How Thomas’ gift still helps others, 213 years on

PUBLISHED: 11:36 16 June 2018

The Norwich Blind Institute's Magdalen Street HQ pictured around 1900. Picture: NNAB archive

The Norwich Blind Institute's Magdalen Street HQ pictured around 1900. Picture: NNAB archive

Archant © 2005

We have much of what makes Norwich and Norfolk such a good place to live because of the actions of those who have gone before us. Derek James remembers a man born 255 years ago who lost his eyesight and dedicated his life to helping others.

Historic picture of the Norwich Blind Institute workshops in 1958. 
Photo: NNAB archiveHistoric picture of the Norwich Blind Institute workshops in 1958. Photo: NNAB archive

The mission of the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind (The NNAB) to help the 20,000 local people with poor sight to remain independent and confident, and the work it does across the city and county, is quite outstanding.

Last year alone, the community workers made almost 7,000 separate visits to people in their homes and there were more than 6,000 visitors to the equipment centres in Norwich, King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth, Cromer and the Mobile Centre.

In Norwich it has a residential home and supported-living flats for those with visual impairment and the association also has a volunteer presence in all four eye clinics in Norfolk, a busy sports and leisure programme and so much more.

The fifth oldest association of its kind in the land, established in 1805, it has played a leading role in so many lives over the years and the man we have to thank for establishing it in Norwich is a blind ex-ironmonger by the name of Thomas Tawell.

Thomas, the son of Henry and Mary, was born at Wymondham in 1763. His father was a draper and his mother Mary was a member of the Colman family.

His father died when he was ten leaving some money in a trust and one of the trustees was his uncle, Thomas Colman, an ironmonger in Norwich, which was a line of work young Thomas also took up.

It is not clear when Thomas Tawell went blind but by 1804 he was living in the Upper Close, Norwich, from where the institution was launched.

We can only imagine the kind of life that most blind people were living then, but in Thomas they found a generous friend.

He wrote in 1804: “I have for some time cherished an inclination to attempt, at least, the establishment of an Institution for the benefit of the Indigent Blind in Norfolk and Norwich.”

Thomas wanted a place which would care for the old and educate the young.

This extraordinary man spoke with such passion at the first public meeting held at the Guildhall in Norwich during January 1805 at a time when life for most without sight was so awful.

But he realised that actions, not words, were needed. “I have therefore bought a large substantial house and three acres and a half of ground, situated in Magdalen Street, late the residence of Thomas Havers esquire, and I believe at present inhabited by the Right Honourable Lord Bradford,” he told the meeting.

Generous Thomas also added 1,000 guineas (a gift worth something like £86,000 in today’s money) and by the end of 1805 about 250 people had made one-off gifts, or agreed to make annual payments – many did both.

A couple of years later more than 2,000 people were helping to pay for the institution. It illustrated just how caring and generous the people of Norwich and Norfolk can be.

The rules and regulations were spartan in those tough old days: “No person to be admitted who has been a Common Beggar, or Wandering Minstrel, or played any instrument at Ale-houses,” one warned.

And: “Every person, on admission to bring one complete Suit of Apparel, as shall be deemed sufficient by the Committee – a bed, and one guinea towards funeral expenses.”

Various trades were taught, weaving, basket-making and the like, followed by shoes, mats and rugs.

The menu in the early days, for example, consisted of milk broth for breakfast, apart from Sundays when it was bread and butter, dinner was meat and dumplings or suet pudding and pea soups and there was bread and cheese or rice milk for supper.

People started work at 6.30am in the summer and at 7am in winter and only on Saturdays did it finish at 4pm.

Times changed over the years, conditions improved, outings were arranged, and slowly but surely life for those who were blind or had difficulty in seeing was improving. There was a Blind Band which played at public events, and outings were arranged. The blind and partially-sighted were at last coming out of the shadows.

When the association celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1955 acclaimed Norfolk writer Ralph Mottram, wrote in the Eastern Daily and Evening News: “It might well take for its motto Faith (for it never knows what its income will be), Hope (for it rightly expects the public to appreciate it) and... Adaptability.”

Wise words....we have much to thank Thomas Tawell for. He died in June of 1820 but his memory lives on.

If you want to find out more, look out for the book One Man’s Vision: The Story of the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind 1805-2005 by local author Frank Meeres, published in 2005 to mark the 200th anniversary.

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