Researching 180 years of Henshaws

We hear from Lena Garvey, a student from Manchester University who spent an 8 week internship here at Henshaws as a Research Intern working on our 180th Anniversary Exhibition. Read about how she found her time at Henshaws and some of the fascinating stories she unearthed while conducting her research.

When I saw the job description for the Henshaws archiving position on the list of SEI student internships, I thought it was too good to be true. The prospect that I would have access to the archives of a 180 year old charity was unfathomable! My Anthropology degree involves studying many different kinds of people from around the world, but I wanted to spend my summer learning about the people of Manchester.

When I started at Talbot road, any anxiety I had was immediately dissipated by the friendly atmosphere and lovely staff in the fundraising office. In my first few weeks I delved into the archives looking at photographs, reading annual reports and looking at old newspaper clippings. The archives held at Talbot road and the John Ryland’s library are extensive and varied; they are made up of different materials relating to several aspects of the work Henshaws has done and the lives of the visually impaired citizens of Manchester over the course of history.

John Rylands Library

All of this reading allowed me to familiarise myself with Henshaws, but the most informative and enjoyable moments were with service users. Visiting the Henshaw’s specialist college in Harrogate for their summer fair was a delight, and I absolutely loved talking to several long term service users, including pupils who attended the Henshaws School before it was demolished!

My favourite part was reading through a folder which contained, amongst other things: old letters written by pupils, the typewritten school registers, girls bathing lists and nativity play programmes from the 1950’s. I could feel the history in the paper, and reading first-hand accounts of the pupil’s daily lives was touching. I felt absolutely honoured to have such an insight into the girls’ friendships, their dreams, the movies they watched and even their boy drama. It is amazing that Henshaws has preserved such intimate and insightful pieces of history, the kind of material usually found in the attic. This demonstrates the personal outlook Henshaws, even sorting through the boxes of photos felt like looking through a huge family photo album!

Before I started work at Henshaws, I was not aware of how complex and fascinating visual impairment history is, as it is simply not a topic of mainstream discussion or thought. Visual impairment is not static and unchanging. Like everything, it is influenced by its social, historical and cultural milieu. Through the Henshaws archives, it is possible to trace the changing causes of, attitudes to, problems faced and people affected by visual impairment over a period of almost 200 years. For example, Juvenile blindness was a leading cause of blindness until advances in hygiene practice all but eradicated it. Similarly, provision for the welfare of the blind was not even considered government responsibility until blind activism and changes in British society dispelled that perspective, and employment was no longer a necessity for survival. Equally important is the development of technology, from the invention of braille and the first typewriters, which revolutionised education for the blind, to the iPad and voice control of today.

1931 Class at Typewriting

Through a look at the archives one thing is clear. That Henshaws has always kept up with the changing needs of those affected by visual impairment, tailoring its services for the times. Despite all this change over 180 years, one thing has remained the same, the determination to ensure their service users lead full and independent lives, whatever decade (or century!) they are born in.

I am so grateful to have had the privilege of exploring Henshaws rich history. Working with the incredible staff at Talbot road and discovering the myriad of service users’ stories made my summer better than I could have ever imagined.

Henshaws’ 180th Anniversary Exhibition is in Central Library until the end of October, head down to discover the history of sight loss and how Henshaws has worked with the communities of Greater Manchester since 1837.

To find out more about the exhibition, click here or contact

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