The story of RLSB founder Thomas Lucas

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Update: In January 2017, RLSB merged with the Royal Society for Blind Children. Although we are now called RSBC, there may be some references to RLSB in the following blog.

Today is World Braille Day and the launch of National Braille Week.

The occasion marks the birthday of Louis Braille and celebrates his invention of Braille and the opportunities it has given vision impaired people worldwide.

RLSB’s own foundation is linked to a form of embossed text designed to teach vision impaired people to read, which was created before Braille was adopted in the UK. This was Lucas Type, which was the brain-child of Bristol merchant Thomas Lucas. This photo shows a rare bible dated 1852 that was published in the Lucas Type.

Find out more about Thomas Lucas and his life by reading the article below, which was published by RLSB in the 1950s:

Much of Lucas’ history is shrouded in mystery. He was born in Bristol about 1764. He carried on business in the city as a merchant and he taught shorthand. And if the simple shorthand characters could be felt as well as seen, thought Lucas, even the Blind could read. In 1832 he published a hand-bill advertising a free school for the Blind in Old Market Street, Bristol, at which shorthand and English grammar were to be taught. Embossing had solved the problem.

On 14th February, 1836, 16 prominent Bristolians formed “The Bristol Society for Embossing and Circulating the Authorised Version of the Bible for the use of the Blind.” Lieutenant-General Orde was the chairman and the last of the 16 members to be named was Mr. T. M. Lucas.

“Seeing” with the Fingers

“The System of Embossed Characters invented by Mr. Lucas,” the committee resolved “is recommended by its simplicity and has been proved to be efficacious by several public examinations of his pupils.” A portion of the Holy Scriptures was to be printed by the system “as soon as sufficient funds shall be available.” At last the Blind of this country were to “see” with their fingers.

The work of embossing books with Lucas’ alphabet went ahead quickly after this meeting and on 1st July, 1837, St. John’s Gospel appeared in the new alphabet with “Instructions for the Blind to read with the Britannic or Universal Alphabet. Copies of both these books are still preserved in the Reference Library in Bristol.

“The Blind Need Few Letters”

In the Instruction Book, Lucas wrote “it is with heartfelt pleasure that I embrace this opportunity of announcing, in the 73rd year of my age, that, through the kind providence of God, the Blind are now taught to read in a shorter space of time and as fluently as those who can see.

“By this simple plan finger reading is rendered a most pleasing exercise; so that all who are deprived of sight may be blessed with a little education. Methinks I see and hear some kind of sympathising friends of the Blind exclaim ‘Oh, what a length of time it must take to teach a poor blind child by this novel method!’ and I cannot forebear responding ‘No, No, indeed! A very short time will suffice to accomplish this great important work; not more than half the time that would be requisite in the manner we are taught who are blessed with sight, for the Blind need few letters, only about half the number we use for any book’.”

Based on Shorthand

Many of Lucas’ signs are exactly the same as those of the present-day Pitman Shorthand. The embossing was done on fairly thick paper and the characters were about a quarter of an inch high. Lucas toured the country lecturing and demonstrating. One of his hearers was William Collins of Regent Street, Leamington, a poor blind man of 50 when he learned to read by Lucas’ system. Collins wrote to Lucas on 15th July, 1836:

“I take the opportunity of sending you a few lines. I have paid to Dr. Lloyd 3s., which were given towards our press. I was enabled the 4th of this month to read the 104th Psalm. I should like if you have any leisure to send me word how you are getting on with the press.” This man had been taught to read by a Miss Badcock, the first woman in England to study the methods of teaching the Blind.

Superseded by Braille

No man on earth could have sought personal publicity less than Thomas Lucas and his life from 1837 onwards becomes more and more difficult to follow. Early in that year he was still teaching the Blind in Bristol. Later he left and took his new system to London where he became associated with the foundation of The London Society for Teaching the Blind to Read in 1838. There 31 pupils received instruction in reading and writing by means of Lucas’ invention. Only in 1861 was the Lucas type superseded by the system invented by Louis Braille and now universally in use.

Lucas’s Work his Memorial

Lucas’ story from then on is a complete blank. When did he die? Where is he buried? Nobody knows*. Neither in his native city nor in London is there any memorial for this man who, more than anybody else, was responsible for the happiness of hundreds of blind persons in his lifetime and hundreds of thousands in the last century.

Perhaps the work now being done by his successors at the Royal London Society for the Blind, at Dorton House School at Seal near Sevenoaks is the only fitting memorial to this modest west countryman.

*We now know that Thomas Lucas died on 18 May 1838 at the age of 73, just months after establishing his school in London.

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