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Students at the Royal National College for the Blind

The Royal National College for the Blind:

140 years of leading the way in specialist education for people who are blind or partially sighted 

A meeting of minds...

Over one hundred and forty years ago, few blind children could hope for either a good education or steady and worthwhile employment. The Victorian philanthropist, Dr. Thomas Rhodes Armitage believed these problems were interrelated and that given an education of similar content to that received by sighted children, blind people could go on to have equally successful careers.

In 1871, he met a like-minded visionary in the American, Francis Joseph Campbell. Campbell was born in 1832 at Winchester, Tennessee and lost his sight at the age of five. He studied at Nashville School for the blind and at just sixteen years of age, became the Music Master there! After graduating from the University of Tennessee aged 22, he became musical director at the Wisconsin School for the Blind. During his time there people became aware of his strong anti-slavery sentiments. He was given 24 hours to renounce his views or face hanging. He refused to do so, but escaped hanging due to public sympathy for his blindness. He left Wisconsin and went to on become the Director of Music for eleven years at The Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts.

Campbell and Armitage resolved to found a ground breaking College in England and a year later, on 1st March 1872, the College we now know as RNC was established with the assistance of the first Duke of Westminster and Mr C.A.Miner.

Rapid growth

The college was originally called The Royal Normal College and Academy for the Blind. 'Normal' referred to teacher training which was offered by the college. The majority of the teaching staff were at this time recruited by Francis Campbell from his native America.

The college started in 3 small houses not far from the Crystal Palace in London. By the end of the first year, it had outgrown the site and moved to Upper Norwood.The curriculum was liberal and advanced for its day, and included a large amount of physical education. Roller-skating was much practised and an early report mentions tobogganing after a heavy fall of snow! In those early days the atmosphere was full of life and excitingly experimental. Campbell`s first wife died soon after the College was opened, and in 1875, he married one of his teachers, Sophia Faulkner, originally of Massachusetts.

By the 1880s the college, which had started with just 2 students, had well over 150 students, and over 200 by the end of the century. The college was run as a preparatory school taking children aged 5 to 13, and a grammar and high school.

'The College is open to the young of either sex and of any rank, but only those will be received as pupils who, in the opinion of the Principal, show sufficient ability to render it probable that by instruction they can be rendered capable of self-support.' (Annual Report 1880)

In 1887 Drs Campbell and Armitage founded the Guild of Past Students 'for the purpose of mutual aid, especially in the first entry into life'. The Guild is still going strong today. In 1909, Francis Campbell was knighted by King Edward VII and retired 3 years later to be succeeded by his eldest son, Guy Marshall Campbell.

In 1929, his widow, Louie Bealby Campbell, in turn succeeded him. When she retired in 1934, the Principalship passed outside the Campbell family for the first time, when William Stone took over. He retired 3 years later and in 1937 Dr Langdon took over as principal.

From London to Shropshire

With the outbreak of World War II, the College was evacuated to a mansion known as Great Maytham, in Rolvenden, West Kent. However, with the imminent threat of invasion, the College had to leave in 1940 and seek yet another home. The move was made at 24 hours notice on the urgent advice of the authorities! Most of the pupils were on holiday at the time, but some thirty pupils and a number of staff had remained and thankfully The Royal London Society for the Blind took everyone in at Dorton House, near Aylesbury. The College was unable to return to its premises in Upper Norwood, which had been bombed out and acquired by the local authority. The College was effectively disbanded until it moved into Rowton Castle, near Shrewsbury, where pupils reassembled the following year.

In 1953, work was due to begin on enlarging the site. However, before this could happen a fire broke out, destroying a good deal of the buildings and 38 pianos and organs. Thankfully, everyone was evacuated safely. The sudden loss of already limited accommodation created a problem which could not be met by improvisation on the premises. Henshaw's Institution for the Blind stepped in to take pupils and staff as a temporary measure, so training could continue.

In 1955, the College acquired Albrighton Hall, about 3 miles from Shrewsbury, and adapted it for residential and training purposes for the older boys and young men. The girls and younger boys remained at Rowton Castle.

In 1958 Hardy House was obtained as a new residential area for girls previously based in Rowton Castle. The building included 6 kitchenettes, where girls were taught various domestic skills. Such skills today form part of 'Living Skills' for all students.

In 1966, after 29 years as principal, Dr Langdon retired and was succeeded by Alfred Lidster, who had previously been the bursar at the college.

A home in Hereford

In 1978 the College moved to it's current site in Hereford. The grounds had previously been the site of a teacher training college, and satisfied the College's needs both for teaching, and residential accommodation. A year later the work experience scheme, which had been initiated in Shrewsbury, was expanded. Enhancing the College emphasis on employment, dating from its conception by Dr Thomas Armitage and still the focus today.

The Living Skills department was set up, offering students more individual training in independence skills.

More recently, the College has been leading the way in specialist education in a myriad of ways:

So it's official, RNC is the number one college in the UK for supporting people with sight loss into further and higher education, the world of work and independent living.

And the story continues...