Although the National League of the Blind (‘the Disabled’ was added in 1968) was established as an orthodox trade union, from the beginning it was concerned with winning recognition for the abilities of blind people. The general perception of blind people had been that they were incapable of serious work and therefore had to be only a burden upon local authorities. Braille had been introduced into Britain as early as 1861 but it was not until 1902 that a comprehensive British system was launched.
The 1889 Royal Commission on the Blind and Deaf had recommended compulsory education for blind persons up to the age of 16, either in school or technical institutions. The 1893 Act brought the recommendations into law, although sufficient resources were not made available. The National League of the Blind was founded in 1894 at a time when blind people were entering the labour market in larger numbers, generally in trades such as basket weaving, rug making and piano tuning. The first General Secretary, Ben Purse, was a piano tuner who had trained at Henshaw’s Blind Asylum – which was situated on Warwick Road, Old Trafford. Purse was born in Salford in 1874 and had lost his sight completely by the age of 13.
A trade union was required in order to represent workers who were being exploited both in private industry and in the charity sector. The National League of the Blind became affiliated to the TUC in 1902 and the Labour Party in 1909. The union began with a fighting reputation but under the influence of Ben Purse gradually adopted a more conciliatory approach. The union did co-operate with charities but campaigned for the state to take over the responsibility for the employment of blind workers or a decent pension if they could not work, and the first strike by blind workers in support of this was held in 1912 in Bristol and lasted six months.
In 1920, by which time the issue of blindness had come more to public attention owing to the large numbers of men blinded in the 1914–1918 War, there was a significant legislative breakthrough. In 1917 Ben Purse became a member of the first ever Advisory Committee for the Welfare of the Blind and to ensure that the cause of blind people was advanced Ben Tillett put forward a Private Member’s Bill in 1920. The Government did not allow the Bill to proceed but did promise that Parliamentary time would be made available.
The National League of the Blind adopted a novel approach to put pressure on the Government by organising a march from three locations in Britain – Newport, Leeds and Manchester. A total of 171 blind workers marched to Trafalgar Square behind a banner that read ‘Justice Not Charity’, and raised awareness of the plight of blind people as they walked through the country. (The photograph above of the march was donated to the Library in 2015 and featured then as an Object of the Month). The Newport marchers included those from the South West as well as Wales. The Leeds contingent included those from Scotland and the North East and those from Ireland met up with workers from the North West in Manchester. (This approach was later adopted by the Jarrow Marches in 1936).
In the Parliamentary debate Nancy Astor said that ‘Personally, I would far rather see the blind employed and given work and education than all the charity in the world.’
Having arrived in London, Purse had to wait a further five days before being permitted to address Prime Minister Lloyd George. The Bill did, however, pass into law in September 1920 and incorporated a reduction in the pension age from 70 to 50 for blind people. In other respects the Act was disappointing in that it left much of the responsibility with local authorities, only some of whom provided good services. The legislation also ran into difficulties in that there was no national register of the blind nor even a definition as what constituted blindness. However, large numbers of blind people came forward to claim the pension, an indication that they felt that no stigma was attached to what they judged to be an entitlement, rather than charity. The number of ‘known’ blind people doubled in ten years. The union continued to campaign for a minimum income for all blind workers.
In 1936 another such march took place but was rather overshadowed by the Jarrow March in October. Ben Purse had, soon after the 1920 enactment, set up a breakaway union (National Union of Industrial and Professional Blind – later the National Union of Blind Workers) and embarked upon a course of greater co-operation with charities. In his work in 1928 The British Blind Purse had argued that more self-help was required and less interference from the state, and that the 1920 Act had already given a blind person the opportunity ‘to win himself a place in society by the exercise of his own initiative and capacity.’
Increasingly, the union became isolated from many ‘official’ organisations and charities, preferring not to register as a charity and stay true to ‘identification with the values and principles of the Trade Union movement.’ In 1968 it became the National League of the Blind and Disabled and in 2000 merged with the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation; this is now part of the union Community.
The National League is composed of around 45 branches across the UK, including Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The members organise within their branches and on a regional basis in their Regional Councils, and are governed by a National Committee elected by the members. Recent campaigns have included one for the Disability Discrimination Act in 2005.
Resources in the Library about the League
The WCML has an extensive holding of NLBD reports, balance sheets, conference reports and papers from various districts. There are copies of the journal Blind Advocate and two Labour Party pamphlets on The Blind Persons Act (1920) and the Blind Persons Charter (1935). Search the catalogue here.
The Modern Records Centre at Warwick University holds material on the NLBD including rule books, annual reports, photographs and details of trade disputes. It also has papers on the various industries which have traditionally provided employment for blind workers – basket making, bedding, furniture, knitwear etc. The relationship between Ben Purse and the National League of the Blind is covered in a Manchester Metropolitan University MPhil in 2008 written by Francis Salt.