The Deaf Community of Leeds: A Partial History

This week on the Secret Library, Librarian Antony Ramm looks at books or other printed objects held at the Central Library, all highlighting different aspects of the Leeds deaf community’s story. 

The early 19th-century

As seen in reports held at the Central Library, children Leeds were pupils at the Yorkshire Institution for Deaf and Dumb Children (based in Doncaster) since its opening in 1829. Alongside those Annual Reports (1831 – 1837; 1855 – 1885), the Library also holds a copy of another report, entitled Results of an Enquiry Respecting the Former Pupils of the Yorkshire Institution for the Deaf and Dumb Children.

As well as being a chronological list of pupils, the Report also provides miniature biographies of each person’s life since they left the Institution – Sarah Hartley and Jane Holmes, both admitted in 1830, are the first pupils from Leeds for whom such detail is available. These accounts are invaluable as a guide to the kinds of occupations deaf children were able to find work in during the early-to-mid 19th-century, as well as being a very useful source for family history more generally.

The later 19th-century

The major development during this period was the establishment in 1866 of the Leeds Incorporated Institution for Blind and Deaf People – which merged with the Leeds Institution for the Indigent & Industrious Blind in 1876 and moved into a new, purpose-built site on Upper Albion Street. Annual Reports from the new organisation are available in the Library for the period 1876 – 1999, and below can be seen a reproduction of a print showing the since-demolished Albion Street premises (now the site of the K2 building), as well as an extract from a c.1891 map of the same area:

The early 20th-century

Deaf children had been taught in Leeds since Edward Jackson began a class at the St. James’ Church Sunday School in the 1830s. But it was Edward Kirk, in the latter decades of the century who was to be the real pioneer; appointed as Headmaster for the Leeds School for the Deaf (initially based in Salem Chapel) from 1883 and responsible for the School’s subsequent move to, first, the Central Higher Grade School (on the corner of Woodhouse Lane and Great George Street) and, finally, to a purpose-built space on Blenheim Walk, which opened in 1899.

(Undated) Postcard view of School for Deaf and Blind on Blenhein Walk. Later, Blenheim School, the iron school gates are preserved in one of the gardens at Golden Acre Park.  From
(Undated) Photograph of children with hearing difficulties. This was a class of the Leeds School for the Deaf and Blind, which was on Blenheim Walk. Each child is copying shapes onto a chalk board, they have allocated areas to work in with their initials displayed. The first board on the left has the instruction ‘Draw boldly and with outstretched arm’. From

The later 20th-century

Martin Smith began work for the Leeds Incorporated Institute for the Blind and Deaf and Dumb in 1957, and continued (with a brief interlude) until his retirement in 1992. His autobiography is a personal account of a ‘life with deaf people’; a valuable local history of that community through the 20th-century; and also a sometimes surprising memoir of Leeds itself during a time of great change: “Leeds was vibrant in 1957. Diverse industry, underpinned by the clothing trade, provided almost full employment…[T]he espresso coffee bars were well established…[R]avi Shankar, George Melly and an outpost of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club entertained.” (p.20)

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