Glasgow Asylum for the Blind - Times Past

Posted on 8 March 2023

In partnership with the Glasgow Times, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Michael Gallagher writes about the Glasgow Asylum for the Blind.

If you walk past the Royal Infirmary and glance up at the clock tower on Castle Street, you might notice a sculpture, “Christ healing a blind boy”. The monument is a reminder of Glasgow’s important role in education for the blind.

The first Glasgow Asylum for the Blind on Castle Street was opened in 1828. A key figure in its early success was John Alston, a Glasgow muslin manufacturer, town councillor and philanthropist. Alston helped raised funds for the new institution via public subscription and became a committed advocate of education for the blind, which he believed was “not only a reasonable but incumbent duty.”

Residents of the Asylum were initially taught by oral instruction, then by using a string alphabet where letters were formed by making knots in a cord, but neither method proved very efficient.

In the 1830s, Alston began to develop a reading system for the blind that incorporated raised letters. He felt that basing his system on the Roman alphabet would be better for those who were familiar with it before they lost their sight, whilst also making it easier for sighted instructors to teach.

Alston worked with the Asylum’s residents to test his experimental designs, making a series of tweaks along the way. He published his alphabet in 1836 and embarked on a project to print the world’s first edition of the entire Bible in raised type, which was completed in 1840 using the Asylum’s own printing press. Alston type was also used at the School for the Blind in Paris before the adoption of Braille.

Education of the blind, in common with many philanthropic ventures in the Victorian period, contained a strong spiritual component. Many of the texts printed by the institution were religious in nature, but it also prepared maps and globes to impart knowledge of the surface of the earth.

In addition to general education (including musical tuition), the Asylum offered instruction in trades and provided employment in its workshops. Inmates were trained in activities such as weaving, knitting and sewing, and produced a range of products including baskets, brushes, and doormats. These were sold to trade and members of the public at the Asylum’s own shops on Candleriggs and Sauchiehall St.

The Blind Asylum continued to expand: by 1842 it housed 80 people and this number had nearly doubled by 1878, prompting the need for new premises. An ornate new building on Castle Street was completed in 1881 at a cost of £21,000 - twice the original estimate. In 1898, Queen Victoria granted permission to add a regal prefix and the institution was renamed the Royal Glasgow Asylum for the Blind.

By the 1930s, the new Castle Street building was acquired by the adjacent Royal Infirmary and part still stands. Although the Asylum no longer exists, its manufacturing enterprise continues under the auspices of the Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries, which carries on the valuable work of Alston and his contemporaries.