PEARSON, Sir Arthur (1866-1921)
Plaque erected in 2019 by English Heritage at 21 Portland Place, Marylebone, London, W1B 1PY, City of Westminster
Newspaper publisher and philanthropist
Journalism and Publishing, Philanthropy and Reform
Sir ARTHUR PEARSON 1866-1921 Founder of St Dunstan’s (Blind Veterans UK) lived and worked here
The newspaper publisher Sir Arthur Pearson founded the charity St Dunstan’s, now known as Blind Veterans UK, in 1915. He is commemorated with a blue plaque at 21 Portland Place in Marylebone, where he lived with some of the blinded servicemen supported by St Dunstan’s.
At the age of 18 Cyril Arthur Pearson beat 3,000 other people to win a general knowledge quiz. The prize was a job at the journal Tit-Bits – a position that proved to be the start of a very lucrative publishing career. Five years later in 1889 Pearson set up his own publishing company, which started out by publishing the highly successful Pearson’s Weekly. By 1900 Pearson had launched the Daily Express and in 1904 he acquired The Standard and The Evening Standard.
Pearson soon put his new wealth towards charitable causes. In 1892 he established the Fresh Air Fund, which provided holidays and outings for hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children, and in 1908 helped Robert Baden-Powell found the Boy Scout movement.
Pearson had always had bad eyesight and in 1913 he learned that he would soon be completely blind. He told his wife Ethel ‘I will never be a blind man, I am going to be the blind man’. Pearson sold off his remaining publishing interests and began to work tirelessly for blind people. He worked initially as treasurer for the National Institute for the Blind (now the Royal National Institute of Blind People, or RNIB) and then as secretary for the National Relief Fund upon the outbreak of the First World War. In February 1915 he established a hostel for blinded servicemen called St Dunstan’s, a charity which still operates today as Blind Veterans UK.
St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors offered a total programme of care and training. Every man who passed the reading test was given a Braille writing machine and men could choose to learn one of a number of different trades, from poultry farming to typing. There was also a wide range of sporting, social, and musical activities. When a patient left St Dunstan’s he was given a set of tools appropriate to the trade he had learnt, and a home and working premises were found for him. In 1917 an aftercare department was established to provide, when necessary, lifelong support.
21 PORTLAND PLACE
St Dunstan’s headquarters were initially at 6 Bayswater Hill until they moved to new premises in Regent’s Park in 1920. However, a number of buildings in London were used as convalescent homes and training centres.
Pearson invited the first two officers to attend St Dunstan’s to live with him in his home in Devonshire Street in Marylebone, but when more accommodation was needed he took up Sir John Stirling-Maxwell’s offer of his house at 21 Portland Place. The Pearsons lived at number 21 with single officers while the spare rooms in their Devonshire Street home were used as accommodation for the women who cared for the servicemen.
Records show that number 21 was used by St Dunstan’s from August 1915 until August 1920, although it is not known how long Sir Arthur and his wife resided here. Pearson recalled that ‘Each Thursday evening some distinguished person dined with the blinded officers’ and delivered an informal lecture in the room known as the ‘Big Lounge’. It was here, Pearson claimed, that ‘the blinded officers spent the most interesting evenings of their lives’.
In recognition of his services to blind people, Pearson was created a baronet in 1916 and appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (GBE) in 1917. He died aged just 55 after a freak accident at his Devonshire Street home on 9 December 1921. He is buried at Hampstead Cemetery.