friday afternoons offered a time when blind people in Cambridge could meet for comradeship, learn a new skill and enjoy themselves. Right from the start, the Society’s aim was not simply to provide sympathy and support, but to enable visually impaired people to become self-reliant. This aim continues today.

Read Mrs Stace’s profile, transcribed from a newspaper article published at the time.

How were blind people looked after before this time?

As early as 1791, a school for blind children had been established in Liverpool but there was no systematic help overall. In the Victorian period, much of the work undertaken with blind people varied depending on social class.  Whilst the well-off might have individual tuition in Braille or servants to help them, care of blind paupers focused on providing them with a trade rather than teaching them to read. Improvements in health, particularly in surgery and following the decline of diseases like smallpox, had not eradicated blindness but managed to reduce its incidence. What would become the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) had been created in 1868. The organisation initially focused on encouraging the teaching of Braille, but over time it expanded its services to include care homes and, by the 1920s to providing wireless radio access to those in need, as well as other new technologies.

The amount of government aid for the poor was extremely limited. Central funding commenced with the 1893 Education Act which required that all children be educated, including those who were blind and partially sighted. How this was to be achieved was not made clear and was often left to local solutions. In these years, basket weaving and craft-work were the mainstay of the Cambridge Society’s activities. The Society was funded by donations and by the sale of goods made by blind people themselves. In 1915, the Blind Workers’ Shop was established at 5 Emmanuel Street, moving to 28 Regent Street in 1938. It sold baskets, wickerwork, knitted items and other goods made by blind people and took orders for the caning of chairs.

In 1919, Mrs. Stace was funded by subscriptions from friends to engage a home teacher to visit blind people. This was an important step in the development of the Society and a period of growth for Cam Sight overall. It began to support people in areas surrounding Cambridge and the number of members increased particularly in the aftermath of the Great War.

Blind Club - basket weavers Phillip Brand - client in 1910s
Photos: 'Blind Club' basket weavers (left) and Phillip Brand, blind client, with a model fire engine he made (right)