Blue Plaque Stories

Living with Disability

London’s blue plaques scheme commemorates people from all walks of life, some of whom – as would be expected – lived with a disability. For some figures, their disability was a difficulty to be navigated, often in a hostile environment. Occasionally, treatments offered (or enforced) actually made matters worse. For others, the disability changed the course of their lives, and was in some cases central to the achievement for which they are celebrated.

To support this year’s UK Disability History Month, we explore stories of people with both visible and hidden impairments, and consider the impact disability had on their lives.

Alexander Muirhead pictured adjusting his ‘delicate coherer', a machine he developed with Sir Oliver Lodge to transmit wireless signals
Alexander Muirhead pictured adjusting his ‘delicate coherer', a machine he developed with Sir Oliver Lodge to transmit wireless signals
© The Reading Room/Alamy Stock Photo

Alexander Muirhead

The electrical engineer Alexander Muirhead (1848–1920) was responsible for important advances in the field of telecommunications, notably in improving the performance of underwater submarine telegraph cables. His 1875 breakthrough allowed the ‘duplexing’ of these cables – the simultaneous transmission of signals in both directions.

He went on to run his own business, Muirhead & Co, which specialised in the development and manufacture of terminal equipment for submarine cable stations, as well as a range of electrical and scientific instruments. According to Muirhead’s friend Oliver Lodge these were ‘beautifully designed and constructed’. Muirhead also helped to advance wireless telegraphy. With Lodge, he formed the Lodge–Muirhead Wireless Syndicate in 1901, which was later bought out by the pioneer of wireless communication, Guglielmo Marconi, in 1911.

A fax machine developed by Alexander Muirhead
A fax machine developed by Muirhead
© Public domain

Muirhead became partially but permanently deaf after falling from the arms of his nurse when he was a young child. His hearing loss was at that time equated with learning difficulties – an assumption that held back many deaf children well into the 20th century. He was privately tutored and, in the words of an obituary, ‘considered a dunce’. It was during his childhood, with isolation forced upon him by his deafness and a home tutoring regime, that he first developed a compulsion to experiment. (One of his early, less successful efforts was to plant the poker from the fire in the cabbage patch, to see if it would grow).

It was only after he went to University College School in 1863 that Muirhead began to show an extraordinary aptitude for mathematics and sciences, and started to carry off academic prizes. Going on to University College London, he developed ‘a horror of inexactitude’. 

In addition to living with partial deafness, Muirhead also suffered long-term effects from a serious viral infection contracted in 1891, and had a stroke in 1909. From 1893 he lived at the house where his blue plaque is sited – 20 Church Road, Shortlands, Bromley – which was not far from his factory and office in Elmers End.

Sir Arthur Pearson sitting at his desk in about 1915. He gradually lost his eyesight from glaucoma, and in 1908 was told he would soon be completely blind
Sir Arthur Pearson in about 1915. He gradually lost his eyesight from glaucoma, and in 1908 was told he would soon be completely blind
© Edward Gooch Collection/Getty Images

Sir Arthur Pearson

Sir Arthur Pearson (1866–1921) was a newspaper proprietor, philanthropist and the founder of the charity now called Blind Veterans UK. Pearson was from Wookey in Somerset, the son of a clergyman. After his education at Winchester College was cut short when the family ran short of money, he won a competition in Tit-Bits for a clerkship in the magazine’s London office. Within a year, he was its manager.

In 1890 he founded Pearson’s Weekly, and the magazine became a runaway success, thanks partly to its innovative ‘missing word’ competition. The resulting wealth that flowed his way enabled Pearson to give money to the recently established Boy Scouts, and to set up the Fresh Air Fund, which sent deprived city children on holiday to the country. In 1900 Pearson founded a popular newspaper, the Daily Express, and in 1905 he bought The Standard and the Evening Standard.

Pearson’s eyesight had always been poor. In 1908 he underwent an unsuccessful operation for glaucoma, and he was told that he would soon be completely blind – then a much more common outcome for glaucoma patients than it is now. He sold his newspapers and applied himself thereafter to improving opportunities for blind people. It was a choice entirely guided by his own disability, and a desire to help those facing similar challenges.

Black and white photo of blind soldiers participating in a carpentry class at St Dunstan’s Hostel Blinded Soldiers and Sailors, the charity set up by Sir Arthur Pearson, and now known as Blind Veterans UK
March 1916: a carpentry class at St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors, the charity set up by Sir Arthur Pearson, and now known as Blind Veterans UK
© Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Pearson served as president of what is now the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), and during the First World War he opened a hostel for blinded servicemen known as St Dunstan’s. He said of them:

I wanted them to be led to look upon blindness … not merely as a calamity, but as an opportunity.

His plaque, at 21 Portland Place, Marylebone, marks the house where he and his wife, Ethel, cared for some of the officers. St Dunstan’s was later based in Regent’s Park and on the Sussex coast at Ovingdean, where it remains today, under the name of Blind Veterans UK.

An engraving of John Claudius Loudon published in 1845, two years after his death
An engraving of John Claudius Loudon published in 1845, two years after his death
© Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

John Claudius Loudon

John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843) was a horticultural writer who had a great influence upon agriculture, gardening and the development of urban green spaces. Born in Lanarkshire to a farming family, Loudon first went to London in 1803, and by the end of that year had – at the age of just 20 – published an influential paper on how best to lay out the garden spaces in the capital’s squares.

Loudon later wrote on improving farming methods in England, which he observed to be inferior to his native Scotland, and on designing parks and pleasure gardens: Derby’s Arboretum Park, often cited as Britain’s oldest public park, was a Loudon design. He published a vast encyclopaedia of gardening in 1822 and followed this up with further volumes on plants and on agriculture, and founded the Gardener’s Magazine in 1826. His work rate was phenomenal, and punishing: he died after collapsing into the arms of his wife, Jane, having just finished dictating Self Instruction for Young Gardeners (1845).

One of Loudon’s greenhouse designs for the Royal Horticultural Society, dated 1818
One of Loudon’s greenhouse designs for the Royal Horticultural Society, dated 1818
© Public domain

Loudon was obliged to dictate his later works because, in 1825, his right arm was amputated following a botched operation. An attack of rheumatic fever in 1806 had first weakened the arm, and left him with knee problems too. Latterly he was also afflicted with lung disease. Perhaps not surprisingly, he developed an addiction to laudanum, the pain-killing opiate, but managed to kick the habit.

Loudon is commemorated with a plaque at 3 Porchester Terrace, a semi-detached villa of his own design. The house had glass-roofed verandas which ran around most of the outside walls – a feature that ‘was partly designed for invalids’, Loudon noted.

Also commemorated on the plaque is Jane Loudon. Her care and her willingness to act as his scribe and editor were key to her husband’s remarkable and sustained productivity. She was a distinguished author in her own right, and not only on gardening: the science fiction story The Mummy!, set in the 22nd century, also came from her pen.

An undated portrait of Mansfield Cumming, dressed in full military uniform
An undated portrait of Mansfield Cumming
© Jimlop collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Sir Mansfield Cumming

Sir Mansfield Cumming (1859–1923) was the first Chief of the Secret Service Bureau, the predecessor of both the home and foreign secret service agencies, otherwise known today as MI5 and MI6.

He was in charge of foreign intelligence gathering in the First World War and the originator of many traditions and practices – including that of referring to the head of the service as ‘C’, which derived from Cumming’s habit of initialling documents in green ink. This inspired Ian Fleming to come up with ‘M’ – James Bond’s fictitious spymaster.

Cumming joined the Navy at the age of 12, which was not then uncommon. He achieved the rank of Flag Lieutenant before being placed on the retired list in December 1885. In August 1909 Cumming received a ‘tap on the shoulder’, in the form of a mysterious letter inviting him to a meeting in London. His patron may have been Arthur Wilson, once his commanding officer, who became an important figure in decision-making circles.

In retrospect, Cumming’s naval record contains some clues as to why he was thought right for the role of spy chief: ‘a clever officer with great taste for electricity … a knowledge of photography … speaks French … draws well’.

Having taken up the challenge of heading the new service, Cumming immersed himself thoroughly in the spymaster’s craft, testing secret writing methods, disguises, technical inventions and mechanical gadgets in his own laboratory. During the First World War he created the wartime network ‘La Dame Blanche’. This reported on enemy troop movements, and included 400 agents by 1918. Information from this network assisted in the arrest of a number of German spies in England.

Colleagues found Cumming cheerful and equable: ‘his phlegm was unshatterable’, said one. This was never better illustrated than in October 1914, when he lost the lower part of his right leg in a car accident that also killed his son Alastair. Afterwards, Cumming travelled around Whitehall corridors on a scooter, and would occasionally startle visitors and colleagues by sticking compass dividers into his artificial limb.

Cumming both lived and worked at 2 Whitehall Court, an imposing Thames-side block that housed the headquarters of the foreign secret service. It is here, by the entrance, that his blue plaque is sited.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning pictured in about 1848
Elizabeth Barrett Browning pictured in about 1848
© Bettmann/Contributor/Getty

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61) was much celebrated in her time. Today she is best known for the sonnet that begins ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’ The drama of her life, especially her elopement with fellow poet Robert Browning, has been much discussed and mythologised.

Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett belonged to a family who owed their fortune to sugar plantations in the West Indies that were run on enslaved labour. She herself opposed slavery: ‘I belong to a family of West Indian slaveholders, and if I believed in curses, I should be afraid’, she told John Ruskin. A literary prodigy, she started reading novels at the age of 6, and by 11, she had written her own Homerian epic poem.

However, at the age of 15 Barrett suffered the onset of a mystery illness which also affected two of her sisters. Symptoms included head and back pain, general debility and loss of mobility, as well as convulsive twitching of the diaphragm. Doctors never diagnosed this hidden disability, which affected her for years, and it has puzzled scholars since.

One recent suggestion is that she was suffering from hypokalaemic periodic paralysis (HKPP). Some of the treatments she was offered – cupping and the use of setons (passing threads through folds in the skin) were almost certainly counterproductive. The illness left her reliant on laudanum (tincture of opium) for much of her life.

In 1837 Barrett also developed lung problems that were probably tuberculosis. Her health problems did not stem her literary output, which included poems on religious and social themes: ‘The Cry of the Children’ (1844) took aim at the use of child labour in factories.

She married Robert Browning in 1846, and they lived thereafter in Italy, a traditional refuge for those with consumptive illnesses, owing to its milder climate.

Dame Edith Sitwell reading from a book at Chronofilm Studios in March 1927
Dame Edith Sitwell reading from a book at Chronofilm Studios in March 1927
© Fox Photos/Getty Images

Dame Edith Sitwell

The poet Dame Edith Sitwell (1887–1964) is most remembered today for writing the words for Façade (1923), a surrealist performance piece set to music by the composer William Walton.

In the 1920s Sitwell and her brothers, Sacheverell and Osbert, were the centre of an avant-garde London artistic scene. The trio, who were of aristocratic lineage, were influenced by dadaism and other modern artistic and literary movements. Like any artists who push the envelope, they encountered a fair degree of indifference – and hostility.

Edith’s father reacted to her early success as a poet – she had a poem published in the Daily Mirror in 1913 – by harumphing that she had made ‘a great mistake by not going in for lawn tennis’. For the London premiere of Façade in June 1923, she declaimed her poetry through a megaphone-like device called a Sengerphone over Sir William Walton’s quirky, jazz-influenced score. Some audience members believed they were being hoaxed.

Sitwell in a 1915 portrait by Roger Fry
Sitwell in a 1915 portrait by Roger Fry
© Public domain

Edith Sitwell’s stage presence was enhanced by her tall, very angular appearance, aquiline nose and long, oval face. Her physicality added to her impact and aided her instant recognisability as a public figure. It may be traced to her having Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that affects connective tissue and can lead to a long-limbed appearance and weakness in the joints. From the 1950s, she used a wheelchair.

Sitwell’s condition was noticed by her (otherwise neglectful) parents when she was child. She was handed over to an orthopaedic surgeon named Mr Stout, who she compared to ‘a statuette constructed of margarine, and then frozen so stiff that no warmth … could begin to melt it.’ Mr Stout decided, she recalled, that she was ‘all wrong from A to Z’ and directed that she should be ‘incarcerated in a sort of Bastille of steel’. Sitwell believed that it was this treatment, rather than her condition, that led to the semi-atrophy of the muscles in her back and legs.

After her 1920s heyday Edith Sitwell wrote biographies of the poet Alexander Pope and Queen Elizabeth I, a compilation called English Eccentrics, and cut a dash in 1950s Hollywood.

Her blue plaque marks a home of her later years: Flat 42 at Greenhill, Hampstead High Street. While there she published her final volume of poetry, The Queens and the Hive (1962).

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