Celebrating 165 years of helping Cornwall’s blind and partially sighted 

Blind tutor William Baker. With thanks to Kresen Kernow, custodian of the original image, X524/53/30.
William Baker. With thanks to Kresen Kernow, custodian of the original image, X524/53/30.

In 1856, an association was founded to support Cornish miners who had lost their sight due to hazardous working conditions and accidents. Now named iSightCornwall, the organisation is currently celebrating 165 years of helping Cornwall’s blind and partially sighted, in increasingly innovative and effective ways.    

In the mid-1800s, Cornwall was the most active mining district in the world and the largest producer of copper, employing up to 30% of the male workforce at its peak. Miners rarely exceeded the age of 40 with many succumbing to consumption. Other lives were claimed by accidents, while those who survived might be left injured and unable to earn a living, leading to severe hardship. Sight loss was common as miners would use gunpowder to blast through rock; unexpected explosions would occur, even after the invention of a safety fuse.  

Plans for an association for the blind were first put forward at the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society’s Annual Exhibition of 1856. The following year saw the launch of the Itinerant Teaching of the Blind in the County of Cornwall to Read the Sacred Scriptures and to Write. As its cumbersome name suggests, its chief purpose was that of visiting blind people at home and teaching them to read the Bible using Moon type (a precursor to Braille). 

The founding committee comprised the great and good of the day: clergy, solicitors, bankers, magistrates, MPs, mayors and health care professionals; and featured names still common in Cornwall today – Fox, Bolitho, Coode. 

St Austell teacher William Baker, himself visually impaired, taught 61 blind people to read across Cornwall. One claimed he “could not find language to express his gratitude to those who had … given back his eyes again”. Another, Thomas James, emigrated from St Just to Victoria, Australia, and spent the next 40 years teaching hundreds of blind people from the Moon type books he took with him.  

Moon Type

By the late 19th century, pupils were learning to type on Braille typewriters grant-funded by the Society. Mining was on the decline in Cornwall, but the First World War saw an increase in injuries from a different source. The end of the war coincided with Cornwall’s first “register” of 250 blind people, while the introduction of the Ministry of Health Act in 1919 saw council-funded teachers making home visits throughout Cornwall, teaching music, rug making, knitting, chair caning and basket making in addition to reading. Association funds went towards hospital transport, library subscriptions, typewriters, knitting machines and welfare payments. 

In 1920, the Blind Persons Act became the first disability specific legislation to be passed anywhere in the world, requiring local authorities to promote the welfare of blind people and reducing the pension age for blind men from 70 to 50. However, it was becoming impossible for teachers to visit those in more remote areas, and in 1927, the Association appointed its first sighted teachers who could drive to appointments. 

The Second World War had a huge impact on what was now Cornwall County Association for the Blind. Some committee members had to resign to focus on war efforts, while home teachers helped people to fill in ration cards, gave advice on blacking out their homes, taught blind evacuees and provided lists of blind people to the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) wardens. In 1944, monthly social clubs started up throughout the county – those in Launceston and Saltash continue to this day.  

Post-war, the Association purchased a property in Highertown, Truro. Malabar Home for the Blind was intended to care for elderly members with no family to look after them, at a time when the only alternative option was the work house. It did so, and hosted garden parties for hundreds of members, until it was sold in 1971, by which time many blind people were choosing to stay in residential care closer to home. 

Malabar House

Technology moved on apace. During the 1960s, only half of UK households had a telephone, with many relying on public telephone boxes – not a practical option for the visually impaired. To this end, the Association offered grants for home telephone lines. And in the early ‘70s, the Cornish Talking Newspaper and Magazine was launched on cassette tape (it’s now distributed on USB stick). In 1989, volunteers drove a converted bus around the county, providing a mobile information service about the increasing number of daily living aids, including magnifiers and desktop readers.  

The Sight Centre opened on Truro’s Newham Road in 1994. Its equipment room and kitchen were used to demonstrate aids such as talking clocks, watches, weighing scales and raised stickers to help identify controls on cookers or washing machines, while a communications room was filled with computers featuring assistive speech software. Weekly clinics were launched to help the visually impaired live independently; these now run daily in Truro with monthly appointments in Penzance, Helston, Bodmin, St Austell and Launceston. 

The team continues to fight for visually impaired causes. In 2009, staff and trustees attended a major demonstration in London to lobby MPs about the Disability Living Allowance. The resulting changes meant more people were eligible for a higher rate of benefit. And in 2011, Terri Rosnau became the first visually impaired Chief Executive of Cornwall Blind Association, having worked her way up from volunteer to trustee over five years. She held the position until 2019.  

Having switched from being an association “for the blind” to the Cornwall Blind Association, which sounded more empowering, in 2015 the organisation rebranded completely to iSightCornwall, in a bid to appeal to people of all stages of sight loss.  

Its work in the community continues; in 2017, iSightCornwall collaborated with the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust to provide Cornwall’s first Eye Clinic Liaison Officer (ECLO), Tara Butler, who provides practical and emotional support at the hospital to help the patient understand their diagnosis. The following year, sight loss awareness training and accessibility audits were made available for local businesses looking to improve the experience for visually impaired customers. 

iSightCornwall’s Kayak Club

When the UK went into a nationwide lockdown in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, staff moved to home-working and all face-to-face appointments had to be cancelled. To combat loneliness, iSightCornwall launched MyFriend, a new telephone befriending service offering weekly phone calls from a volunteer. Low vision adviser Shannon Smith won a national award for devising a new way of helping patients via a telephone assessment, enabling them to access essential low-vision aids that would help them through long periods of isolation. Meanwhile, the Sight Centre reception area was refurbished and enlarged, with socially distanced seating areas, energy saving lighting and a new area for demonstrating living aids. 

Today’s board of directors is made up of both sighted and visually impaired trustees with experience in business, finance, optometry and ophthalmology. These current custodians may differ in many ways from the founding committee of clergymen, bankers and wealthy landowners, but in their desire to give their time to improve the lives of over 23,000 blind and partially sighted people in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, they are exactly the same.  

iSightCornwall chief executive Carole Theobald says: “Since 1856, the charity has been known by several different names and gone through several different transformations, but our mission to support people living with sight loss has always remained the same. Reaching 165 years is a significant milestone for the charity, but it also shows that the need for sight loss support has not gone away over that time. In fact, demand for our services has never been higher. We support thousands of people across Cornwall each year and will continue to do so for many more years to come.”  

This number is expected to grow to almost 30,000 by 2030. Your help is needed to ensure the legacy of Cornwall’s oldest charity lives on. All money raised stays in Cornwall and helps to provide home visits, essential transport for clubs and activities, and community events to deliver sight loss support. Become a Friend of iSightCornwall for as little as £2 a month, or leave a gift in your will – and make a genuine difference to people’s lives.  

ISightCornwall, The Sight Centre, Newham Road, Truro, Cornwall, TR1 2DP.  
Tel 01872 261110
 www.isightcornwall.org.uk