The Middlesex Association for the Blind (MAB) started after the end of World War I , in response to the number of soldiers coming back from the frontline who had been gassed and lost their sight. The organisation sprung up at a time when many other charities were being founded, as the government of the day looked for ways to support former soldiers.

From the outset, MAB has always sought to provide specialised services, care and facilities for the visually impaired. The dedication of volunteers and staff keen to support the visually impaired has ensured that the organisation has endured through structural, technological, cultural and societal changes.

Each phase of the organisation has seen it evolve and evaluate its purpose to keep up with the needs of the visually impaired. MAB’s work has taken many forms over the last 100 years; covering everything from residential housing, holidays, community clubs and activities, horticultural pursuits, practical advice and helping the blind into work.

Strong foundations

MAB was initially affiliated to another organisation, the Metropolitan and Adjacent Counties Association for the Blind (MACAB) – an umbrella organisation incorporating a number of charities working on behalf of the visually impaired. MAB was a very active organisation, quickly establishing a network of volunteers, known as honorary representatives, to visit the visually impaired of the county in their homes. These volunteers provided companionship and support to ensure the visually impaired received proper treatment for their eyes, so they could make an application to blind schools and receive training to earn a living.

From the outset, the organisation took a methodical approach, establishing a register of those who were visually impaired. This work was crucial in establishing MAB’s reputation and its ability to tap into the grassroots of the visually impaired community, which would lead to formal responsibilities being given by the council in the near future.

At the time, formal government support for the visually impaired was quite limited and the work of MAB often provided help to those who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks. By partnering with other organisations who worked in the interests of the blind, such as the London Society for Teaching and Training the Blind, MAB was able to start the home workers scheme.

This scheme meant that the visually impaired who could work from home were provided with what they needed to continue working. This could include: tools, services to maintain them, the supply of raw materials at cost price, the inspection of work, marketing and obtaining orders.

This scheme supported those who had the skills to work as basket makers, piano tuners, machine knitters, boot repairers, mat makers and hand knitters. For those who weren’t already trained in these disciplines, there was an opportunity to learn and to start to earn their own income which MAB would facilitate. The MAB’s work on this front was recognised with an increasingly close relationship with Middlesex County Council.

MAB soon formalised this scheme and in 1925, the first two home teachers were appointed. A home teaching service was previously run by the National Institute for the Blind, but this work was distributed to councils, which proved an opportunity for MAB.

The home teachers, who undertook formal qualifications, were in high demand and were soon teaching hundreds of students across the county and increasingly teaching a wide range of subjects. Records from the time show that they taught a variety of subjects including: braille, Moon, basket making, knitting, wool rugs, chair caning, rush seating, string bags, wool work, bead mats and the deaf and dumb alphabet.

As the association continued, it branched out into broader activities and services. It also started to look into setting up social clubs to bring the visually impaired together. The first social clubs were set up in Ealing, Chiswick, Enfield and Tottenham, and would go on to become a defining feature of the organisation. Since the creation of the social clubs, MAB has continued to support them through grants. Other organisations also sought out MAB including the post guides – an extension group of the Girl Guides.

MAB sought to utilise these connections with other organisations. In its early days, representatives from various branches of the Women’s Institute would sit on the management committee, helping to support fundraising and volunteering by tapping into their own networks.

It is through these networks that ideas for new services emerged, such as the arts and handicraft sale which started in 1928 and became an opportunity for the visually impaired to demonstrate their skills. 

Roots take hold

The first decade of MAB was a time of continued evolution and often success. This can be seen in the decision to start fundraising independently from the National Institute for the Blind, which it had previously been linked to. Technological developments also started to benefit the lives of the visually impaired. In 1927, MAB’s chair remarked on the creation of the Wireless. MAB understood the importance of this new audio technology and immediately incorporated it into its offering, describing the difference it made to the lives of the visually impaired as “almost inconceivable”. Distributing wireless sets and maintaining them became a regular undertaking for MAB.

Social centres continued to emerge in local areas across Middlesex, giving the visually impaired the opportunity to come together in a way that they hadn’t previously. 

On establishing the club Finchley in 1929, the chair of MAB trustees wrote:

“These clubs give real pleasure to their members – who provide much of the entertainment themselves – and are a means of enabling them to join in the social life of the neighbourhood. Many concerts and entertainments have also been given at the Clubs by very kind friends, too numerous to thank here”.

This informal network and the support afforded by the association became a point of differentiation for MAB. It also continued to do more formal work in conjunction with the council which was enhanced in 1930 when the Local Government Act came into force. This act recognised MAB as an agent of the county council. Previously, MAB had been accountable to both the Ministry of Health and the County Council.

As part of this formal role, MAB was entrusted with assigning help from the council’s domiciliary assistance scheme, whereby a single person or couple were entitled to an income if they were visually impaired. This level of responsibility demonstrates the high regard that MAB was held in by the authorities and the deep grassroots connections it had.

Other work included MAB distributing Christmas gifts and the creation of a voluntary fund that was used if a person with a visual impairment needed financial assistance at the discretion of a dedicated committee. “Especially urgent calls frequently come when we discover persons blinded in the prime of life. Too often they try to hide from their family and from themselves the first signs of failing sight, fearing its dreadful consequences”, the 1932 chairman’s report explains about use of the voluntary fund. Adding: “Often a man delays to seek advice for fear of the oculist’s verdict and then clings to the hope of recovery while business fails and savings are exhausted. Voluntary funds must come to the rescue then while plans are made for training or employment and the sufferer is fitted to face life with new hope.”

In 1933, a holiday bungalow was hired by MAB on the south coast in Selsey. This initial holiday bloomed into a long running theme for MAB in the coming years, with the association quickly recognising its value and constantly finding ways to improve the experience for the visually impaired.

The first trip to Selsey took place over two to three weeks and 64 people went to enjoy the coast. The visitors were welcomed by the people of Selsey who organised parties and sent gifts of flowers, fruit and cake. “Their pleasure was delightful to see and their gratitude was charmingly expressed in many letters”, the chairman reported. The following year, the same bungalow was hired for May, June and July. Quickly, MAB realised that the whole experience could be enhanced, helping those travelling to go by car rather than public transport. A successful appeal was organised to achieve this, which continued for several years.

At this time, MAB also started to look into having its own residential properties in partnership with other organisations such as Cecilia Homes, as well as holiday homes.

After three years of successful holidays at Selsey, the rent was seen as too high and MAB found an alternative house in Littlehampton, with room for 12 guests which the association purchased. This scheme continued to be a focal point in the year for those who were able to access MAB’s services into 1939 and the outbreak of World War II.

The outbreak of war

WWII proved to be challenging and interesting time for MAB. Like many other organisations, its work was disrupted as home teachers took on roles to support the war effort. This took them away from their paid roles and members of MAB committees would end up taking on their work, often visiting the visually impaired in their homes, particularly if they had been damaged by raids.

The blitz proved to be one of the most significant challenges for the visually impaired and the organisation. MAB’s innovative work of creating social clubs, handicraft exhibitions and the holidays to Little Hampton all had to stop because of it. The supply and maintenance of wireless sets also stopped – leaving many of the visually impaired increasingly isolated.

Another challenge for the visually impaired community was the prospect of being evacuated. Many of those who were visually impaired chose not to leave their homes. Some were evacuated to Yorkshire, but the elderly who could not travel as far needed somewhere closer to home, which proved to be a difficult task. Eventually, after a detailed search, MAB was able to locate a home in Cheshunt, Herts, with room for nine women and eight men.

Despite these difficulties, MAB found opportunities for the visually impaired working in munitions from 1942 onwards. Visually impaired men started to work in sighted engineering works, which gave “the feeling that they are pulling their weight in the war effort inspires the workers to do their best”. By 1943, over 50 men and women were working in munitions factories, overcoming the logistical challenges of travel and finding the right job. As well as working in munitions factories, MAB also helped the visually impaired find work as telephonists and testing bootstraps to be used on the front line. There were ambitions for many to continue working in these roles once the war came to an end, unfortunately that wasn’t achieved.

As the war finally started to come to an end, MAB started to assess how to start operating normally after the experience of war. During the war, it had homes in Teddington, Ealing, Finchley and Cecilia Home, Cheshunt. Many of the properties had been damaged or were lying empty because of evacuation and MAB had to assess how visually impaired residents in Middlesex would return.

At this point, MAB started to evaluate its property portfolio to ensure that they were fit for purpose and able to deliver for the community they served. Three of the homes; Kelland House, Macdonogh House and Cecilia House were all temporarily closed because of the war, with some residents also moved to Littlehampton.

Once the end of the war was declared, the property portfolio was settled to three properties: Cecilia House, Hanger Lane, Ealing – run by the Cecilia Home Company and leased by the association; McDonongh House, Ealing – rented by the association and Kelland House, Littlehampton – a holiday home.

The end of the war signified a new era for MAB as well, as Middlesex County Council decided to take over a lot of the work for the welfare of the visually impaired that was previously done by the association. Maintenance of the register of the blind, the home teaching service and domiciliary assistance scheme were all handed over to the council.

MAB’s changing role

Despite the shift in responsibilities towards the council, MAB continued running its residential homes, providing wireless services to the visually impaired, running clubs as they re-opened and filling in the gaps in the services from the council.

The 50s was an era of continued close collaboration between MAB and the county council and a period of exploring new activities that could be undertaken by the organisation.  During this time, MAB enhanced the work it was doing by continuing to offer holidays, setting up a new horticulture competition and continuing to fundraise for the visually impaired, as well as continuing to run social clubs and finding ways to connect people who were part of the network.

The economic climate and the rising cost of living meant that MAB’s work in supporting the visually impaired living in their own homes also increased. The association provided bedding, clothing, furniture and transport among other urgent things for those who needed them.

During the early 50s, MAB also became a limited liability company and re-assessed its fundraising mechanisms. Up until this point it had, in part, relied on the Greater London Fund for the Blind’s fundraising efforts, but at this point MAB decided to start fundraising independently. Action was felt necessary because “of the reduced income which was available to the participating parties and the unwillingness of a section of the Greater London Fund to increase the proportion given to the voluntary Associations. MAB joined the United Appeal for the Blind for fundraising”.

These developments meant that the organisation was on firm footing to continue with its work, running its three homes successfully and continuing with competitions and activities for the people using MAB’s services. One of the biggest developments was the start of braille magazine MAB, a quarterly publication which continues to this day and is now known as Outlook. As well as the start of this important magazine, the organisation set out to fund and find a home for the blind infirm, which it achieved in 1956.

Following a gift of £3,000 from the chair of the management committee, Miss Jean Robinson, Valley Field house was opened in 1957 for residents in Ealing and Harrow. The residents were also taken on a day trip to Brighton and a caravan holiday scheme was started.

The caravan holiday scheme was made possible through the legacies of Miss Seidemann, a blind lady who lived in Chiswick, and an appeal launched by the Mayor of Brentford and Chiswick, Alderman R.S. Howard. The money bought one caravan and the Lady Freemasons of Great Britain gifted another one. In March 1957, the caravans were handed over to the association in a ceremony held on Turnham Green with the BBC present to document the occasion on a programme called Town and Country.

The caravan holidays were a huge success and described as “an ideal holiday for the blind” and are symbolic of the positive developments through the 50s that MAB was able to put into place.

A new era as Middlesex County Council abolished

As well as introducing another set of holidays, the charity also extended the Valley Field home after a successful round of fundraising – creating space for seven extra beds. MAB also continued to find new activities such as bulb growing competitions and floral art. MAB quickly became a lead in floral art which was a relatively new activity for the blind.

However, the 60s were a period of considerable change for the organisation. The most significant development was the re-organisation of London government in 1963. The London Government Act 1963 resulted in the abolition of Middlesex County Council and the creation of nine London boroughs to replace it. The nine boroughs which MAB now covers are the closest geographic resemblance to Middlesex County Council as it previously existed. The change was significant as after 40 years of knowing one structure, MAB would have to learn about how to interact with these new borough councils. This created huge uncertainty and ultimately concern about whether the provision of care for the visually impaired through social services would be sufficient.

At the same time Jean Robinson, chair of MAB, who had been involved with the organisation since 1928, passed away. She had held the position of chair since 1952. She was the first blind woman to achieve an honours degree from Oxford and had been dedicated to the advancement of visually impaired people. Her dedication continued after her death when she bequeathed a large sum to MAB which would be used towards housing.

As the 60s progressed, the changes to the structure of London governance continued to be implemented and a special meeting was called to amend the constitution of the organisation so that Middlesex would be treated as London boroughs of Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Enfield, Haringey, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Richmond-on-Thames.

At the time, the chair reported that the “transitional period for county and borough staff has been difficult. They have had to maintain personal services as well as a vast amount of administrative work to transfer the register, files and other records from the County Council to the new boroughs.”

The major concern that emerged as a result of the re-organisation was around welfare services for the visually impaired being integrated with other services. Practically, this meant that home teachers were being asked to do care work for people with other disabilities – until this point they had only helped the blind. “With Home Teachers being called upon to care for other handicapped persons there is a distinct possibility that the service to the blind may deteriorate”, the chair commented in 1967.

These concerns continued and were heightened as a result of staff shortages. These changes to the structure of local government continued as a theme in the coming years. “There is evidence that blind welfare services within our area have, in places, fallen below the standards set by the old County Council”, was written in one annual report.

While these changes at a bureaucratic level continued, the extraordinary dedication of volunteers and staff meant that MAB was able to continue delivering excellent services for the people who needed it most. MAB, the magazine which is now known as Outlook, also continued to go from strength to strength under the editorship of Miss H. de Liebhaber. The homes were also run successfully due to the commitment of the matrons and staff who worked there.

At this time, there were concerns about the ageing population of the residents in MAB homes, however, there was a determination to continue providing the service.

The introduction of the Local Authorities (Social Services) Act 1970 raised further concerns about the provision of care for the blind. Once the act came into force, the chair’s comments reveal the depth of concern: “The objective is to weld the personal social service into a coherent and efficient whole. We applaud this objective, but we have the gravest apprehension about the short-term effects the new arrangement may have.”

“Social workers looking after the needs of blind people must have specialised training to equip them to meet those needs. A general social work training is not enough. Blindness is a handicap which differs in kind rather than in degree from other handicaps.”

One of the main concerns was whether social services had identified all the blind who needed support, as the numbers being referred to MAB for financial assistance were falling. MAB started to build relationships with directors of social services to familiarise them with the work of the organisation.

MAB celebrates 50 years supporting the visually impaired

Apart from these changes, MAB celebrated 50 years of its incorporation – its Golden Jubilee – a huge achievement considering the changes taking place in the welfare state. A celebration was held at the Middlesex Guildhall with 700 people attending a service held by patron, Bishop of Willesden in St Stephen’s Church in Ealing. The scale of attendance demonstrated the depth of feeling and the continued goodwill towards MAB.

The 50-year anniversary also saw the end of the home teachers’ exams, as the MAB chair remarked at the time: “Over this half century, Middlesex was privileged to enjoy the services of a group of men and women who were both trained and dedicated to helping the blind of the County. New arrangements have been made for recruiting and training suitable staff, but it would be wrong for us to let pass the opportunity of recording our gratitude to all those Home Teachers and Social Welfare Officers for the blind who worked so well and faithfully in our county.”

Changes continued to take place thick and fast as the future of Cecilia House came into question, due to plans to expand Hanger Lane, which would mean the property being knocked down. At the same time Miss Ruby Port, the matron of Cecilia House for 22 years, passed away and bequeathed the residue of her estate to the association. This time also signified a reduction in demand for places at Cecilia House and Valley Field. This led to financial pressures on MAB as up until this point, the council had been paying for residents to be in the residential homes.

The changes proposed to Hanger Lane prompted the management committee to consider how the property portfolio could be consolidated by increasing the space at Valley Field house in Harrow and closing down Cecilia House. The home was eventually closed in 1982 and the remaining residents were carefully transferred to Valley Field and other suitable homes.

Meanwhile, the holiday offering was also being reconsidered, as bookings for Kelland House were also starting to drop off. The holiday home which had served many visually impaired holiday goers was eventually closed in 1982, but with the ambition of buying a hotel on another more popular part of the south coast later in the year.

As ever, MAB continued to celebrate its successes with an event at Brent Town Hall in 1982 to celebrate 60 years of the organisation – its Diamond Jubilee Year and over 600 people attended.

Later in the year, a new hotel for the visually impaired was opened in Folkestone, with the space to cater for 35 visually impaired men and women. It remained open from 1982 until 1986, when it closed due to substantial repairs being needed.

During these years, it became abundantly clear that the visually impaired would increasingly have to rely on the voluntary sector, as further government cuts are made to social services and local authorities. MAB’s main source of income came from Sightline – a branch of the Greater London Fund for the Blind. This income, alongside legacies, donations and grants, would become a vital source for MAB in the coming years.

The success of MAB and the residential homes was celebrated, with Mrs Barbara Thomas and at Valley Field turning 100 during this time. Despite this success, legislative changes continued to impact on the work of MAB and in the late 80s, adaptations were made to Valley Field with the support of the Cecilia Charity. To comply with the Registered Homes Act 1984, the number of places at Valley Field were reduced. Eventually, in 1991, the home was closed down due to a number of factors: legislation, rising costs and the need to spend a considerable amount on refurbishment.

This signified the end of a long running service provided by MAB – providing residential care for nearly 40 years- and could be seen as a change in the way the organisation was being run with a shift to more advice and information rather than total care.

The advice and information service which started at West Middlesex hospital was one of the first steps that would be built on in the coming years and evolve into the Midsight service.

Meanwhile, a significant legacy was left to MAB from Mrs Meek in Twickenham. This legacy would go on to be used to support the visually impaired going on holiday in the future, as Mr and Mrs Meek both enjoyed many holidays arranged by the association.

Up until this point, the records have been meticulous, but during the 90s there is less information available. However, what is known is that during this time, there was considerable uncertainty about the future finances of MAB and a review was undertaken to assess what services should be offered and how to boost the finances and reserves for it to continue. Uncertainty continued around the financial standing of the organisation, however it continued with its work.

MAB begins modernising

Meanwhile, a development officer was employed to research the appropriate future for MAB, which was the start of a whole new raft of services being introduced.

This led to MAB returning to its roots and starting to do home visits again, with the aim of providing the visually impaired with the support to remain independent. The development consultant had links with the Harrow Talking Newspaper and recruited a number of volunteers to work for MAB after training to become visitors to lonely blind people referred by the Visual Impairment Team at Harrow Social Services.

MAB moved its offices from Victoria to Harrow with the aim of being closer to the people it was providing services for. The home visiting service was officially launched in Harrow in 1993 and was hugely successful, resulting in it being extended to Richmond, Enfield and eventually the other boroughs. Around 230 volunteers were regularly making visits to the visually impaired – many of whom were elderly.

Research around the same time estimated that one in three blind people would welcome counselling, but that less than one in a hundred received it. MAB responded to this by setting up a six-month counselling pilot scheme which led to a full scheme being created and put into place in 1996. Ten counsellors were employed initially and five of them were visually impaired.

MAB continued to have a presence in hospitals under the name of MidSight, offering information to patients at a key moment in their sight-loss journey. The aim of the service was to offer advice and support that other hospital volunteers might not have time to do. MidSight desks continue to this day in hospitals across MAB’s boroughs.

The clubs for the visually impaired continued and in 1997, there were 37 clubs still associated to MAB, which continued to be a point of pride for the organisation as “often they are the only social outlet for their members who look forward to the regular meetings and the opportunity of a chat over a cup of tea, an outing to the seaside or the chance to try their hand at bingo or a quiz”, a review in 1997 found.

The financial standing of MAB continued to be a challenge, but items such as the Meek legacy and the Greater London Fund for the Blind sustained MAB.

By the millennium, the organisation had consolidated its services and was looking to move forward and build on what had been put into place during the 90s. A change in leadership was taking place and MAB was continuing to find ways to promote the interests of the visually impaired by seeking opportunities for sensory gardens and continuing to offer grants for holidays.

The organisation also started to work to reflect the changing communities it served. Immigration had significantly changed the demographics of the people living within the nine boroughs and MAB started to try to recruit volunteers to reflect the communities it was serving.

MAB was continuing to try and balance the books and secure its future and the provision of its services through numerous contracts with the local councils and continued relationship with the Greater London Fund for the Blind.

Early in the 2000s, MAB received the Copus legacy, which helped to achieve the goal of balancing the books. However, this was not enough to secure the future of the organisation, as many of the Midsight desks were running without funding. MAB also moved to new premises once again and a number of resource centres were opened in locations including Richmond, Barnet and Ealing.

Meanwhile, the organisation took up a strategy of trying to raise its profile to attract new forms of funding and successfully secured the patronage of the Duke of Gloucester following a visit to MAB in 2006. This patronage is in keeping with MAB’s long history of attracting the support of figures with public standing, starting with Lady O’Dwyer DBE in the 1920s through to Sir John Wall, the first visually impaired judge in the High Court. The Duke of Gloucester joined MAB for its 85th anniversary celebrations at the Association’s headquarters in Harrow, where guests were given an insight into its work.

It was also during this period that MAB looked to innovate and support its users with new technologies and experiences. One clear example of this is the relationship with the Tate Modern that MAB established. This led to the special project: ‘Raised Awareness’, aimed at raising awareness of accessibility issues in art for the blind. Using raised image technology from Zychem, the association worked to enable the visually impaired to ‘feel’ artwork.

As MAB moved into the 2010s, there was an emphasis on finding new sources of funding. Up until this point, there had been a considerable amount of funding from local authorities, Greater London Fund for the Blind and from legacies, but with the recession in 2008, it was clear that other sources would need to be identified. The trend of local authority cut backs has continued to this present day. Bids were submitted to organisations such as the Big Lottery, and other sources were approached as financially things became much tighter.

In order to put MAB back on a stable financial footing, a property in Teddington bequeathed to the organisation was sold in 2013. The proceeds paid off the mortgage for the current MAB office and also paid off pensions liabilities. The rest of the money was invested in equities, managed by the investment firm J M Finn.

In 2019, MAB’s membership entitlement agreement with the Greater London Fund for the Blind over many decades came to an end, which also meant MAB’s annual income was significantly reduced. At this time, MAB also appointed a fund raising manager.

The 2020s have been a period of continued change for MAB.

At the time of writing, this is our 99th year and we are delighted and proud to continue providing high quality services to our MAB clients.

We know this year has been like no other, and in many ways, we will all be glad to see the back of it! It’s been a difficult year for everyone as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The external environment has had a particularly negative effect on those with a sight loss.

As MAB, we have had to be flexible and adapt systems quickly in order to continue to meet the needs of our clients in this difficult time. Despite the challenges we faced, we believe we have come through this period stronger as an organisation.

Financially, we have made excellent progress towards ensuring our organisation’s sustainability, having ended this year with a balanced budget after securing many new donor relationships. We have also revamped many of our internal administrative systems to ensure we are delivering a better service to our clients.

All that we have achieved in this past year, and our hopes for our expansion work in the next year, is only possible thanks to the support of our donors, our staff, our volunteers and our trustees.

As we move forward into 2022, we look forward to new beginnings and to new, inclusive ways of working!

Many of the activities and services MAB provides now are connected with what MAB did when it first started back in 1922. MAB is still an agent for the British Wireless for the Blind, MAB continues to provide support to people with a visual impairment in finding employment and we are still teaching Braille.

Funding continues to be challenging, however despite that, there is cause to be optimistic. The centenary of MAB is a huge milestone that demonstrates the strength and commitment of all those who have been involved throughout its history. Even the most challenging of circumstances, whether that’s the outbreak of war, COVID-19, or financial uncertainty, cannot hamper the spirit and the purpose of MAB to serve the blind and partially sighted across Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Enfield, Haringey, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Richmond.