Workshops for the Blind

Benedict asked me about this so long ago that I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only just got to it today. He says:

“I am always intrigued by the old bits of carved masonry that sit in the Clock Tower Market area. There is a sign saying they were from the old Workshops for the Blind. Do you know any more?”

The Phantom replies:

I’ve not been able to find out huge amounts, but here’s what I’ve gleaned so far. They were set up in 1877 as Workshops for the Blind of Kent by the fabulously-monikered Major-General PJ Bainbrigge, R.E. It started out with 15 blind workmen (I can’t find any evidence of women)

It seems to have been pretty much where the horrid Ibis Hotel is now (God, I hate that chain,) and the various ornate bits of masonry that lie around the place are indeed from the old workshops. I can’t find any pictures of its exterior, though there is one of the interior in Mary Mills’s book Greenwich and Woolwich at Work, showing a large tiled room with various men in shirtsleeves making wickerware – baskets, shopping bags and chairs. There’s a letter in an old edition of Greenwich Industrial History Society’s bulletin from Beryl Mason, whose father worked there. She talks about a shop attached to the workshops where people could buy the baskets.

The business grew slowly – from 20 workers in 1911 to 41 in 1930. I suspect there may have been an increase, too, after WWII. I can’t quite work out when the business was moved to Eastney St – what is now Feathers Place, but when it did, they branched into making mattresses and rope ‘fendoffs’ for ships. According to Beryl Mason, who visited her father at the workshops, they worked in the cold and dark – saving on lighting – (though as far as I know blind people feel the cold as much as anyone else…)

By the 1970s, blind people were finding work in the sighted world and demand for specific jobs ‘for them’ was falling. When the workshops finally closed, the foreman, a ‘local character’ known only as ‘Jim,’ started a basketware shop in Greenwich High Road. I have no idea where it was.

So there you have it Benedict. Bet you’d forgotten you asked that one…

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