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Planning Retirement Online

St Dunstan's Guiding Lights

February 2014


David Castleton tells us about the organization and the people who have given a helping hand to generations of war-blinded men and women.

Group walking with wire, Kemsley Newspapers ManchesterIn 1960, looking for a new job and a change of life, I found an ad for Appeals and Publicity Assistant at St Dunstan’s – the charity set up in 1915 to help men and women blinded on war service. I had never given much thought to blindness, but I had heard of St Dunstan’s. I applied and reported for my interview. It was only after I had answered several questions that I realized, to my surprise, that the man behind the desk was blind. His name was Robin Buckley and he had developed the trick of turning his head towards the sound of the voice he heard. He was blinded while serving in the Royal Navy when dismantling an Italian explosive motor boat. He became my boss.

I soon discovered that Robin was not the only war-blinded head of department. In addition to the Publicity Department, three others were headed by St Dunstaners, as they were called: the Industrial Department, responsible for finding employment and supporting St Dunstaners in their work; the Estate Department, which found and maintained homes; and the Research Department. They all reported to their chairman, Sir Ian Fraser, who had been blinded on the Somme in the First World War. I began to realize I had joined a rather special organization, little knowing then that I would work for the charity for the next 33 years.

In my work I had many opportunities to meet with those who had lived through the early years of St Dunstan’s. Some you might describe as ‘living history’, like Tommy Milligan, the second man to join St Dunstan’s, who in my time was a resident in Pearson House, a St Dunstan’s home in Brighton. A tall, urbane, retired businessman speaking French and German, Tommy was a young pastry cook when he volunteered for the Irish Guards on his 18th birthday. He was blinded in action at La Bassée in December 1914 and was among a convoy of wounded men that arrived in Cardiff. As well as learning Braille and typing, Tommy trained as a masseur. He also told me about the sporting life in Regent’s Park. He was a keen oarsman. ‘We used to get up at six in the morning, if we wished, have a cup of tea and go to the lake in Regent’s Park and row. We had a lot of nice girls; some of them were shop girls and they used to have their breakfasts early, get there about seven and take us out rowing, coxing our boats. Rowing was all I was good at really.’

As well as rowing there was race walking around the park, penalty shooting at goal kept by Arsenal’s goalkeeper, Ernie Williamson, and athletics. The favourite event was the 100-yard sprint. The best time was 10.8 seconds, running blind over rough ground and guided by a rope! A drawing of a handsome young blinded soldier being guided by a small girl became a potent symbol in fundraising, but this was not an invention. Ruby Smith, the gardener’s daughter, had the run of the grounds and, young as she was, recognizing that all these men in her world could not see, would take their hand and guide them. ‘I used to go up to them and chat and we’d just walk around holding hands,’ she said many years later as Mrs Ruby Crane. ‘If they wanted to go to a certain workshop I knew them all by heart. I always remember how my little hand felt so small in theirs.’

During the war and afterwards, St Dunstaners learned many different types of job, enabling them to work in industry or as telephonists, shopkeepers, physiotherapists and other occupations, living independently in a sighted world with the support of St Dunstan’s. Their recollections, as well as those briefly recorded here, are the basis of a full account of achievements of two generations of war-blinded men and women in my tribute to them, a book entitled 'In the Mind’s Eye' (Pen and Sword, 2013). '

St Dunstan's Villa

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