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Blog - Tam Gilbert

Sensing Helen: Sophia’s Story and Workshops

Sepia portrait

Sepia image of young female participant dressed in Victorian costume. Photograph: Alastair Nisbet

Sensing Helen is now complete. We have conducted and delivered our research, compiled an Education Resource Pack for Young People and shared our film at three locations across Dorset. The film was well-received by audiences and I will document its process in my next post when I will also reflect upon Sensing Helen as a whole.

To go back to my last post, we put Elizabeth Groves aside and came upon Sophia Ridout who also attended Bristol School of Industry for the Blind, 10 years before Elizabeth. Like Elizabeth, Sophia came from a female-led family with a strong work ethic. Her father passed away when she was small, and we find her in 1851, age 9, living in Gotts Corner, Sturminster Newton with her mother, Sarah (a Glover) and her younger sister Ann, who went on to work as a domestic servant. The three also lived with Sophia’s Grandmother and two Aunts. Importantly Sophia is listed on the Census as a Scholar and the Parish went on to pay for her to learn a trade and be educated in Bristol, a cost of five pounds and five shillings every 6 months, payable in advance; a sum it is unlikely the family could afford.

Whilst at Bristol School of Industry (also known as Bristol Asylum, let’s not forget) it seemed that Sophia had a happier, more successful time than Elizabeth. As she was not diagnosed with Epilepsy,  she could enjoy the full experience the school offered. We believe she would have spent her days studying subjects such as Geography,  Music and Maths and learning a trade. At the age of seventeen, she returned to her family in Sturminster Newton, working as a Knitter and finally, by the age of 39, becoming a Glover, like her mother before her.

Tam Gilbert in Victoria attire

Tam dressed as Sophia Ridout in white mop cap and apron. Photograph: Alastair Nisbet

As Michele and I started to plan the workshops, it felt that, as there were so many unanswered questions about Elizabeth, we should focus on Sophia. Of course, there is no doubt that both women had extremely difficult lives – both were eventually ‘given up-’ by their families and died alone in institutions (Elizabeth in the Dorset County Asylum aged 46 and Sophia at 77, after spending her final twenty years in the Union Workhouse). We had more information about what life would have been like for visually impaired people at Bristol School of Industry and Sophia’s story seemed a more positive one for our young people to relate to.

Over a three month period, we delivered Creative Drama and & Research workshops to young people from Victoria Education Centre and a group of Home Educated pupils in school and at the Priest’s House Museum in Wimborne. (Some of our Victoria students had visited us at the Dorset History Centre, described in a previous post to take part in our Oral History Training). We began our work with each group by looking at Helen Keller’s communication systems and then went on to meet Sophia, with opportunities to question about her life during the 1850s-1880s. We took in research which included Resource Packs with censuses, photos and documents about Bristol School of Industry, along with a Loans Box from Priest’s House and costumes we had borrowed from Wimborne Community Theatre.

Group workshop

Group workshop looking at items from Priest’s House Museum Loans Box. Photograph: Alastair Nisbet

After working separately with both groups,  we brought them together for a joint drama workshop at Victoria focusing on communication today. We asked all the young people to prepare a short introduction to themselves using their chosen form of communication so that the Home Ed students could see how technology is used to enable their peers to communicate. They were also split into groups and taken on a tour of the school and seemed very interested in the rooms which ‘talked’ and the interactive touch pads outside each room.

The workshops were a great opportunity for the students to share their experiences and for me to learn the different styles of education systems preferred by each group. It felt in some ways that the Home Education students preferred a less structured, flexible approach, whilst the Victoria students (used to school life) preferred routines and structured breaks etc.

It was wonderful that Victoria had themed their curriculum around Sensing Helen, along with researching the history of the school. We sparked the Arts Awards students’ interest in Helen Keller, who followed up by producing sound recordings including  Helen Keller: Fun Facts and an audio exploration of our artefacts.

Tam Galbirt interviewing particpipant

Tam interviewing and recording a member of Dorset Blind Association’s oral history. Tam is holding a microphone and wearing a headset. Photograph: Alastair Nisbet

Another strand to the project has been sharing our research with adult groups and collecting oral histories for Dorset History Centre from visually impaired women today. The Centre is keen to add to their records and document how access has changed in Dorset over the last Century.

Although members of Dorset Blind Association loved hearing about the project and looking at artefacts (some of which reminded them of their childhood), many seemed loath to share their personal experiences, often saying they just got on with their lives, and had nothing interesting to contribute. One lady commented that she had not come to a coffee morning to discuss her vision, instead, she wanted to catch up with her friends. This did beg the question as to why she had come, knowing our event was taking place! Ultimately though, it was refreshingly normal in that disability should not always be the focal point of discussion in impairment-focused social groups. The women who were happy to delve into their past, had on the whole only recently ‘lost’ their sight and so could not answer all of my questions about their early life. However, some individuals outside of the group did come forward to share their experiences as growing up visually impaired. Our interviewees overwhelmingly reported good experiences and attitudes from the general public, and it seems that for many, despite the cuts, Dorset seems a helpful place in which to live!



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