Celebrating 180 years of Manchester’s first society for blind people

Post date: 
Wednesday, 27 September 2017
Photo of a Henshaws van from 1935

Danielle Colcombe, Community Facilitator, attended Henshaws' 180th anniversary exhibition this month to recognise the amazing work of the charity.

As dozens of people descend on to the tram platform at St Peter’s Square, the mood in central Manchester is bustling and vibrant. However, as the crowds disperse, one building stands elegant and peaceful.
Manchester Central Library is a grade II listed building with a columned entrance attached to a domed structure. It recently underwent a four-year transformation and reopened to the public in 2014. 
A building oozing with history and wonder is the perfect location to celebrate 180 years of Manchester’s first society for blind people, Henshaws. The charity has been improving the lives of people with sight loss across Greater Manchester for generations. 
Entering the foyer of the grand building, there are two fuchsia pink T-shirts standing out from the crowd and I have no doubt that this is the staple colour of Henshaws. The two friendly volunteers welcomed me, offered me a cuppa and showed me to the exhibition room on the ground floor of the library.

I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the fascinating history and amazing stories on offer. Stewart, Legacies Manager at Henshaws, shared with me what it was like putting the exhibition together: “It was fascinating, there are so many stories we could’ve told. It’s been wonderful to learn about people that changed the world for sight loss in Manchester. People that marched to demand rights for the visually impaired in the 1920s that nobody knows about! Uncovering these stories has been great.”

Indeed Ben Purse - a Henshaws’ student - led a protest for government welfare provision. He and 60 other bind people marched across the UK, holding rallies in each town. This led to the implementation of the Blind Act of 1920 which brought about – among other things – the lowering of pension age for blind people to 50.
Stewart continues: “For us, this is an opportunity to say thank you to the people of greater Manchester, those who have donated, volunteered, fundraised and enabled blind and partially sighted people to live the life they want to live”.

One thing that stands out to me is that Henshaws’ ethos hasn’t changed in the past 180 years either. The legacy began with one man’s generous donation, Thomas Henshaw, who ran a hat-making factory in Oldham with his brother. Thomas died in 1810 and left a gift in his will to create “an indigent asylum for the blind”. Thanks to him, and support from thousands of other Mancunians, the charity has been helping people with sight loss go beyond expectations for the last 180 years.

I spoke to Nick, Henshaws’ Chief Executive, who explains why the exhibition is important to Manchester: “There are a lot of people out there with sight loss who don’t know that we are here. The more of those people we can reach the better”.
It was enlightening to discover how Henshaws has adapted over the past 180 years, and how the communities of Greater Manchester have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of people with sight loss.
Marion, an ambassador for the charity, told me why it’s so important to her: “I was very proud to become an ambassador due to all of the kindness I’ve had from Henshaws. I attend the groups – they’re full of fun and laughter”.
I was interested to learn that before braille, visually impaired people were taught to use embossed systems of writing. Mr G. A. Hughes, the first director of the Henshaws asylum, was intent on making it easier for those without sight to produce text. In 1850 he invented the Typograph, which produced both visible and embossed characters with lever operated plungers for each letter. It was awarded a gold medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
After cramming so many weird and wonderful facts into my fascinated mind, it was time to be on my way – but not before making one of the most glamorous exits of my life; stumbling down one of the unmarked steps of the grand library entrance. Seems some things will never change for the lives of the visually impaired! 

Further information

  • The exhibition runs until Tuesday 31 October 2017 at Manchester Central Library - find out more on Henshaws' website.

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