From the creation of the Poor Laws in the 17th century until the late 19th century it was assumed that blind people would need to be supported by local authorities as they were incapable of working. However developments in education for blind people such as the development of Braille meant that more and more religious or charitable foundations were being set up to train blind people for work. This approach was endorsed by the Royal Commission of the Blind in 1899 which recommended compulsory education for blind children with a view to fitting them for work.
Blind schools were usually residential institutions and often trained workers for charity administered workshops. Trades such as basket weaving and rug making were common.
Pay from the workshops was on piece rate and as blind workers could not compete with the output of sighted workers in factories their income was often not enough for them to live on or support their families. The workers also contrasted their income with that enjoyed by charity administrators many of whom they said were corrupt. Like other workers of the time they recognised that the answer lay in uniting to take collective action.
The National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland was founded in 1894. The first general secretary was Ben Purse a piano-tuner who had trained at Henshaws Blind Asylum in Manchester. The league joined the TUC in 1902.
The first strike by league members took place in Bristol in 1912 and lasted six-months. Many more followed. There was often a backlash from the workshop managers victimising union members who had taken action.
As well as collective bargaining the league campaigned for the state to take over responsibility for employing blind people and for a decent pension for those who could not work. After several years of lobbying a friendly MP Ben Tillet introduced a private members bill in February 1920 which met all their aims. The bill went well in parliament but the government announced it would being making changes to the bill or bring its own.
In order to put pressure on the government the league took the novel approach of a march from three locations to converge on London for a mass demonstration in Trafalgar Square. There had been many protest marches but this was the first to choreograph different contingents to raise awareness with rallies in towns along their route as well as on their arrival in London. The Jarrow march sixteen years later was based on their model.
74 blind workers from Scotland and the north east of England travelled to Leeds to set off on April 5 1920. On the same day 60 workers from Ireland and the north west left Manchester and 37 from around the south west departed from Newport. They marched behind a banner reading 'Justice not charity'. The marchers reached Trafalgar Square on April 25 supported by London trade union branches. They then waited five days to see Prime Minister Lloyd George. The Manchester Guardian published a statement from Ben Purse to George.
“Firstly may I be permitted to postulate that we have no faith in what is called 'permissive legislation'? Our unfortunate association with the Poor Law and its administration has dissipated any optimism which we might have entertained on that score. And moreover the provisions of the new Education Act are in like degree equally disappointing. Any reactionary local authority is now able to evade its responsibility for giving training and ultimate employment to blind people, and therefore, while we may have a few enlightened local administrations fully alive to the duties which devolve upon them the majority will prove adamant”.
The Blind Persons Act became law in September 1920. Despite the huge propaganda success of the march, it was still less prescriptive than the league had wanted. As well as lobbying for changes to the law they concentrated on applying pressure on individual local authorities in what today we would call a typical postcode lottery.
In October 1936 the league held another march. As before it was supported by the trade union movement but the public mood was less supportive. The militant activities on the National Unemployed Workers Movement hunger marches had discredited this kind of protest and the blind workers were competing for public sympathy with the jobless Jarrow marchers. Nevertheless the league did win some concessions from the government with a second Blind Persons Act in 1938.
The public were not the only ones whose feelings had changed. The charities were still an important source of funding for the workshops and some of the union leaders were keen to build a more co-operative relationship. Amongst them was Ben Purse who formed a break away union the National Union of Industrial and Professional Blind in 1921.
By 1936 Purse was working for the charity, the National Institute of the Blind and apparently advised the government on tactics to prevent the march.
Other members still had strong anti-charity views. They had no objection to accepting money either from trade union donations or the regular street collections which were their main source of funding.
But they did not want to be identified as a charitable foundation with all that meant to them of oppression and corruption. The Blind Act and the War Charities Act of 1916 meant that they needed to register as a charity to collect money from the public but they voted not to. In 1922 two union members were prosecuted for illegal street collecting.
The authorities used this illegal activity as a reason to exclude the union from the Central Committee on the Welfare of the Blind. The continued refusal to register is a testament to the strength of feeling against outside oppression and an identification with the values and principles of the Trade Union movement.
The National League of the Blind became the National League for the Blind and Disabled and in 2000 merged with ISTC to become the union Community.