The 1920’s were a decade of great political, economic and social change, shaped primarily by the First World War. The Government, burdened with War debt had no comprehensive plans to help the two million newly disabled young ex-servicemen returning from the battlefronts, other than the provision of a pension, which many felt inadequate to live on. However, for the first time, people felt they could challenge the inequalities that existed and insist on basic human rights.
In April 1920, groups of marchers from across the country led by David Baxter Lawley, a blind British trade unionist and political activist and Ben Purse, founder of the National League for the Blind, converged onto Trafalgar Square, demanding fairer working conditions and legal rights for blind people from the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. This led to the creation of the Blind Persons Act, which made it a duty for local authorities to “promote the welfare of blind persons”. Whilst this was a step in the right direction, it was widely felt that cash strapped Local Authorities would not have the ability or resources to do justice to the act.
Our story begins also in April 1920 when The Clothworkers’ Company, one of the 12 great livery companies of the City of London, lent a room to a group of friends who felt there was a great need for an association to be formed to help the blind and partially sighted men and women of Essex. Despite the National League for the Blind demanding ‘social justice, not charity’, without a welfare state or national plan for housing, the need for charitable support was crucial.
The Essex County Association for the Blind was first registered under the Blind Person’s Act of 1920. Their idea was to find suitable accommodation for people according to their degree of blindness. From small beginnings in East London, the Association gradually expanded, and when County boundaries were moved, the London Boroughs that used to be in Essex were added.
By the late 1940’s the Association was managing homes requisitioned and equipped by the Ministry of Health, looking after people who had been made homeless through enemy action with the full support of the County Education and Public Health Committees and other societies and organisations. The President at this time was Constance, Lady Courtauld, a member of the famous Courtauld family, well-known County benefactors.
The Association continued its welfare work including providing holidays. One surprise we found is that in 1950 it was noted: “Perhaps it is not generally known that in Essex we have a leper colony and our Association has done much to help Blind and Defective Sighted Residents in that Colony.”
By the late 1950’s, it was felt that when the accommodation was expanded after the War, the most urgent need had been for much younger people than the people who were now on the waiting list. Our accommodation now comprised a nursing home with 71 beds, 6 hostels in Chelmsford, Wanstead, Leytonstone, Woodford and Clacton, as well as flatlets in Leytonstone and a 4-berth caravan, donated for holiday use in memory of a Mr W Cousins at Canvey Island. Two of the smaller properties were sold to acquire larger properties in Clacton and Frinton.
In 1964 the constitution was updated and the Charity was renamed Essex Voluntary Association for the Blind, or EVAB. As well as providing accommodation, the charity was now supporting over 30 small clubs and associations operating across the County, providing grant aid, assistance with governance and operational support.
By the late 60’s, the caravan at Canvey Island was still giving pleasure to families. In 1972 the nursing home in Leytonstone was sold to fund the purchase of Sandy Point in Frinton and the full modernisation of all the other properties.
In 1987 Diana, Princess of Wales visited our homes in Frinton. Our Garden Parties had celebrity visitors including Barbara Windsor, Dame Vera Lynn, Ernie Wise and newsreader Martyn Lewis amongst others. The Charity now owned 5 homes and the flatlets in Leytonstone.
In 1993 we launched the “Home from Home Appeal” to rebuild our home in Frinton. We managed to purchase land adjacent to the old homes, and build a brand new purpose-built home. “Read House”, which was named after the Chair of the Charity, Lady Read, was opened by the Duke of Kent in 1999. Greenholme in Wanstead was sold just afterwards, as were Sandy Point, Essex House, Cranbrook and The Cedars. These are now private homes adjacent to Read House.
The Charity had been operating a community service and Charity Shop in Chelmsford, however Read House was by then the only home owned by the charity.
In 1999, the Charity gained National Lottery funding to employ development officers to provide services in the community.
Chelmsford, Harlow, Epping and Clacton sight support groups were established in 2001. The following year, a Pilot scheme for “VisAbility” Home Visiting services started in Maldon in association with social services and Thurrock Resource Centre opened in association with Thurrock Social Services.
By the mid 2000’s sadly, many of the community clubs and associations the charity had supported over the years had declined and in 2005 we decided to resurrect our community support through the development of advice and equipment centres at various locations in the County. The quarterly newsletter “Spotlight” was re-launched and a new development officer appointed. The charity shop and offices closed and Head office relocated to Read House.
The Clacton and Colchester Sight Centres opened in 2006, followed shortly by Braintree. A Community Services worker for mid Essex was appointed in 2007 and the Chelmsford Home Visiting services in association with Chelmsford Centre for the Blind and Adult Social Care Sensory Team was launched. The Colchester sight centre relocated to provide an office base for the community team.
Through to 2012, pop up sight centres were launched in Brentwood, Manningtree, Loughton, Harwich and Burnham. Essex Vision, a collaborative organisation created between the sight loss charities in the County was formed. To avoid duplication, the areas the charities cover is agreed with Essex County Council and Eye Clinic Liaison Officers are appointed.
In 2013 the community services are branded ‘Essex Sight’ and a Reaching Communities award provided funding for the relocation of the Colchester sight centre and Essex Sight offices to its current location in Osborne Street.
The charity continued to develop and refine its services. The demand for support increased and with the help of Colchester Catalyst, a mobile sight centre was purchased to allow the Essex Sight team to reach more people in the community. The Covid Pandemic interrupted our services but led to even greater demand for community support.
The need for dedicated accommodation for sight impaired people that brought about the formation of the charity 103 years previously, was no longer the prime objective that it once had been. Times had changed and with VI people mostly living at home, the Charity sold Read House to further invest in its community services to meet the needs of Blind and visually impaired people in Essex.