Blind men begging

My curiosity was roused about John Ferguson’s The Man in the Dark (1926) when a review on A Penguin a Week indicated that it was a murder mystery centred on a blind ex-soldier.
The blindness is more important than the military background in this story, though this definitely belongs to the class of books that show ex-soldiers as a disturbing presence in post-war society. The blind man in this book is  a more complex and troublesome being than the morally upright blind hero of Ian Hay’s The Poor Gentleman (1929).
One small detail surprised and intrigued me. When the detectives are wondering how a blind man might try to make contact with a woman he wants to meet again, MacNab, the book’s logical mastermind, declares that he knows exactly what the man will do:

He will wait in some road or street he has heard her mention more than once, wait for her to come along. He’s sitting there now, a blind man with a Braille book on his knees, reading aloud to draw attention to himself.

His prediction turns out to be true, and that is exactly where they find him.
The implication here is that it was a relatively common sight in twenties London to see blind beggars (and the book reminds us that the majority of the blinded were ex-soldiers) sitting in the street with a Braille book on their knees, reading with their fingers and saying the words aloud to impress passers-by with their talent, and to collect a few coins.
I’d come across many mentions of blind beggars selling matches or shoelaces (and clearly remember one of these from my childhood in the fifties, standing outside our local railway station every day) but had not previously heard of blind men trying to impress the public with their reading skills. I wonder when they stopped being seen on the streets.

4 Comments

  1. Bill
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Don’t know when they stopped being seen, but blind street readers certainly predate the war. There’s one featured in Mayhew’s London Poor. I imagine they began appearing fairly soon after Braille texts (or their predecessors) became available.

  2. Roger
    Posted March 1, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Was being able to read Braille considered proof the beggar was actually blind and so deserving of charity, perhaps?
    Inspired by seeing Les Enfants du Paradis again.

    • Posted March 1, 2014 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

      Proof of blindness, but also demonstration of a skill. Like buskers, hey could present themselves as performers rather than just beggars, I suppose.

      • Bill
        Posted March 7, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

        As you say, reading “Braille”, like organ-grinding or “selling” matches etc could have been a way around the Vagrancy Acts. It seems that there was a widespread suspicion in Victorian times that many of the blind men were reciting from memory, rather than actually reading. No-one seems to have suspected their blindness to be a sham, however. Presumably lack of the skill could have made the beggar a criminal, whereas it was irrelevant to that question whether or not he truly lacked sight.


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