South Devon and Cornwall Institution for the Blind

South Devon and Cornwall Institution for the Blind

Man who brought hope to the Blind


The acquisition of this unassuming yet substantial building in Cobourg Street, in 1862, represented the successful climax to many years work for 29-year-old James Gale of Crabtree. It was an achievement that young Gale was un-able to savour to the full, however as he had been quite blind for the last ten years or more of his life.

Gale’s father had been manager of a coal store at Crabtree and it was there that James had been born. While still a boy the family moved to Tavistock and the adventurous lad spent his days experimenting on the one hand with various substances –chemicals and even gunpowder, presumably made available through his fathers business – and on the one hand making the most of his pleasant green and rural surroundings. He was a lively 14 year old when – apparently as a result of an accident – he banged his head playing on some railings. Over the next three years his sight began failing him till at length he could see no more.

Thanks to the fact that his father could afford a private tutor Gale’s education continued despite his disadvantage, but the promising career as a chemical engineer appeared to have gone very much on the back burner. Facilities for the blind were remarkably few in those days and when, in his mid-twenties, Gale came to live in Plymouth he found there was no education at all for the blind in the area.

Not that Plymouth was particularly behind in such matters. Liverpool had been the first to make such provisions back in 1791 and thereafter other cities had taken up the lead fairly slowly, most falling into line in the 1840’s and 1850’s and in many uses  it was down to the efforts of one particular blind person in each area. Gale’s first notion was to open a school in part of his own home, which he thought he would attempt to run in his leisure time, but he was persuaded against this by his friends. He was determined to do something though and so he decided to canvas the leading members of the Three Towns to set up a school in some other part of town.

“Taking for his motto on-wards and upwards, he worked on steadily, thro ugh sunshine and rain, through heat and cold, oft times returning late at night drenched to the very skin and worn out with fatigue. Often did he feel stricken to the innermost core by numerous re-buffs. “Night after night he lay awake, the tears ever starting from his sightless eyes, as he sadly meditated over the apathy and coldness with which his scheme was received by many who possessed the power, but lacked the will, to assist it forward – (John Plummer “The Story of a Blind Inventor: Being some account of the life and labours of Dr James Gale’. Published in 1868) The perseverance paid off, eventually. The vicar of Tavistock Dr Tancock, was a great help as was Isaac Latimer, then editor of Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal, and a number of other prominent members of the local community.

The second plan was to open a school for the blind at 15 Claredon Place, Citadel Road, with Gale teaching for free. This time however it was the scale of the project that soon ruled that out as being insufficient. There were found to be around eighty blind persons then in the Three Towns and at a meeting called in Devonport with the help of Thomas Creber, another sufferer from Blindness, some fifty people turned up. A committee was formed on that night with the idea of establishing  an institution in Devonport. James Gale wished them well and continued to search for a suitable solution to the problem in Plymouth itself. In November 1859 a Plymouth Committee was at length formed and in January 1860 the Plymouth “Institute for the Instruction and employment of the Blind” was formally opened in a portion of the old Plymouth Workhouse.

At the first anniversary meeting the title was changed. The whole operation by now had snowballed, many new faces had decided to lend their support to the “South Devon and Cornwall Institution for the Education and Employment of the Blind” The Workhouse accommodation was rapidly outgrown and in 1862 the Institute moved to Cobourg Street.

The Prince Consort, Albert, no stranger to these parts, wrote to James Gale, “announcing his intention of patronizing the Plymouth Institution” and “some little time after this incident, the proprietor of the premises Cobourg Street, dying, bequeathed them unreservedly for the proposes of the institution; and one of the lady subscribers, having left a legacy of £200, the committee began enlarging the school, with the view of increasing it’s utility.

Soon the whole concern was such a success that Gale was able to leave it and move up to London, where his later work was to earn him many accolades (foremost among them his invention which allowed for safe storage of gunpowder, work which earned him the nickname “Gunpowder Tamer” from Prince Albert). Meanwhile back in Plymouth demand for places at the Institution was such that larger premises were necessary and within ten years of moving here freehold land was purchased off North Hill and hour years later the foundation stone was laid for the building that was to serve the Institute until 1964 when everything was moved to a new purpose building complex at Stonehouse, the old buildings having since been annexed by Plymouth High School for Girls. 

Meanwhile the move to Stonehouse was marked by an end of hostelling (the blind are more happily integrated into society than they ever were in Gale’s day) and the establishment of work at proper union rates. Today Stonehouse produce is sold to many places and among the major lines produced there are theatre packs for Dartford Hospital

More info: 

The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History