The Royal National College for the Blind (RNC):
Leading the way in specialist education for people who are blind or partially sighted for over 140 years
A meeting of minds…
In the Nineteenth Century, few blind children could hope for either a good education or steady and worthwhile employment. The Victorian philanthropist Dr Thomas Rhodes Armitage believed these problems were interrelated and that, given an education of similar content to that received by sighted children, blind people could go on to have equally successful careers.
In 1871, he met a like-minded visionary in the American, Francis Joseph Campbell. Campbell was born in 1832 at Winchester, Tennessee and lost his sight at the age of five. He studied at Nashville School for the blind and at just sixteen years of age became the Music Master there!
After graduating from the University of Tennessee aged 22, he became musical director at the Wisconsin School for the Blind. During his time there people became aware of his strong anti-slavery sentiments. He was given 24 hours to renounce his views or face hanging. He refused to do so, but escaped hanging due to public sympathy for his blindness. He left Wisconsin and went to on become the Director of Music for eleven years at The Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts.
Campbell and Armitage resolved to found a ground breaking College in England and on 1 March 1872 the College we now know as RNC was established, with the assistance of the first Duke of Westminster and Mr C A Miner.
The College was originally called The Royal Normal College and Academy for the Blind. ‘Normal’ referred to teacher training, which was on offer. The majority of the teaching staff were, at this time, recruited by Francis Campbell from his native America.
By the end of the first year, the College had outgrown the original Crystal Palace site and moved to Upper Norwood. The curriculum was liberal and advanced for its day, and included a large amount of physical education. Roller-skating was much practised and an early report mentions tobogganing after a heavy fall of snow. In those early days the atmosphere was full of life and excitingly experimental.
By the 1880s the College, which had started with just two students, had over 150 students, and over 200 by the end of the century. It was run as a preparatory school for children aged five to 13, and a grammar and high school.
From the Annual Report of 1880, we find that ‘The College is open to the young of either sex and of any rank, but only those will be received as pupils who, in the opinion of the Principal, show sufficient ability to render it probable that by instruction they can be rendered capable of self-support.’
In 1887, Doctors Campbell and Armitage founded the Guild of Past Students ‘for the purpose of mutual aid, especially in the first entry into life’. The Guild is still going strong today. In 1909, Francis Campbell was knighted by King Edward VII and retired three years later to be succeeded by his eldest son, Guy Marshall Campbell.
In 1929, Guy’s widow, Louie Bealby Campbell, succeeded him. When she retired in 1934, the Principalship passed outside the Campbell family for the first time, as William Stone took over. He retired three years later and in 1937 Dr Langdon took over as principal.
From London to Shropshire
With the outbreak of World War II, the College was evacuated to a mansion known as Great Maytham, in Rolvenden, West Kent. However, with the imminent threat of invasion, the College had to leave in 1940 and seek yet another home. The move was made at 24 hours’ notice on the urgent advice of the authorities! Most of the pupils were on holiday at the time, but some thirty pupils and a number of staff had remained and thankfully The Royal London Society for the Blind took everyone in at Dorton House, near Aylesbury. The College was unable to return to its premises in Upper Norwood, which had been bombed out and acquired by the local authority. The College was effectively disbanded until it moved into Rowton Castle, near Shrewsbury, where pupils reassembled the following year.
In 1953, work was due to begin on enlarging the site. However, before this could happen a fire broke out, destroying many of the buildings, including 38 pianos and organs. Thankfully, everyone was evacuated safely. The sudden loss of already limited accommodation created a problem which could not be met by improvisation on the premises. Henshaw’s Institution for the Blind stepped in to take pupils and staff as a temporary measure, so training could continue.
In 1955, the College acquired Albrighton Hall near Shrewsbury and adapted it for residential and training purposes for the older boys and young men. The girls and younger boys remained at Rowton Castle.
In 1958, Hardy House was obtained as a new residential area for girls previously based in Rowton Castle. The building included 6 kitchenettes, where girls were taught various domestic skills. Such skills today form part of the Independent Living Skills syllabus for all students.
In 1966, after 29 years as principal, Dr Langdon retired and was succeeded by Alfred Lidster, who had previously been the College bursar.
A home in Hereford
In 1978, the College moved to its current site in Hereford. The grounds had previously been the site of a teacher training college, and satisfied the College’s needs for both teaching and residential accommodation. A year later the work experience scheme was expanded; enhancing the emphasis on employment, dating from its conception by Dr Thomas Armitage, which remains the focus today. The Living Skills department was set up, offering students individualised training for independence.
More recently, the College has been leading the way in specialist education in a myriad ways:
- A Beacon College – In 2005, RNC was awarded the prestigious Beacon Status for Excellence; the first college specialising in teaching and training for people with visual impairments to have been recognised in this way
- Award winning staff – Over the years many of our talented and dedicated staff have been recognised at The National Star Awards, which promote excellence in the Further Education sector. Highlights have included:
- our Independent Living Skills Team winning the Outstanding Team award in 2006
- in 2007, then-Teacher in Charge of Performing Arts, Amanda Hemmer, won Outstanding Teaching, Training and Learning Practitioner, with RNC finalists including Mary Bennett for Outstanding Contribution to Skills for Life, and the T3 Team for Outstanding Innovation
- Iris Corfield was Highly Commended in the Lifetime Achievement category in 2008
- in 2009, another two long-serving members of staff were shortlisted: Jane Bigham for the Lifetime Achievement award and Lennox Adams for Innovation
Other awards and commendations have been given to staff at RNC, including Teacher in Charge of Business, Steve Ramsdale, who received the Young Enterprise Gold Award for his longstanding contribution in 2014
- Blind Football firsts – In 2008, RNC opened the world’s first Football Academy for blind and partially sighted players. In 2010, the College’s state of the art sports centre, thePoint4, was the host venue for the IBSA World Blind Football Championships, the largest disability football event to have ever been held in the UK. With the help of hosts The FA, the event did much to promote this exciting and skilful sport
- Student successes – Whilst at RNC, students take part in extra-curricular activities and often achieve success in their own right:
- in 2013, Juan Greggor won the Total Visual Impairment (TVI) Walk, Trot and Canter Dressage at the national Riding for the Disabled Association championships, which he retained in 2014
- in 2014, Alex Green won the inaugural West Midlands Young Enterprise Journey Award; Rosie Howell received the 10 years’ service to Girlguiding award along with the ‘special and outstanding contribution to Herefordshire guiding’ award
- Networking Academy launched – In 2014, RNC joined together with computer solutions giant Cisco to launch the UK’s first Networking Academy for people with visual impairments
- Sports Academy launched – Also in 2014, RNC officially launched the country’s first VI Sports Academy, building on the enterprising work of the Football Academy, additional sports include golf and goalball
So, it’s official… RNC is the number one college in the UK for supporting people with sight loss into further and higher education, the world of work and independent living.