Agnes Gutzlaff: a teacher of the blind

A sketch of agnes reading braille

You may remember that on the first day of our 175th anniversary archive, we published an article from an 1842 edition of the Illustrated London News. In this article was a picture of Agnes and Laura, two vision impaired girls from China who were bought to England to receive education.

Digging through our archives, further details of Laura and Agnes began to emerge. The girls were number 48 and 49 on the register of students, and where aged 7 and 5 ½ respectively. For the younger sister Agnes, ‘particulars of blindness’ were listed as accident. For Laura, details are given that she did in 1854 of dropsy, after 13 years at RLSB’s school.

The girls were preceded at the school by Mary and Lucy Gutzlaff who were both admitted as boarders on 29July 1839. Also from China, the girls were registered as number 19 and 20. Like Laura they too died young.

But Agnes went on to thrive after leaving the school. According to an entry in our annual report on 18 April 1956, after 11 years at the school, Agnes travelled to Amoy in China, now known as Xiamen, with missionaries from the Chinese Evangelization Society. She became a teacher in the school of the mission.

“There is reason to hope,” said the report, “from her staid and consistent conduct and intelligence, that her mission may be directed, by God’s blessing, to the enlightenment of her benighted countrywomen.”

Two years later, Agnes moved to Ningbo where she taught people with vision impairment to read the Lucas Type at the Industrial School for Blind Adults. RLSB continued to send her materials that would be useful in her teaching.

So what happened to Agnes after that?

In 1878, a report from the annual report stated: “Most gratifying reports continue to be received of the success in life of former pupils of the school, one of the most interesting being the case of Agnes Gutzlaff, a naïve of China, who was a pupils for several years, and whose loss of sight had been caused by the cruelty of her parents whilst young.

“She returned to her native land soon after leaving the Institution and became a thoroughly Chinese woman in associations, sympathies and to some extent in customs. She resided at Shanghi, in a native house, retaining the European dress; and in order to enable her to converse with the inhabitants of that district had to learn the Ningpo and the Shanghi dialects.

“Her employment was that of a teacher of English to the educated Chinese. She was much respected by all classes, and had the entire confidence of her countrymen. As an instance of this the Committee are informed that after the Tai-ping rebellion had been quelled, and every known rebel had been executed, a history of the nature of the rebellion and of the religious tenets of Tai-ping-Wang was desired.

“Application was made to Agnes Gutzlaff, who, knowing that implicit confidence might be placed in the honour of the inquirer, soon found out a member of the body who gave the desired information. She worked hard, lived sparingly, and saved money, and at her death her property was left to found a hospital called by her name.”

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