The affectionately named ‘blind school’
- Credit: Frank Burroughes
Long before the scourge of political correctness was foisted on us, we knew it affectionately as “the blind school.”
That was not to belittle or mock either the establishment or its pupils, but coined in a respectful sense by residents of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, proud that their town was chosen from a wide area to house the East Anglian Institution for Blind and Deaf Children.
Nowadays our language is less robust; for example, “blind” has been diluted to “visually impaired”.
Its scholars - aged five to 15 - were deaf, dumb, blind or partially sighted and came from the eight council areas across East Anglia funding the venture.
The school cost £9,000, built on 17 acres of Gorleston land on Church Road opposite School Lane, one side running parallel to Colomb Road; the site extended towards today’s Shrublands Way, known then as Cemetery Road.
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But in 1985, 73 years after its foundation, the decision was taken to close the school. Inevitably, buildings and facilities were vandalised, but the site was cleared and today is a residential estate incorporating St Mary and St Peter School.
Perhaps the only tangible memento of its lengthy presence is a commemorative blue plaque placed in 2012 - the centenary of its foundation - on the former headmaster’s house on Church Road.
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It was sited there by Great Yarmouth History and Archaeological Society and unveiled by a member, Maurice Joel, who was compiling a book about the school.
He told the onlookers: “What really made the school was the dedication and professionalism of the staff. You had to give yourself to the school to make it work.
“Before the war, the house mothers had one afternoon off a month!”
That house suffered bomb damage in a 1941 air raid but was rebuilt by 1945. The six principals who had inhabited the school house included Edward Evans, who became the Labour MP for Lowestoft post-war. The final resident was possibly Peter Johnstone, a founder member of Gorleston Rotary Club in 1969.
The Mercury’s report of the innovative school’s official opening by the Earl of Leicester and the preceding Town Hall lunch quoted him as saying that the institution would provide for “those little children, either deaf or blind, who could not possibly have proper supervision in their own homes, and they will be sent here to be brought up to know some sort of trade.”
The gathering heard that the school would adopt modern methods - “so blind and deaf children are taught some industry, and there are workshops where the children could be taught some occupation.”
It was the second in the country to adopt “the cottage home” principle to provide a family life for the youngsters, so important to their upbringing and training.
Of the children admitted to the new home and its five “cottages”, 27 were blind and 73 were deaf and dumb. The cost of maintenance per child was £35 a year, financed by the Government (£5), under £5 from parents, and £25+ from local funds.
A Mercury reporter was impressed by his tour of the new establishment - not only by the buildings and facilities but also by the way in which the youngsters were being taught. For example, he watched deaf pupils engaged in physical drill, “carried out much in the ordinary way with the exception that all eyes were ever turned on the instructor to watch for his words of command instead of listening for them.
“The method of teaching little deaf mutes to speak was perhaps one of the most interesting to witness.
“The eagerness with which they tried to grasp a meaning, and their intelligence in doing their utmost to emit the right sounds, all pointed to the fact that the course of instruction adopted found favour with the children.”
Former pupils and staff will reunite at the Norwich Deaf Club on Saturday, July 7.