When I first arrived in Liverpool half a century ago, the large white stone building opposite the Philharmonic pub at the top of Hardman Street served as the Merseyside Police headquarters. Then, for a decade or so its function changed dramatically when it became the Merseyside Trade Union and Unemployed Centre. Now, reflecting the social and economic changes of the past decade, the building houses a swanky hotel and several popular restaurants, one of which is called The Old Blind School.
Because that was what the building was originally, when erected in 1851. The Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind had been founded in 1791 by Edward Rushton, one of Liverpool’s great radicals. He was not only a founder of the first school for the blind in the country, but also a campaigner against slavery and poverty. He wrote poetry, and became a tireless campaigner against slavery and against the press gangs. He was a revolutionary republican, supported the American War for Independence, the French Revolution, and the struggles of the Polish and Irish people for self-rule. Recently I was lent a copy (thanks, Pete!) of what is, I think, the only book dedicated to this remarkable man – Forgotten Hero by Bill Hunter, published in 2002.I’ve wanted to know more about Rushton since reporting on the state of a mural, painted by Mick Jones, the son of renowned trade union leader Jack Jones, which depicted Rushton, blind in one eye, sweeping forward with representatives of all the causes he fought for cradled in his arms.
The mural, painted in 1986, had been familiar from the days when it had pride of place in the Trade Union and Unemployed Centre. Magnificently, Jones had condensed the working class history of Liverpool into a stirring swirl of images representing episodes from Liverpool’s radical past and present. I’d pass underneath it often (it is painted directly onto the plaster of a cupola above a winding staircase in the heart of the building), but I had never given the figure of Edward Rushton much thought.
Edward Rushton (1756–1814) was born in John Street, Liverpool, the son of Thomas Rushton, a victualler supplying provisions for vessels sailing from the port. It was not surprising, then, that by age eleven Edward was apprenticed as a seaman to Watt and Gregson, a Liverpool shipping company with West Indian interests. Five years later he had been promoted to second mate after demonstrating outstanding courage in guiding a vessel – which the captain and crew were prepared to abandon during a storm in the Mersey Estuary – back to port.
In the preface to his book, Bill Hunter says: ‘I wrote this book on Edward Rushton in an attempt to rescue from obscurity, this uncompromising fighter for the common people, and to pay tribute to his indomitable spirit.’ Rushton’s spirit is exemplified in the story of how he lost his sight.
In 1773, aged eighteen, on a slave ship bound for Dominica, Rushton was appalled by the brutal treatment and poor conditions in which the slaves were confined. He remonstrated with the captain, who accused him of mutiny and threatened to put him in irons. Later in the voyage, the slaves were stricken with contagious ophthalmia, which at the time meant that those who contracted the disease went blind within three weeks. Rushton was the only member of the crew willing to tend to the suffering of the captives, and as a result he contracted the disease himself. He returned to Liverpool blind.
Unable to return to sea because of his blindness, Rushton moved in with an aunt. Supported financially by his father, he paid a local boy to read to him every day. In this way he became acquainted with a wide variety of literature and began to learn about politics and philosophy. Soon he began to write about topics of the day. His first poem, The Dismembered Empire, published in 1782, wa a denunciation of British involvement in the slave trade, while his opposition to the slave trade was given further expression in The West Indian Eclogues (1787).
By that time, Rushton had become editor and co-partner of a newspaper, The Liverpool Herald. However, this career soon came to an abrupt end after his repeated attacks on the press-gangs – the practice of seizing men as recruits for the British Navy. Naval officers visited the newspaper’s offices and Rushton’s partner closed the paper. Rushton wrote another long poem inspired by the issue called Will Clewine in 1806.
A year later, Rushton opened a bookshop at 44 Paradise Street, a thoroughfare now swallowed up within Liverpool One. In his shop, Rushton sold newspapers, books and pamphlets that supported the ideals of the revolutions in France and America, or addressed the spreading social unrest in England. He generated petitions which he encouraged customers to sign. Although his outspoken political convictions deterred custom for a while, Rushton did not moderate his radical thinking. Soon the business recovered and he was able to make enough money from bookselling to live comfortably and educate his children.
A few doors down from Rushton’s bookshop was the Unitarian chapel, built in 1791 and a dissenting church of some importance in Liverpool at the time. It may be that many of the dissenting radicals who worshipped there stepped across the threshold of Rushton’s shop, keen to read the latest news and opinions on the issues of the day – including the divisive matter, in this slaving port, of the abolition of slavery. What’s certain is that Rushton rubbed shoulders with and shared the humanitarian ideals of the small but influential group of dissenters – primarily Quakers and Unitarians – amongst whom would be men and women who congregated at their chapel on Paradise Street. Many were wealthy merchants of the city – men such as Doctor James Currie, William Roscoe, William Rathbone and the Reverend John Yates. They were among those who subscribed to the Liverpool branch of the National Society for Abolition and who met frequently as members of the Liverpool Literary and Philosophical Society.
In Liverpool’s liberal abolition circles, dominated by merchants and university men such as Rathbone and Roscoe, the ‘ordinary sailor’ Rushton emerged as one of the most intransigent opponents of slavery. He challenged slavery in poetry, including his four West Indian Eclogues, set in Jamaica, long poems inspired by Virgil’s first eclogue on the theme of displacement and emigration. The first ecology opens as follows:
The Eastern clouds declare the coming day,
The din of reptiles slowly dies away.
The mountain-tops just glimmer on the eye,
And from their bulky sides the breezes fly.
The Ocean’s margin beats the varied strand,
It’s hoarse, deep, murmurs reach the distant land.
The Sons of Mis’ry, Britain’s foulest stain,
Arise from friendly sleep to pining pain;
Arise, perchance, from dreams of Afric’s soil,
To Slav’ry, hunger, cruelty, and toil:—
When slowly moving to their tasks assign’d,
Two sable friends thus eas’d their lab’ring mind.
Rushton continues by portraying a conversation between two slaves:
Oh say, Adoma, whence that heavy sigh?
Or is thy Yaro sick — or droops the Boy?
Or say what other woe—
These wounds behold.—
Alas! by them too plain thy griefs are told!
But whence, or why these stripes? my injur’d friend.
Declare how one so mild could thus offend.
I’ll tell thee, Jumba. — ‘Twas but yesterday,
As in the field we toil’d our strength away,
My gentle Yaro with her hoe was nigh,
And on her back she bore my infant Boy.
The sultry heats had parch’d his little throat,
His head reclin’d I heard this wailing note.
The Mother, at his piteous cries distress’d,
Now paus’d from toil and gave the cheering breast.
But soon alas! the savage Driver came,
And with his cow-skin cut her tender frame;
Loudly he tax’d her laziness, — and then
He curs’d my boy, and plied the lash again!
—Jumba, I saw the deed, — I heard her grief!
Could I do less? — I flew to her relief;
I fell before him — sued, embrac’d his knee,
And bade his anger vent itself on me,
Spurn’d from his feet I dar’d to catch his hand,
Nor loos’d it, Jumba, at his dread command:
For, blind with rage, at one indignant blow
I thought to lay the pale-fac’d villain low!
But sudden stopp’d; — for now the whites came round,
They seiz’d my arms, — my Yaro saw me bound!
Need I relate what follow’d?
Oh! for the pow’r to make these Tyrants bleed!
These, who in regions far remov’d from this,
Think, like ourselves, that liberty is bliss,
Yet in wing’d houses cross the dang’rous waves,
Led by base av’rice, to make others slaves:—
These, who extol the freedom they enjoy,
Yet would to others every good deny:—
These, who have torn us from our native shore
Which (dreadful thought!) we must behold no more:—
These, who taunts our tears, with mocks, our griefs, repay:
Oh! for the pow’r to bring these monsters low,
And bid them feel the biting tooth of woe!
The complete poem can be read online here.
But, perhaps the act that most dramatically symbolises Rushton’s commitment to the anti-slavery cause is the letter he wrote in July 1796 to his former hero George Washington, excoriating his hypocrisy in owning slaves while fighting for freedom:
In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well-earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelible a blot?
Rushton’s perception was rare, echoed by very few (such as Samuel Johnson, who caustically remarked in 1776, ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’ In his letter to Washington, Rushton continued:
A man who, notwithstanding his hatred of oppression, and his ardent love of liberty, holds at this moment hundreds of his fellow-beings in a state of abject bondage. – Yes! you who conquered under the banners of freedom; – you who are now the first magistrate of a free people, are (strange to relate) a slaveholder. That a Liverpool merchant should endeavour to enrich himself by such a business is not a matter of surprise […]
You are a republican, an advocate for the dissemination of knowledge, and for universal justice, – where then are the arguments by which this shameless dereliction of principle can be supported? Your friend Jefferson has endeavoured to shew that the Negroes are an inferior order of beings; but surely you will not have recourse to such a subterfuge.
Your slaves, it may be urged, are well treated. That I deny – man never can be well treated who is deprived of his rights. They are well-clothed, well-fed, well lodged, &c. Feed me with ambrosia, and wash it down with nectar, yet what are these if liberty be wanting?
You took arms in defence of the rights of man. Your Negroes are men. Where, then, are the rights of your Negroes? They have been inured to slavery, and are not fit for freedom. Thus, it was said of the French; but where is the man of unbiased common sense who will assert that the French republicans of the present day are not fit for freedom? […]
But if your feelings be actually repugnant to slavery, then are you more culpable than the callous-hearted planter, who laughs at what he calls the pitiful whining of the abolitionists, because he believes slavery to be justifiable; while you persevere in a system which your conscience tells you to be wrong. If we call the man obdurate who cannot perceive the atrociousness of slavery, what epithets does he deserve, who, while he does perceive its atrociousness, continues to be a proprietor of slaves?
It’s perhaps no surprise that Rushton got no reply from Washington. As Rushton remarked in his introduction to the letter when he published it the following year:
As children who are crammed with confectionery have no relish for plain and wholesome food, so men in power, who are seldom addressed but in the sweet tones of adulation, are apt to be disgusted with the plain and salutary language of truth.
That Rushton was far-sighted and unblinkered for his time was underlined for me when I read Pankaj Mishra’s salutary essay in the Guardian on Saturday in which he exposes as a myth the story which America tells of itself as being a multicultural democracy. He writes:
It was America’s founders … who first betrayed the acute tensions in the modern ideologies of individual emancipation. They indeed committed themselves … to a radical political experiment with their belief in the liberty and equality of every person; but they formulated their self-evident truths in the same Virginian swamp where slaves languished. […]
European settlers, traders and colonists from the 17th century onwards had represented many of the non-European peoples they managed to subdue as uncivilised and inferior, if not candidates for elimination. Racial categories became steadily indispensable to the settlers and colonials of the New World. By the late 18th century, however, people who had been strong-armed into the modern world economy posed a serious moral and political dilemma to those affirming universal human equality and freedom. One way to escape this was to distinguish between those who are properly human and those who aren’t; those who deserve freedom and those who don’t. Thus, a priori distinctions between human and non-human, reason and unreason, civilisation and barbarism underpinned the modern ideals of freedom and democracy from the time they were formulated. […]
Though opposed in principle to slavery, many Enlightenment thinkers and their adepts simply assumed that democratic principles – liberty, equality, toleration, natural rights and human dignity – applied only to civilised white men. Colonised, enslaved and indigenous peoples did not seem capable of reason– the unique characteristic apparently of the human subject liberated from religion and tradition. If David Hume was “apt to suspect the Negroes” to be “naturally inferior to the whites”, Montesquieu had little doubt that they were “barbarians”. Voltaire, who like John Locke held stocks in a company profiting from the slave trade, thought that blacks had only “a few more ideas than animals”. […] Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, believed that blacks were “inferior to whites in the endowments of both body and mind” and that his white American compatriots had no choice but to exterminate Native Americans, “ignorant savages” and “beasts”.
Such obsessive dehumanising might seem to negate the humanist ideals that became institutionalised in the American revolution. But, as the Swedish writer Gunnar Myrdal pointed out in his classic study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), people “placed lower in the biological order than the white man and nearer to the animals” could then be “kept outside the white man’s social and moral order”. Not surprisingly, the pseudo-science of phrenology, which posited biological differences between races, was nowhere more popular than in the US, where white men used it to make the fiction of racial superiority appear a self-evident truth. […]
Today, as white supremacists prepare to occupy the house built by slaves in Washington DC, it may be hard to resist the fear that these pugnacious men, “struggling to hold on to what they have stolen from their captives”, as James Baldwin put it in 1967, “and unable to look into their mirror, will precipitate a chaos throughout the world that, if it does not bring life on this planet to an end, will bring about a racial war such as the world has never seen”.
Throughout his life, Rushton argued for inclusivity in society and against injustices of all kinds, including campaigning against the brutalities of the press gangs in the columns of the Liverpool Herald and in poems such as Will Clewdine. At some time in the 1780s, he began donating money to help blind paupers. Following his poor treatment as a blind man, and the realisation that blind people were often homeless, jobless and treated as an act of entertainment, he established (but see correction from Mike Royden in comments below) the Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind, which opened in 1791, second only in the world to a similar school in Paris.
The first building to be used by the school, situated at 6 Commutation Row, opposite the potteries on Shaw’s Brow (now William Brown Street)was quite unsuitable.But, by 1800 enough money had been raised to erect a purpose-built school nearby on the site occupied in recent decades by the Odeon cinema on London Road. The school was now well-established and would stay on this site for the next 50 years.
In 1807, an operation by a Manchester surgeon restored Rushton’s sight, and he was able to see his wife and children for the first time. In 1811, his wife and one of his daughters both died. Rushton died on 22 November 1814 at his home on Paradise Street. The eldest of his four children, also named Edward, became a prominent social reformer in Liverpool, an advocate of Catholic emancipation and prison reform.
In 1851, the School for the Blind moved into its new building on Hardman Street. The original engraved lettering above the above the doorway to today’s Old Blind School bar and restaurant is still visible. Two hundred years on, the school – now named the Royal School for the Blind is still in operation. It has moved to Wavertree, and now caters for visually impaired students who have additional disabilities. The memory of Rushton lives on there, and that is where his portrait, painted by Moses Haughton, hangs today.
Local historian Steve Binns, who is blind and attended the school when he was a child, says he grew up thinking Rushton ‘was on our side’. Speaking to the BBC, he recalled, ‘A story was still passed around that, on discovering the teachers were eating the good food, Rushton intervened to ensure it was equally distributed amongst pupils too.’
The title of Bill Hunter’s book is Forgotten Hero, but in 2016 Liverpool’s DaDa Festival hosted performances at the Everyman Theatre of Unsung, a play about the life and politics of Edward Rushton. The catchphrase that advertised the play was ‘Sometimes silence is not an option.’