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Blog - Sandra Alland

History into Fiction: From Blind Asylums, to Glasgow Strikes and Riots (including Jujitsu Suffragettes!), to The 1920 Blind March


In this (rather long, sorry!) blog I discuss the process – and accidental discoveries – of writing my first historically-based short story, ‘Kick-Start’, about the roots of blind and disabled organising and resistance in the UK.

Comma Press has just launched the hefty, hard-cover, Protest! Stories of Resistance. [Update 9/3/18: Now available in paperback, and with individual stories/essays as £0.99 e-books and free audiobooks] In its description of the anthology, Comma writes: “In this timely and evocative collection, twenty authors have assembled to re-imagine key moments of British protest, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the anti-Iraq War demo of 2003. Written in close consultation with historians, sociologists and eyewitnesses – who also contribute afterwords – these stories follow fictional characters caught up in real-life struggles, offering a street-level perspective on the noble art of resistance. In the age of fake news and post-truth politics this book fights fiction with (well researched, historically accurate) fiction.”

In April 2016, I was invited to participate in this project, and chose to cover The National League of the Blind (the first union formed around an identity instead of a trade), and its efforts to attain rights for blind workers at the turn of the 20th century. I was interested in the circumstances leading up to and including the 1920 Blind March on London (an oft-forgotten precursor to the Jarrow March of 1936, and more immediately successful).

My short stories to date have mostly floated somewhere between the genres of Surrealism, fabulism, science fiction and just plain weird, so writing historically-accurate fiction was entirely new. Things like detailed research, character development, realism, plot, and just writing something longer than three pages are rarities for me – I have renewed respect for writers who make this stuff seem easy. The process was challenging, time-consuming and fascinating, and at times I thought I’d bitten off way more than I could chew (as my dear mother would say).

Through cursory research into the National League of the Blind, I became intrigued by the work of blind historian, Francis Salt. His Masters thesis, ‘The Forging of a Blind Radical – Ben Purse and the National League of the Blind 1874-1925: Recovering a Lost History’, gives a complex overview of the history before, during and after the 1920 March. He additionally has a personal connection, as his grandfather worked in the blind workshop of Henshaw’s Asylum in Manchester, and he interviewed a group of men who worked there. Through Comma, I got in touch with Francis, aka Frank, and he kindly gave me a copy of his thesis and several newspaper articles from The Blind Advocate (the National League of the Blind newspaper) that he had painstakingly copied from national archives. He also generously agreed to be my mentor for the project, and was a brilliant one.

I began to read intensely about the history of blind asylums in the UK – an ableist history deeply rooted in both religion and politics. Understanding this history can perhaps offer a more nuanced understanding of the charity industrial complex as it exists today (e.g. charity CEOs making big money off of donors, while offering little to those in receipt of their ‘charity’, is nothing new). The asylums and their workshops largely kept blind people indebted to or dependent upon them for education, housing and work. Additionally, the pay was little, abuse was rife, and the work was often exceptionally demanding and over long hours. Reading UK disabled and D/deaf history highlighted for me just how much we have lost (of a century’s hard-fought gains) under the Tories, and how we are in danger of returning to these circumstances of incarceration.

A topic that caught my interest in Frank’s thesis was mention of a Mr. George Edge, a worker from Manchester’s Deansgate workshop who had been let go in 1901 for marrying a blind woman working and living at the same asylum (Henshaw’s). George Edge and The National League of the Blind had brought a complaint for wrongful dismissal, stating that it wasn’t his marriage that had prompted the firing, but instead his political involvement with the League. This case led me to dig further, learning from Frank and other sources about how the tenets of eugenics and institutionalised sexism had been commonplace in asylums. Strict division of genders and prohibition of blind marriages were means of preventing the birth of blind children (and also preventing what the charities viewed as inadequate parenting and house-keeping by blind women). However, this practice had fallen away in most asylums by the early 1900s. Its invocation as a means to get rid of an agitator showed how threatened charity officials had become by blind people forming their own union and newspaper.

With Frank Salt’s assistance, I researched the job options and living circumstances at Henshaw’s. George Edge and his wife became the first two characters in my story; I wrote a fictional account of their meeting and subsequent troubles with the asylum. Later in the process, Frank also found the census for the time following George Edge’s dismissal, giving me the name and occupation of George’s wife (and stating George’s occupation as ‘at home’, ahem). My fictional character of ‘Sarah’ became the more real Ada Edge, a music teacher who appears to have supported the family after she and George were dismissed. Ada is the rock of my story, and the section on Manchester is written from her perspective.

I was particularly interested in learning about the lives of visually-impaired people in Scotland, where I’ve lived for ten years and where my grandfather and father grew up (primarily in Glasgow’s Gorbals and Govan). Although their histories have been largely forgotten, there were asylums in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and elsewhere. I researched Glasgow Asylum for the Blind (1828-1934), and discovered that part of the building still exists (next to a parking garage and as the façade of luxury apartments, oh Glasgow Council) on Castle Street, not far from where I currently live. The façade contains a statue of a blind child being healed by Jesus, and a clock-tower, which has become the name of a café below the luxury apartments (pictured here). You can also still see parts of the nine-foot wall that was built to keep the inmates in. I visited the site on several occasions.

Besides the asylums, there were also missions (for those who didn’t live in asylums, the church went to them, invited or not). My searches uncovered that women who didn’t live in Glasgow Asylum were often treated to trips ‘doon the watter’ by Glasgow Mission to the Outdoor Blind, as well as being invited to writing competitions and trips to the countryside. But many blind people had to resort to begging or the poorhouse if they rejected the church, or couldn’t get into (or were thrown out of) the asylums.

During this time, I came across the work of Hazel McFarlane, another blind scholar who completed a PhD at Glasgow University in 2004. I read the chapter ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ from her thesis ‘Disabled Women and Socio-spatial Barriers to Motherhood’; in it, she details how sexism and misogyny segregated blind women from society, kept them in highly-controlled and surveilled circumstances, and painted them as ‘less-than-proper’ women. I found further information on the website of the charity, Visibility (formerly Glasgow Mission): ‘In Our Own Eyes’ was ‘a digital archive telling the story of sight loss in the west of Scotland over the past 150 years’. It had an excellent section on workers in Glasgow Asylum that specifies the gendered division of labour (but is sadly no longer online). These sources further informed both my understanding of conditions in Glasgow and Scotland specifically, and conditions for blind women of the time generally – helping me to form the world of Ada Edge in Manchester (and later, another character in Scotland).

I read how my neighbourhood of Dennistoun had been a centre for blind people. Workers, and families of inmates and workers, often lived in the vicinity of the Asylum. Glasgow’s east-end Alexandra Park, my closest local park, became a feature in my story – it used to have an entire blind section where blind men played dominoes and football (with sighted goalies and a bell in the ball). When I expressed my interest in Glasgow to Frank, he immediately sent me an article from The Blind Advocate about the largest National League of the Blind strike, which occurred in late 1918. When twelve workers at Glasgow Asylum demanded improvements and were promptly fired, all workers from the asylum went on strike for over two months until their demands were finally met on New Year’s Eve.

Frank told me about Glasgow’s Charles Lothian, an asylum worker who was one of the main agitators in the strike. He was very active with the League, wrote for The Blind Advocate, and also wrote and published poetry. Charles Lothian became the third main character in ‘Kick-Start’, with his political poems also making an appearance (thanks to Frank’s research) – and the strike of 1918. Interestingly, one month after the Asylum workers won their strike demands, Glasgow saw another large-scale action. This concerted cross-union strike for shorter working hours led to the Battle of George Square on 31 January, 1919, an intense ‘riot’ of tens of thousands of people, resulting in the calling in of troops because of fears of a ‘Bolshevist uprising’. Notably, the long work week and low pay contended in this strike were still woefully better than what blind workers endured.

It wasn’t just the Glasgow strikes either; each thread of history was entwined with many others. One thing that really struck me about researching this time period was just how much was happening, and in various, intersecting ways. In his thesis, Frank made reference to the suffragettes, mainly to how their marches had likely influenced the League’s organisers. He also suggested the suffragettes were perhaps more ‘successful’, in that their victory was more clear-cut. Interestingly, the same prime minister (David Lloyd George) was a thorn in the side of both movements, eventually granting both their main demands (women’s suffrage and The Blind Bill respectively), but with watered-down versions of what had been requested. For example, only women owning property, or married to men owning property, and over 30, were granted the vote in 1918 – a classist and racist specification that is often ignored in the telling of UK suffragette history.

Before I knew it I was off researching suffragettes, and writing a story that was WAY TOO LONG. How to distil so much history, such nuance? I chose to research the tax-refusing Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh, after reading about her being left out of the film ‘Suffragette’ despite huge contributions to the cause. She was a UK suffragette of Indian, Abyssinian and German descent who used her wealth and standing to help fight both for women’s rights in the UK (and various other countries) and Indian freedom from British colonialism.

Princess Duleep Singh was originally a character in my story, along with Glasgow’s Jessie Stephen, a working-class white woman who joined the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) at age 16, and participated in some of Glasgow’s most hard-core direct actions (like pouring acid in postal boxes) before moving to London. But eventually I had to cut my suffragette content down, and I had to drop London-based characters entirely, or I would have ended up writing an entire novel. It also didn’t seem my place as white person to take on Singh’s story. But someone with way more history cred than me, Anita Anand, wrote a book and made a short film about Princess Duleep Singh. Read a review here that notes its unfortunate focus on white suffragettes and its lack of colonial critique – but it still sounds cool (and way better than ‘Suffragette’).

For my story, I distilled much of my research down to a mini Glasgow suffragette and working class history, reflected through a fictional character named Siobhan. Siobhan is a queer and gender-variant suffragette who Charles Lothian meets at a blind New Year’s eve ball in Glasgow. She makes reference to Glasgow’s suffragettes and Duke Street Prison (also in Dennistoun, and notably their jailers didn’t force-feed hunger strikers but instead supposedly, dubiously?, gave them an umbrella stand to decorate). Siobhan additionally mentions taking part in the city-wide Glasgow rent strikes in 1915 – where Glasgow residents challenged tyrannical landlords and won, led by Mary Barbour and other working-class women from Govan.

When I met with Frank in Manchester in August 2016, I asked him about women in the National League of the Blind, about conditions in the asylums and workshops nationally, about Glasgow, and about the tactics for the march and whether it had been considered a success. He was a brilliant storyteller (and teller of terrible jokes) as well as historian, and brought the time period to life in the most breathtaking manner. In the following months, he sent me information about Mrs. Fairhurst, the League’s regional secretary in London in 1920 – and her newspaper statements about League women not being included in the march. Mrs. Fairhurst thus entered my story, and along with Siobhan and Ada Edge, connected the struggles of blind people with those of women (and non-binary people), and specifically working-class women. Frank also sent me the list of League branch secretaries for 1918-19, on which were many women’s names.

By spring of 2017, I managed to cut my story down to a paltry SIXTEEN PAGES (a record for me). My greatest regret in having to edit ruthlessly was perhaps having to leave out the suffragette ‘Battle of Glasgow’ at St. Andrews Hall in March 1913. Amazing history summarised: suffragettes called The Body Guard trained in jujitsu in order to fight the police and protect each other and their leaders. (This was left out of the watered-down film, too.) In 1913, the police let Emmeline Pankhurst go free under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ (they released women from prison to prevent them from hunger striking and garnering attention, then re-arrested them when they were out of the limelight). Emmeline was due to speak in Glasgow – and 50 constables gathered to arrest her before she could deliver her speech. But 25 suffragettes (most of whom had travelled up from London) pulled one of their famous bait-and-switch tricks to have Emmeline appear ‘magically’ onstage despite police surrounding the building. Then an elegantly-dressed Scottish suffragette, Janie Allen, terrified police by shooting at them point-blank with a starter pistol (that the police believed to be real). The suffragettes got into a full-on brawl with police using jujitsu and ‘Indian clubs’. And Emmeline was able to deliver a good portion of her speech before they were all arrested.

In the end, in order to tell the story of the progression of blind workers’ rights, I limited my focus to: the experiences of Ada and George Edge in 1900-01 at Manchester’s Henshaw’s Asylum; Charles Lothian’s politicisation and the 1918 Glasgow Asylum strike by the National League of the Blind; and the end of the first leg of the 1920 march on London – where 250 blind marchers from all corners of the UK convened in Leicester Town Square before the final 10-day march to London to demand passage of Ben Tillett’s Blind Bill. Here’s a photo I found online of the North East contingent, with their sign ‘Justice Not Charity’, a main tenet of the League’s philosophy. This is the group Charles Lothian would have marched with. You’ll get no spoilers from me, but basically there’s a blending of women’s, blind and working-class histories in ‘Kick-Start’– and an attempt to poetically weave together the various threads of struggles presented throughout the story.

On a final note, one thing really struck me from my chat with Francis Salt. He told me about the injuries and other consequences the men (and sometimes women) sustained from the kinds of work they were given in asylum workshops. Weaving baskets, sewing, forming and tying brushes, and dipping said brushes in hot tar often burned or cut workers, or wore down their fingertips. At the turn of the 20th century, Braille was widely used by blind people (much more so than today) and constituted a large part of their education, so damage to their fingers and hands meant difficulties reading. It also meant difficulties in feeling the differences of things they touched including food, fabric and coins. This injustice, another irony of the work with which the charities were supposedly ‘improving’ the lives of blind people, has stayed with me since that talk.

Against terrible odds and multi-pronged oppression, blind and visually-impaired working-class people fought relentlessly for the beginnings of disabled rights in the UK. We owe them a great debt.

Read ‘Kick-Start’, on the histories of blind working-class men and women (and a fictional gender-variant person), along with a most excellent historical afterword by Francis Salt, in Protest! Stories of Resistance. The book also contains a short story on suffragettes by Michelle Green, and many more!

[Update 9/3/18: Individual stories and essays are available as £0.99 e-books; mine and Francis Salt’s are for sale as a package. Free audio version of me reading ‘Kick-Start’ at SoundCloud, and free text and audio versions with the MacGuffin app; there’s other audio of stories from the book online, too.]

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