Our March 2019 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty

On Sunday 24th March we welcomed Margaret Guppy, who came to talk to us about the origins and history of Bradbury Fields - previously known as the Liverpool Voluntary Society for the Blind. Mary Wainwright was the charity's founder in 1857, and Margaret has written a book about her life and legacy.

In the mid-19th century, any form of disability among the poor of Liverpool led almost inevitably to the workhouse - Britain's largest, at the top of Brownlow Hill. Mary Wainwright, an evangelical Christian, was a visitor seeking to improve the conditions and prospects of the inmates. She recognised that learning craft skills, such as basket weaving and mattress making, was not enough. Blind children needed to learn to read as well, and the original object of the charity was to teach blind people to read the Bible using Moon (a system of raised alphabetic characters, developed by a Dr Moon).

The charity also established workshops - initially in Bold Street, and later on in Cornwallis Street. Even here, life for the employees was not easy. They had to walk to and from work, and were not allowed to go home early on foggy days (it being argued that the fog would not be a problem for them). In the 1990s Margaret had interviewed some of the older workers about their memories of Cornwallis Street. The men were strictly segregated from the women. If they arrived 10 minutes late for work, they would lose half a day's pay. The only toilet was on the roof if the building. But, in spite of these hardships, the employees felt that what they were doing was worthwhile, and it gave them a form of independence. Until the 1950s the charity owned two hostels, in Aigburth Road and the Dingle - one for men and one for women. Margaret had also brought along an old Minute Book of the charity's school in Devonshire Road. One girl had been taken before the Board for 'insubordination', having refused to do cleaning work on the grounds that she was unable to see the dust!

No-one knows what inspired Mary Wainwright to found the charity. She came from a relatively wealthy family - brewers from Halewood - and had two brothers who ran a sugar refining business. Another brother was a doctor in Everton. Margaret speculated that it was he who had, perhaps, drawn her attention to the plight of poor blind people. Mary died at the age of 56 - she is buried in Childwall churchyard - but her work was carried on by a niece, Eliza.

The charity is now 162 years old. Renamed Bradbury Fields (after the Bradbury Trust, a major donor) it is based at Youens Way off East Prescot Road. They organise social activities, including quizzes and even tandem riding. Margaret's research had been assisted by a history written by Admiral Rupert Wainwright (the great-great-grandson of one of Mary's brothers) and also by the charity's archives ("If you've not waded through 150 years of annual reports, you haven't lived", said Margaret). For this task she had had the help of a sighted friend.

Overall, this was an informative and thought-provoking talk. Margaret was accompanied by her guide dog Nicola, and our members used the question-and-answer session to find out more. We heard that it takes just under two years to turn a puppy into a guide dog, which will then serve its owner for 8 or 9 years. Most are labradors, but Nicola is a golden retriever and other suitable breeds include German Shepherd dogs and labradoodles.

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