St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors

As the Great War progressed South Wales received increasing numbers of wounded servicemen, primarily from France and Belgium but, in some instances, from fighting as far away as the Dardanelles. The most urgent and serious cases were dealt with at the large military hospitals set up in centres such as Cardiff. In addition, the Red Cross established over 40 hospitals across Glamorgan, often in country houses and used primarily as centres for rest and recuperation before troops were ready to return to active service.

Schools across Glamorgan set up links with their local hospitals and helped in very practical ways, for example, through collections of fruit and vegetables to supplement the hospital food. The ties with local hospitals also brought many young children in contact with wounded servicemen and, therefore, with the grim reality of the carnage reaped by modern warfare in France and elsewhere:

This afternoon four wounded soldiers from Caerphilly Hospital visited the school from 3.20 to 4pm. They visited the various classes in pairs and showed much interest in a Welsh school. The pupils were equally delighted with the visitors who hailed from Liverpool, Norfolk, Cornwall and London respectively.  The soldiers were the guests of the Red Cross Nurses for the afternoon [Cwmaber Girls School, 27 Jul 1918, ECG18/2 p.133]

Permission has been granted by the Local Managers to take the Scholars to the Palace Theatre, this afternoon, when an interesting programme has been prepared to celebrate Empire Day. An invitation has been tendered to the wounded soldiers, now at Caerphilly Red Cross Hospital [Caerphilly Girls School, 24 May 1917, ECG13/3 p.99]

The use of mustard gas in trench warfare from 1916 onwards resulted in thousands of young men losing their sight temporarily and in many cases permanently. The school log books record the visits made by blind servicemen to local schools and also the efforts made by the schools to help provide rehabilitation facilities for the servicemen. This entry in the Cwmaber Girls’ School records for July 1917 was typical of many in the period:

Two visitors came here this afternoon to hear the girls singing – two blind soldiers who were on a visit to Abertridwr – one from London and one from Australia. They expressed great pleasure at the singing, especially the Welsh songs. The children keenly felt the presence of the visitors and their sacrifice appealed to them greatly.  Needless to say they received a very hearty welcome [Cwmaber Girls School, 27 Jul 1917, ECG18/2, p.118]

The visits made a very deep impression on staff and pupils. As a result, schools gave particular attention to charities that worked with those that had lost their sight. The best known was St Dunstan’s Hostel established at Regents Park Lodge, London. St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors was a charity supported by the National Institute for the Blind, The Red Cross Society and Order of St John of Jerusalem. The leading figure behind the hostel was Arthur Pearson the newspaper proprietor who, on losing his sight, threw himself into work for the National Institute for the Blind.  Recognising the need for specialist care for the large numbers of servicemen blinded in the war, he set up St Dunstan’s Hostel in February 1915 as a centre where men could be taught a trade and helped with making a return to everyday life. The skills taught included typing, telephony, joinery and market gardening. Very little was considered to be out of bounds and St Dunstan’s encouraged the men to take up a range of sports and also to learn to play a musical instrument.

St Dunstan’s was a symbol of the tragedy of war but also of what could be done to help servicemen to rebuild their lives. It was, therefore, a very popular and well supported charity and the South Wales schools, with others across the country, made a special effort to support its work.

One of the key sources of income for St Dunstan’s was provided by the musical concerts put on by the ‘The Blind Musicians’ as part of national tours. In June 1917 the Blind Musicians visited South Wales. From newspaper reports we know that concerts were held at Bridgend Town Hall where £50 was raised. The Blind Musicians were also the guests of the Rhymney Male Voice Party at St David’s Parish Hall, Rhymney in the same month.  On 15 June 1917 the local newspaper reported:

The true patriotism of the public of Rhymney and its readiness to appreciate first class music were again strikingly demonstrated on Wednesday evening when a grand concert was given at St David’s Parish Hall… by the Blind Musicians of the National Institute for the Blind, London, the proceeds being devoted to the St Dunstan’s Hostel for our Blinded Soldiers and Sailors, Regents Park, London.

The artistic efforts of the performers revealed the fact that there are amongst the blind some splendid musicians and encores were quite numerous during the evening.

During the interval Mr Avalon Collard the representative of the National Institute for the Blind delivered a most interesting address on the splendid work of our Blinded Soldiers and Sailors at St Dunstan’s.

St Dunstan’s could be described as a workshop of darkness, a training ground for those who living in a world entirely different from ours must get their living in competition with us for whom the sun still shines and night is a visible beauty [Bargoed and Caerphilly Observer, 15 Jun 1917]

By June 1917 the hostel had helped over 200 men, with a further 380 receiving training and support. However, the object of the tour was to raise money for the 110 men in military hospitals waiting to be admitted to St Dunstan’s. The mark of just how popular St Dunstan’s was with schools can be seen in the decision, on 7 June, to close the schools in Caerphilly so that pupils could play a full part in supporting the concerts to be given by The Blind Musicians at Caerphilly Castle:

ECG12_3 p51

Received instruction to close school this afternoon as there is a great function in the Castle on behalf of the Blinded Soldiers from St. Dunstan’s. The Blind men will give two Concerts [Caerphilly Boys’ School, 7 Jun 1917, ECG12/3 p.51]

Schools also organised their own events to raise money for St Dunstan’s. In the same month the Head Teacher of Mardy Boys School noted in the school log book:

ER23_5 p125

A charity concert, organised chiefly by the teachers, was held on the 9th June at the Workmen’s Hall, Ferndale, the proceeds being devoted to the St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors. Mardy’s contribution towards this was £28.11.0 [Mardy Boys School, 20 Jun 1917, ER23/5 p.125]

It was also recognised that the families of service men who had lost their sight faced very real financial difficulties. In 1917 the education authority in the Rhondda area decided to support a national appeal to raise money for the Blinded Soldiers’ Children Fund. In November 1917 the Head teacher of Trealaw Boys’ School received the following circular from the Education Authority:

I write to ask for the benefit of your co-operation in my Xmas appeal to the British Isles on behalf of the children of our Blinded Soldiers and Sailors. Briefly the aim is to collect a sum of not less than £250,000 to provide a weekly payment of 5/- for each child of every blind soldier and sailor until such child reaches the age of 16. At present the married men and children receive from the Government a weekly allowance for each child they may have and for every child born nine months after their discharge, but there is no allowance for children born after the blinded man has left the army nor any allowance for the children of men who marry after their disablement. Christmas envelopes containing an appeal will be given to each child and these will be collected after the vacation [Trealaw Boys School, 9 Nov 1917, ER41/2 pp.294-5]

Although with the introduction of rationing it was a difficult time for families across South Wales, the appeal struck a particular chord with the children. In January Trealaw reported that £12 5s had been raised and other schools in the area made similar contributions. For example, Penygraig Infants School raised £3 8s 6d [Trealaw Boys School, 4 Jan 1918, ER41/2 p.298 and Penygraig Infants School, 23 Jan 1918, ER28/2 p.157].  In recognition of their contribution the Trealaw School received a letter of thanks from Arthur Pearson:

ER41_2 p307

Will you please convey to your scholars my sincere thanks for their subscription to the Blinded Soldiers’ Children Fund – £12 5s. 1d. I need not tell you how keenly I appreciate this evidence of their sympathy and interest and in the effort to make as happy as possible the home lives of the men who have made so great a sacrifice for their country and whose bravery has been shown not only while they were serving in the Army, but in a most remarkable manner since. In thanking in my own name all who have so kindly assisted in this collection, I am thanking them on behalf of those blinded soldiers for whom the fund is being raised [Trealaw Boys School, 11 Mar 1918, ER41/2 p.307]

By the signing of the Armistice in November 1918 St Dunstan’s had helped over 600 veterans, but its work was far from over. There were still 900 men learning new skills at Regent’s Park and other centres opened around the country. To their credit, four months later, schools were still collecting money for St Dunstan’s.

ECG13_3 p131

Celebrations of St David’s Day. Programme – A Welsh drama composed by Mrs John CA now a member on the staff and previously Head Mistress of Senghenydd Infants’ School – ‘Plant y Pentre’. As usual the entertainment will be held in the Palace kindly lent for the occasion. A nominal charge will be made for adults, the proceeds to be handed over to St Dunstan’s Institute for our blinded heroes of the war [Caerphilly Girls School, 28 Feb 1919, ECG13/3 p.131]

Although Arthur Pearson died in 1921, St Dunstan’s continued to provide support for blind veterans after the war and during the Second World War. Known today as Blind Veterans UK, the charity is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary. Its original vision is still very much the same as that which inspired the school children of South Wales and across Britain in 1915 – that no one who has served our country should have to battle blindness alone.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer