Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind celebrates its 160th year

One of Sheffield’s oldest charities celebrates its 160th anniversary this year.

Saturday, 11th January 2020, 10:00 am
Children learning basket weaving at Sheffield School for the Blind
Children learning basket weaving at Sheffield School for the Blind

Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind (SRSB), based at the Mappin Centre in Mappin Street, hopes that Sheffielders will join in with the celebrations by sharing their stories about the centre.

The charity, which supports blind and partially-sighted people, was first set up in 1860 by Eliza Harrison, in memory of her sister, Anne, who had an interest in helping blind people.

They were the daughters of manufacturer Thomas Harrison who built Weston House, which was later bought and converted by the city into Weston Park and Weston Park Museum.

The SRSB's Mappin Centre in Mappin Street was reopened in 2009

Eliza founded the Blind Institution with a small committee of women. They opened workshops on West Street that gave people training in trades like brush, basket and furniture making.

Twenty years later, the School for the Mental and Industrial Training of the Young Blind opened on Manchester Road, Crosspool. Children were taught a range of skills to prepare them for work.

Sheffield School for the Blind later became state-run and city politician Lord Blunkett was a famous pupil.

Overend Cottages on Selborne Road, Crosspool were set up in 1899 as accommodation and today provide independent living.

Cairn Home next door is a specialist care home for 25 residents.

The West Street workshops were rebuilt in 1906 and in 1921 became the Royal Sheffield Institution for the Blind, following a visit by George V.

The original Mappin Centre opened in 1939 to provide an entertainment centre for blind people and the institution’s headquarters.

It was eventually demolished and rebuilt and reopened in 2009.

The SRSB’s marketing manager Jane Peach said that many Sheffielders remember going to events in the main hall in the old centre and she hopes some will share their memories for the anniversary.

The main entrance, with its sculptures by Philip Lindsey Clark of a blindfolded figure and a hand reading Braille, was preserved in the new building.

These days the Mappin Centre provides a huge range of support for blind and partially-sighted people of all ages.

There’s a cafe area so that people taking part in activities can socialise, or just pop in for a drink and a chat.

The Young Sparklers pre-school playgroup runs daily and there is also a youth club.

The centre runs daily groups so that people who might otherwise be socially isolated can take part in trips, events and activities. Minibuses can pick up people from their homes and drop them back again.

There are also singing groups, craft activities, a culture club for keen theatre-goers, computer and new technology training, a health and beauty clinic and a kitchen where people can learn to use adapted equipment such as talking microwave ovens.

There’s even a special toilet in the centre especially for guide dogs!

A shop sells all sorts of clever equipment, including specialist OrCam wearable devices mounted on a pair of glasses that can scan text and read the words back to the user, recognise faces and identify products while the user is out shopping.

Smartphone apps and smart speaker gadgets like Alexas and Echoes are also invaluable to many blind and partially-sighted people, helping them live independent lives, Jane said.

The recording studio for Talking Newspapers, an independent group, is based at the centre. Nowadays the news articles are recorded on to reusable USB sticks.

Jane said: “On our books we’ve got about 3,600 people. Not everybody comes in regularly and there are other people that come in every week.

“At one end of the scale you’ll have someone who will maybe just get our newsletter every quarter, somebody who is working and coping totally fine.

“Then you’ve got everything in between, from somebody who comes in most days to people who just dib in and out of services when they want to.

“Sometimes a person who is coping fine will suddenly have further sight loss and might need to come back and get more help.

“Our ethos is about people maintaining their independence where they can. We help people to adapt and adjust and carry on where they can.”

Part of that support is helping people with recent sight loss, who are often angry and upset, to move to a point of acceptance so that they can move on with their lives, said Jane.

Several of the staff and many of the trustees on the charity’s board are blind or partially sighted, which helps to ensure that services are run by and for people who need them.

Jane added that the charity also relies on unpaid workers: “We’ve got about 160 volunteers in total. They do cookery, fundraising and collections and activities.”

One of the big fundraising activities takes the SRSB back to where it all started. A gala dinner takes place at Weston Park Museum on September 18, including a chance to have a ‘night at the museum’ and visit some of the exhibits.

To book, go to www.srsb.org.uk, email [email protected] or call 0114 272 2757.