Dr George Gosling, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Wolverhampton, tells us about how he has used the Blind Veterans UK archive for his research into charity retail.
Tell us a little about one archive collection you have used as part of your research?
When I mentioned on twitter that I was working on a book on the history of charity shops, I got quite a few replies from people interested, including one from Rob Baker, the Information and Archives Executive at a charity called Blind Veterans UK. For most of its history it was known as St Dunstan’s, providing rehabilitation, retraining and long-term residential and community support for those blinded in the First World War and subsequent conflicts. Among the archival collection at the charity’s London headquarters was material on their West End shop, which sold high-quality craft items made by the ‘St Dunstaners’ trained in their workshops. A few months later I managed to get down to London and spend some time going through the material known to cover the shop and following up leads.
What was significant about the collection?
At Blind Veterans UK, the shop was well-known, including the story of how it was officially opened in the 1920s by Mr Selfridge himself. Once I started digging a little deeper, however, it became clear that the London shop was only the central outlet for a much bigger and more complex retail operation. The intention was for the ‘St Dunstaners’ to be trained up, not only as craftsmen, but where possible as shopkeepers too, in order that they might sell their own items from their own shops in communities up and down the country. At its peak, after the Second World War, there were over 100 shopkeepers who had been ‘trained by St Dunstan’s’, as the familiar signs over the shop door said. Until it declined in the 1960s, this was a major element of the charity’s training and support for the employment of disabled veterans.
By reaching out to an academic researcher, Blind Veterans had not only aided my research but had also uncovered a part of their own story which had been largely forgotten.
Do you have any top tips for other researchers accessing this collection?
This is not a collection deposited in a major archive or library, but a collection well-maintained in house, where the materials are regularly used as part of the charity’s social media operations. It is only open to researchers by appointment, so it is important to make contact in advance by calling 020 7616 7933 or emailing email@example.com.
When visiting, make sure to ask about the wonderful collection of objects, including baskets and trays made in their workshop and the braille typewriters used by the St Dunstaners!
Resources on the history of St Dunstan’s: https://www.blindveterans.org.uk/about/our-history/resources/
George Campbell Gosling, ‘Social Enterprise as Self-Help: The Blind Shopkeepers of St Dunstan’s’, Social History Society Online, June 2020: https://youtu.be/qzBPGXNyVEc?t=824
See George talk about the St Dunstan’s shops as part of a virtual tour on the history of charity shops recorded in November 2020.