On Bridges and Streets: The Public Face of Raised-Print Readers

Birkbeck’s Touching the Book exhibition encourages visitors to think about the experiences of Britain’s first generation of visually disabled readers: about what visually disabled Victorians read and about how they read.  In this entry, I’d like to take up two objects from the exhibition and use them to think about the ‘where’ of the nineteenth-century history of blind literacy: about the spaces in which Britain’s earliest raised-print books were read.

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 In Touching the Book, curator Heather Tilley pairs fragile specimens of Britain’s earliest raised-print books with examples of the antiquated tools that Victorians used to produce text to be read by touch.  The exhibit also features a number of photographs and engravings of people reading raised-print books.  As Tilley’s attentive treatment of this material makes clear, images of this kind need to be handled with care.  Visual images of blind people reading necessarily reveal more about how visual impairment and reading by touch were perceived by the sighted Victorians who produced and consumed the images than they do about the lived experiences of visually disabled people.  While images of blind people reading by touch respond to the achievements of individual readers and to advancements in the realms of printing and education, they function as records,  not of the experience of blind literacy, but of how the entry into literacy of people with visual disabilities was imagined and, in many instances, idealized by sighted people.

Unknown photographer. Ann Whiting, ambrotype photograph (c. 1850s-60s).

Unknown photographer, Ann Whiting, ambrotype, c. 1850-60s. Private Collection

With this in mind, I’d like to think about where the Victorian visual record locates the experience of reading by touch.  Among the images of visually disabled readers included in Touching the Book are two images linked by their association of the reading of raised-print books with the home.  The first is a very personal item, designed for display in a home.  It is a small gilt-framed calotype photograph of a woman, possibly Ann Whiting, whose name is written on the back of the photograph.  She sits indoors, a fireplace visible behind her.  Silent and solitary, she is alone and reads with her mouth closed.  The second is an example of a widely circulated engraving of George Smith’s painting, Light and Darkness (1865).  Reproduced so that it could be hung in homes across Britain, Smith’s painting characterizes a blind woman’s reading as domestic but also as social: she reads aloud from her book as she sits near the hearth of a home crowded with people, some of them listening attentively while others pay no heed.  Be it for pleasure, education or edification, reading by touch is represented by these two images and by others like them as a domestic pastime, located in the home and conducted at a distance from the public sphere.

George Smith, 'Light and Darkness', 1865. Location unknown.

George Smith, ‘Light and Darkness’, 1865. Location unknown.

If the visual record links the reading practices of visually disabled Victorians with the home, the written record does something quite different.  Many written accounts suggest that the face of blind literacy in the nineteenth-century sighted imagination was not that of a woman reading by a hearth but was instead that of a man reading on a street.  Take for example Henry Mayhew’s encyclopedic London Labour and the London Poor (1851-61).  It contains an interview with an unnamed man with a visual disability who, having learnt how to read by touch, supports himself by reading aloud in two locations in London, Mornington Cresent and Euston Square.  This literate blind man is anything but leisured, complaining to Mayhew that he makes “less than 18d. a-day” and lamenting “I am tired of these streets; besides, being half-starved” (3:155).  This reader does not read for pleasure nor for edification; he reads to solicit spare change from passers-by.  One of many graduates of Britain’s new programs for teaching reading by touch who found themselves literate but unemployed, Mayhew’s interviewee was by no means alone on the streets.  He read portions of the Bible alongside other visually disabled street performers, including musicians, animals trainers and pavement writers, and he competed for the public’s charity with other literate blind people attempting, like him, to make a living through the display not only of their ability to read by touch but also of their disability, poverty and piety.

While Mayhew’s street reader’s meager earnings suggest that public support for street reading was limited, some accounts of street readers are quite positive.  In 1878, a correspondent for Chambers’s Journal suggested that these readers, while not well compensated, were well liked.  The essayist writes of an unnamed blind man who read on Waterloo Bridge that:

Passengers who have gone backwards and forwards over the bridge cannot have failed to notice the old blind man who sits in one of the recesses day after day, reading aloud by the aid of his fingers from an embossed Bible.  He has been at his post summer and winter for about twenty years, and is much respected and esteemed by all who know him.  (“Waterloo Bridge,” 751).

An English Illustrated Magazine article, published a decade later, described the same blind man on the bridge, asserting confidently “Most Londoners know the Old Blind Bible reader on Waterloo Bridge. He has been there for more than thirty years. What experiences he must have had, for London has changed wondrously in the last thirty years” (“London Street Scenes,” 802).

While these commentators strike a positive note, others weren’t just critical of the presence of blind readers on the street: they were suspicious that readers on the street were merely pretending to read.  Here is a reporter, writing under the penname Shadow, responding in 1858 to a street reader, “a poor blind man, dressed in homely fustian” he encountered in Glasgow:

He is seated upon the ground, reading aloud a portion of the Bible, from a book with raised letters for the blind.  We are surprised by the apparent ease with which he manipulates.  On close examination, however, we have suspicion that the tongue is greatly more nimble than the fingers, or that the Word is better known to memory than to touch.  (82)

The suggestion that blind people who read in the streets only pretend to read text, that they are faking finger reading, was echoed several decades later by Thomas Rhodes Armitage, a visually disabled activist for blind education.  Armitage expressed opposition to the finger reading of raised-print books in public streets in 1886 when he described a representative reader of this sort as a “man who sits in some public thoroughfare reading, or pretending to read, some portion of the Bible, which he gives in a loud voice as soon as he hears a footstep approaching” (59).  B.G. Johns, a sighted educator of blind students, made similar insinuations. Markedly different in his assessment of the reader on Waterloo Bridge than the authors of the positive accounts given above, Johns describes him as:

the stout, elderly, good-natured looking man who sits in one of the recesses of Waterloo Bridge, and professes to be reading, in a loud, strong voice, some page of Saint Paul, in Frere’s system. Whether he is reading it or not is entirely another question. At all events he has learned a good many pages by heart most correctly; and so reads on glibly enough in all weathers, rain, east wind, or snow, when the finger of an unprofessional blind boy would be utterly disabled. (84)

When Johns characterizes the reading that takes place on Waterloo Bridge as fake, as a recitation from memory, he distinguishes between the blind street performer and respectable blind readers, represented for him by “the unprofessional blind boy,” a sensitive reader who could not manage to read in harsh outdoor conditions if he wanted to.

Why was the reading of raised-print books on the street dismissed as fake while the reading of raised print books in the home was celebrated?  Why is the visual record dominated by images of blind people reading in domestic spaces?  Why did reading on the streets inspire suspicion, not just in the average observer but in well-informed commentators who practiced and taught reading by touch?  Clearly, the ‘where’ of reading by touch mattered a great deal to Victorians.  The inference that the blind street reader is not really reading was a useful one for advocates for the education of visually disabled people and for improved employment opportunities. Criticizing the practice of street reading, commentators sought a relocation of blind reading from street to home, a relocation that could cleanse reading by touch from the taint of the public sphere and from the problematic association street reading created between blind literacy and begging.  Troubled by a past and present day characterized by radically inadequate employment options, these educators and activists celebrated forms of reading by touch that closely resembled reading by sight.  They wanted reading by touch off the streets.

Written accounts of the reading of raised-print books on the streets of Victorian Britain communicate very different ideas about the where and the why of reading by touch than are communicated by visual images of blind people reading in domestic settings. The written record may not be more accurate than the visual record but it is nonetheless valuable for the way it complicates the visual record’s arguably sanitized portrayal of visually disabled Victorians and their reading practices.  Thinking about the spaces occupied by Britain’s earliest generations of visually disabled readers—about reading that took place in the street as well as the home—can help us to better understand the lived experiences of visually disabled Victorians.  Visiting the Touching the Book exhibit is both a prompt and an opportunity for us to do so.

Vanessa Warne, University of Manitoba


Armitage, Thomas Rhodes. The Education and Employment of the Blind: What it has been, is and ought to be. 2nd Ed. London: Harrison, 1886.

Johns, B.G. Blind People: Their Works and Ways. London: Murray, 1867.

“London Street Studies.” The English Illustrated Magazine. 5: 1888. 799-804.

Mayhew, Henry.  London Labour and the London Poor.  4 vols, New York: Dover, 1968.

Shadow.  Midnight Scenes and Social Photographs. Glasgow: Thomas Murray, 1858.

“Waterloo Bridge.” Chambers’s Journal. 55: 1878. 750-2.


3 thoughts on “On Bridges and Streets: The Public Face of Raised-Print Readers

  1. Jim Christopher

    This is a thoughtful piece and highlights the sensitivity of 19th (and 20th and 21st!) century social reformers, whose mantra was that education was the key to economic success and social well-being, to any concrete evidence that might indicate that there was not necessarily a direct correlation between the two.
    Is this any different from the often wilful blindness of politicians and social commentators in our own society who hang the same mantle of personal economic success on need to acquire technological competencies, as 19th century observers placed on literacy?

  2. Jan Seymour-Ford

    I can understand why the educators, Armitage and Johns, would be critical of public reading for alms. They might have feared that the perception of the value of their educational work would be undermined. Donors might wonder why they should contribute to schools for the blind if their graduates ended up as street performers anyway. I wonder how much the employment options have really improved since the 19th century.

  3. Rebecca Scales

    I am enjoying all of these blog posts so much … and finding in them some great teaching tools. I have used Mayhew so many times in my classes and never noticed the blind reader! I am completely fascinated by the anxiety surrounding this blind reader in public ….


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