The Early Years
From the start, our aim was help visually-impaired people to lead lives as rich and fulfilling as possible. Originally, the charity was called the Devon County Association for the Welfare of the Blind. Though the word ‘welfare’ was dropped in 1962, the welfare and wellbeing of blind people in Devon remained the goal.
Initially, the charity employed five ‘home teachers’ who covered the county, so that ‘all the blind in the county who are able and willing to do so can, in their own homes, receive instruction and help in reading embossed type and in simple handicrafts’. These included knitting, rug-making and basketwork and enabled blind people to enjoy the activities for their own sake as well as gaining an income from selling the products.
In 1930, the charity purchased two Austin Sevens for two of the home teachers to use. By 1932, the charity was able to report that there were now 6 home teachers. Between them they had made 9424 visits during the year and given 504 handicraft lessons. Delightfully, the charity was able to announce in its Annual Report in 1937 that ‘all teachers shall have the privileges of membership of the AA’. The home teacher service reached a peak in the mid-1960s, with 10 home teachers employed. At the same time a pilot voluntary visiting service was introduced in Exmouth, with volunteers helping blind people with shopping, letter-writing and so forth. This service lapsed in the mid-20th-century but was re-instigated in 2008, with new pilot schemes in Torbay and Mid-Devon, and will hopefully be expanded across other areas of Devon in the future.
As well as home visiting, the DCAB provided a number of other services during the 1920s and 30s. One significant one was the provision of wireless licences, which the charity distributed to blind people from 1927 on behalf of Devon County Council. Wireless made a huge difference to the quality of life of blind people isolated in their homes. A fund, administered by the National Institute for the Blind on behalf of the Daily Express, unfortunately allowed the purchase of crystal sets only, which the DCAB reported ‘are practically useless in Devonshire! Nonetheless, by 1930 a total of 189 free licences had been issued and a list of 221 more blind people sent to the British Wireless for the Blind Fund, ‘hoping the necessary valve sets will be forthcoming’. This scheme continued over many years.
Financial assistance for blind people living in their own homes was another service that DCAB provided on behalf of the County Council. It was introduced in the mid-1930s, distributed directly to the blind by volunteer almoners, and continued for a number of years. In 1937, each blind person in receipt of this domiciliary assistance was given a gift of half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) on the occasion of the Coronation of King George VI.
The War Years
The period through and just after the Second World War was challenging for the DCAB. Evacuees from large cities began arriving in Devon, including in their midst a number of blind and visually-impaired people. Not only were there more people to serve, but petrol rationing meant that the home teachers were forced to use buses and trains to carry out their visits. They still managed to give lessons in Braille, but handicraft work suffered through lack of materials. Nonetheless, the charity was able to report that ‘in many districts the blind are knitting for the Red Cross or have adopted a ship or regiment’.
Evacuees, of course, included in their number people who needed the domiciliary assistance provided by DCAB. By 1943, 66 evacuees in the county were receiving this help and numbers continued to increase. In 1945, the assistance was increased to 27 shillings a week for single people and 44 shillings for a married couple. The DCAD dealt with 600 cases that year, paying out £35,000 15s 9d. As more evacuees arrived, fleeing the Flying Bomb attacks in London, the task of finding suitable accommodation fell to DCAB. ‘Many difficulties have inevitably arisen, but not effort has been spared to make these unfortunate people as happy as circumstances permit in their temporary homes’. As the war went on this work was to continue to prove far from easy, partly because of Devon’s attractions in general. In 1945, the charity reported that ‘considerable difficulty has been experienced in finding accommodation, especially in coastal districts, owing to the lifting of the Government ban [on travel outside of people’s immediate areas] and the consequent influx of holidaymakers’.
The war years were not characterised totally by difficulties and challenges, however. The year 1940 saw the first guide dog arrive in Devon, a black and white border collie who ‘is a great joy to his owner and has settled down very well in his new home’. The DCAB subsequently contributed to the upkeep of the dog, along with the Honiton Girl Guides’ Association.
The Latter half of the 20th Century
The charity expanded its range of services over the last five decades of the 20th Century. Blind children and young people from Devon were helped to gain education, training and employment. Younger pupils studied at Sunshine Homes or at special schools for the blind, and the charity helped students at the West of England Institution to train in a variety of roles, including piano tuning, switchboard operation, physiotherapy and horticulture – and there is one instance mentioned of a blind student training as a wood chopper!
In 1947, the DCAB first discussed the need to establish a home ‘for elderly blind persons needing a little extra care and attention’. A suitable property – a large house and, subsequently, the next-door property, overlooking the Taw and Torridge estuaries – was purchased at Instow, North Devon, in 1951. It was named Andrew Home after Alice Andrew, for 24 years the home teacher for the North Devon area. Andrew Home provided permanent accommodation for 24 blind residents and for holidaying and convalescent guests. Accounts from the period show an asset value, including furniture and equipment, of £13,852 10s 8d, and an annual household income and expenditure account of £404 19s 6d. The Home was highly successful for many years – despite a ceiling collapse in 1955! – providing excellent care, outings, interests and companionship for elderly blind people not able to care for themselves. Eventually, the home was sold, in 1981, after caring for blind people for 30 years.
From the earliest times to very recently, the charity organised an annual craft show where blind people exhibited their handiwork. It proved a popular event until very late in the 20th century, when dwindling numbers of entries made it non-viable. Blind people are nowadays far less likely to live isolated lives in their homes, and far more likely to be working and active in their communities, and craftwork is not so central to their lives anymore. In other ways, though, the DCAB continues to facilitate many social activities. As far back as the 1930s, the charity was organising socials and parties in the winter months and outings in the summer. Annual holidays took place from the 1960s, the first one being to Bournemouth in 1963 for 20 blind people and their guides, and a scheme for families and young people to take a break at holiday camps in the south west was introduced in 1968. We also have links to 20 long-established clubs for blind people across Devon through which visually-impaired people meet and enjoy outings and shared pastimes.
Modern aids and new forms of assistance mean that independence is a reality for most visually-impaired people. The DCAB has always played a major role in furthering this. It has always provided small grants, for example, for items that enable independent living. Over the decades the things these grants have been put towards has changed markedly. The charity’s records show that in earlier years they were used for, amongst other things, repairs to dentures and hearing aids, a caravan for a blind agricultural worker, a batch of month-old chicks for a poultry breeder, wheelbarrow and cloches for a blind gardener, a harmonica for a ’16 year old boy deprived of a normal home life’, pig-meal to replace some stolen from a blind pig-keeper, and the fares for a blind couple with a baby travelling to Ireland and for a mother visiting a blind child in hospital. Nowadays, the DCAB is more likely to be awarding grants towards talking microwaves, talking wristwatches and electronic reading aids. The DCAB’s resource centre, established some twenty years ago, had a huge facelift in 2011 and now represents the best that can be offered to visually-impaired people. The same centre also provides Low Vision Clinics and advice, the modern-day version of our counselling ‘surgeries’ offered from the 1970s.
Devon in Sight moved to the main part of Station House, Topsham in 1997, and then purchased and renovated the old Ticket Office which was opened as a new Resource Centre in 2011.
2011 also saw DCAB change its name to ‘Devon in Sight’ to reflect the fact that services are provided to people affected by a range of sight loss conditions.
Over the following 20 years the building served us well, not only providing a base for our staff and services, but also services provided by the RNIB and Optima Low Vision Services.
Station House was in many ways a lovely building. It was designed by Sir William Tite and constructed in 1860 as part of the expansion of the Great Western Railway. However, as a historic building it required a major renovation which would take up a great deal of the charity’s time and resources. We have also seen a huge shift in the way we deliver services.
With the launch of our Community Support Service we reached many more people with sight loss by providing services from community buildings across Devon which were much easy for people to reach than getting to Topsham.
Finally, due to the challenging financial pressures on the sector, a number of partners will no longer be running services from Station House.
In 2018 we felt it was the right time to move to a smaller office as a base for staff, training and development, and to focus more of our efforts on front line services in the communities across Devon. We subsequently sold Stat ion House and moved to Splatford Barton, Kennford just outside Exeter.
Now and the Future
In 1972 the first full-time secretarial assistant was appointed by the DCAB. Now, we have 4 full-time and 5 part-time members of staff and many volunteers who help with our work.
We are entirely dependent on donations and bequests, as we receive no statutory help at all. Fundraising has always been important to the charity and as we go forward with our plans to offer ever better services to Devon’s visually-impaired population, we shall need to continue to put much effort into this activity. We are proud of what the charity has achieved over almost a century, and determined to build on those achievements through the next decades!
This history of Devon in Sight was researched by our former Trustee Dr Alma Swan and our current Chief Executive Officer Grahame Flynn.