Bringing archives to life

Bureaucratic registers often contain scanty details about the ordinary people they record. Further digging can bring these to life.  The fascinating ‘Seeing our History’ project does this.  The project traced the lives of blind people living in Edinburgh and south east Scotland in the early years of the twentieth century.  Starting with the names and details on a ‘Register of the Outdoor Blind’ between 1903 and 1911, researchers traced the parents, children, lives and deaths of blind and partially sighted people on the Register.  The project’s findings have been published in two books, ‘Feeling our History’ and ‘Hearing our History’ and a series of podcasts. You can find out more about the project, the publications and podcasts on its webpage here:  Insight Radio

The researchers unearthed details about blind people’s work and family lives, which echoed some of the material that I have been finding in my research on early twentieth century sickness benefits.  A recurring theme across my research, and arising also in the ‘Seeing our History’ material is the complex nature of the concept of ‘work’.  Many, although not all, of the blind people in the Seeing our History material were those who were considered ‘unable to work’, because of other impairments or old age.  ‘Able bodied’ blind people at that time were often offered work in the workshops and asylums run by organisations such as the Edinburgh Blind Asylum: making baskets, ropes, mattresses and furniture.  Those who could not find work through the Asylum subsisted on income from a range of occupations and family support networks.  Some of these found work on the street, working as musicians, hawkers and turning mangles to assist with the weekly washing.  But work in the Asylum workshops was dependent not only on physical ability but on willingness to comply with the organisation’s strict moral code.  The Seeing our History project reports on the case of a man and a woman who were evicted from the Asylum because of their unseemly relationship.  They subsequently married and their story is powerfully told in ‘Feeling our History’.  This story is interesting to me because of the way in which access to work was entwined with moral behaviour.  Other workers lost their jobs at the Asylum because of alleged drunkenness or theft.  So a person’s ability to work was dependent not only on their physical and mental abilities but on their willingness or ability to meet strict moral expectations of behaviour*.

In my own research on appeals against refusal of benefits in the 1920s, I have found examples of blind people who had been working but were now trying to claim sickness benefits.  The discussion about their ability to work often focussed on whether or not work which had previously been available to them was still possible.  So we find a man who had been blind since childhood and who had worked for a local charity for blind people.  When he developed other physical health issues he was no longer able to do this job.  The adjudicator in his appeal decided that he was no longer fit for work, although they felt the need to add that he should ‘undergo some form of training for such light work as he can undertake’.  However, in another case, involving a young woman, it was felt that she should not be obliged to enter an institution for blind people to retrain as a basket maker or similar because this ‘would probably cause her nervous upset which would probably retard her recovery if not actually make her worse’

What does this tell us about ‘capacity for work’?  The stories in the Seeing our History project are mainly from a period before the 1911 National Insurance sickness benefit scheme.  They connect with those in my research because they reinforce, again, the appreciation that a person’s capacity for work can only be understood in the social context in which they live.  Two people with apparently similar impairments can be very differently capable of work, depending on what they have done before, their skills and education, their family support networks and, crucially, the work available to them.  Work may be unavailable because of the local labour market but it may also be unavailable because of the moral and other expectations of local employers.  Ideas about how and whether people should retrain for work also depends on ideas about men and women, their age and potential capacity for working in the future.

I am very pleased to have found the Seeing our History project, leading me to these fascinating stories and an insight into a creative use of archives to bring them to life.

* full information about these histories in Hutchison, I (2015) Feeling our history Edinburgh, RNIB Scotland and Hutchison (2015) Hearing our history Edinburgh, RNIB Scotland and on the project website

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