By Ciara Griffiths
UK Disability History Month is upon us. That means, from November 16th to December 16th, I will be writing articles on and around visually impaired people that have lived throughout history. This is an important month which highlights the experiences of disabled people and the setbacks they faced, but also their achievements. I hope these articles will be both informative and inspiring. You can also read my previous articles to learn about more figures.
We will begin in the eighteenth century with a sailor, a slave abolitionist, a poet, a bookseller, and the founder of the Royal Blind School in Liverpool, Edward Rushton. A very useful tool for uncovering Rushton’s life is his earliest biography, written by his own son in 1814. Historical texts like these are vital, and it is largely thanks to this document that Edward Rushton’s story can be told.
Edward Rushton was born on the 13th November, 1756, in Liverpool, where the slave trade was a profitable business. After being subjected to adventure tales, he went to sea when he was eleven.
In one incident, Rushton impressed his masters, earning him a promotion. There had been trouble in the Irish Sea and the captain and the crew got so drunk that they were neither able nor bothered to take command. Aged just sixteen, Rushton took command and enabled the safe return of the ship to harbour. After being promoted to second lieutenant, he served on human cargo ships. This meant he got to see the horrors of the slave trade firsthand. In 1773, whilst on a slave ship, he formed a friendship with a slave named Quamina. Through spending time with him and even teaching him to read, Rushton learnt of the conditions of the slaves and the methods in which they were taken from Africa. The friendship was not to last, however, as Quamina drowned in a storm with the other slaves and much of the crew. What broke Rushton was that Quamina had been clinging onto a piece of wood, keeping him afloat, but seeing his drowning friend, let go so Rushton to take it and survive. Rushton’s son recalls how his father would tell this story ‘with tears in his eyes’.
On his third slave ship, Rushton, having seen enough of ‘this disgraceful traffic’, felt he ought to do something. The slaves were weak with an eye infection which left half of them blind so Rushton took it upon himself to feed them. This infection is now believed to have been ophthalmia, a painful inflammation of the eye. When caught, he was threatened with the brig if he fed or even interacted with the slaves again, but he did not yield. He continued to feed the slaves what he could, but this act of compassion subjected him to the infection. Aged nineteen, he became nearly blind. He was forced to leave his childhood ambition. He was, as his son records, deeply saddened by this situation.
So saddened and desperate was Rushton that he travelled to London with his father to seek the medical help of George III’s ‘oculist’. However, he was informed that his condition was irreversible. Before Braille and before the first school for the blind was founded in France, work for the blind was scarce, so this news must have devastated Rushton. He was plunged into poverty and found himself living under his father’s care, though his stepmother was not very accommodating. With an allowance from his father, Rushton was able to pay for a boy to read to him every night. His father tried to set him up to work in a tavern, but Rushton was unsuited for and uninterested in the work. He eventually found his footing as a bookseller; according to his son, no occupation ‘seemed more agreeable’. Rushton prospered and was more exposed than ever to the literary world.
Through all this, he was able to find love – his wife, Isabelle Rain, is commended for caring for him attentively – and father five children. However, just as he had found happiness, he was about to find many enemies.
Having reflected on his experiences on slave ships and having gained connections in literature, Rushton decided to put pen to paper and campaign for liberty and the abolition of the slave trade. He did so through poetry. He also chose other topical issues of the day such as religious toleration and the reform of Parliament, issues which only became more relevant after the outbreak of the French Revolution. In the aftermath of the failed Irish Rebellion in 1798, he wrote against the treatment of Irish women at the hands of British soldiers.
This campaigning led to many of his old allies deserting him. As Liverpool’s biggest industry was the slave trade, Rushton found enemies quickly. He was seen to have betrayed a business that he once distinguished himself in and had given him opportunity. There was even an attempt on his life. In a bold move, he published a letter to George Washington, challenging him to address the hypocrisy of fighting for liberty yet keeping slaves of his own (Washington did not reply). His work was even commended by the Whig MP Thomas Clarkson, a contemporary of William Wilberforce who campaigned for the abolition of slavery not through poetry, but through oratory in the House of Commons.
Yet, there was another issue weighing on Rushton’s mind, and that was the education of the blind. By now, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth had been established in France (the same school Louis Braille attended), but there was no such institution in England. Having experienced the struggle of finding employment as a blind man, Rushton and other liberal-minded men – who called themselves the Friends of Freedom – founded the Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind in 1791. This is now the Royal School for the Blind, Liverpool. It was given its royal status by the Prince of Wales, later George IV, in 1806 after he was impressed with a musical performance given by the students.
Though initially for blind children, the school now takes pupils, aged 2-19, with additional impairments. It is still thriving today and is a lasting testament to Rushton’s achievements.
In 1807 Rushton did regain his sight after meeting a doctor in Manchester and undergoing five operations. You only need to read my blog on the oculist John Taylor to know how painful and dangerous eye surgeries were in the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, the operations were a success and Rushton was able to see his wife and children for the first time. The event must have been very moving. He died of ill-health in 1814 surrounded by his children. His son records that in the end, his death was painless.
In the late eighteenth century when calls for the vote, the reform of Parliament, the rights of man and the abolition of the slave trade were made, Rushton was in the heart of political discourse. Though liberal-minded, it is important to remember that for the time, his views were controversial and even dangerous. After the French Revolution and the spread of radicalism in the 1790s, the British government feared the guillotine would come to London and that civil society was under threat. Harsh measures were put in place to punish reformers who could be accused of sedition, libel, or even treason – a hanging offence. Rushton even had an attempt on his life, but he was firm in his beliefs, and he fought for them.
I usually end these articles on a reflective note, offering my own eulogy to the historical figure. However, my words can only say so much. I feel it best to end with words left by a man who knew Rushton. His son.
‘Edward Rushton died…leaving behind him a character pure and immortal as the principles he possessed’.
A Biographical Sketch of Edward Rushton, Written by his son (1814). The Belfast Monthly Magazine.
Burke, T. (2001). "Humanity is now the popular cry": Labouring-Class Writers of the Liverpool Slave Trade, 1787-1789. University of Pennsylvania Press