Thursday, 18 May 2017

Victory over Blindness - the funeral of Sir Arthur Pearson, 13 December 1921, Hampstead Cemetery

The choristers from the Royal Normal School for the Blind at Sir Arthur's graveside
Sir Arthur Pearson died on Thursday 9 December 1921 and was buried the following Tuesday, 13 December. Despite the speed of his interment his funeral was attended by over 1500 people, around a thousand of whom were blind and came from all over the country. 200 Guardsman volunteered to act as guides, collecting blind mourners from all the main London stations and accompanying them to the funeral in Hampstead. According to The Illustrated London News of 17 December “preceding the coffin was a Boy Scout bearing a floral Union Jack on a staff topped by a dove and the letters V.O.B – the initials of Sir Arthur’s slogan: ‘Victory Over Blindness’” One of the officiating clergyman was blind and choristers from the Royal Normal School for the Blind sang at the graveside. The ILN article features a series of fascinating photographs of this most unusual funeral. Interestingly Blind Veterans UK, which Sir Arthur founded in 1915 as the Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Care Committee, continues to hold an annual ceremony in his honour at Hampstead Cemetery.

A Guardsman leads a group of blind mourners through Hampstead Cemetery
Arthur Pearson was born in Wookey, Somerset in 1866 where his father was curate. He was educated at Winchester College and after leaving school became a journalist on Tit-bits magazine. Although he always kept his hand in at journalism and writing, (going on to produce such classics as ‘Handwriting as an Index to Character’ under the pseudonym Professor P R S Foli) he became most successful as a publisher, opening a publishing firm in 1890, branching out into periodicals and newspapers and creating the Daily Express in 1900. Among his publishing highlights was ‘Scouting For Boys’, written by his friend Lord Baden Powell. The Daily Express was an innovative publication, printing news rather than advertisements on its front page, being the first newspaper to carry a regular crossword puzzle and featuring gossip, sports and women’s features. One of the first features in the paper was the explorer Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard’s series of reports on the uncharted interior of Haiti where English readers heard for the first time an account of voodoo. The series was so popular that as soon as Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard returned from the Caribbean Pearson sent him off again on an expedition to track down the giant ground sloth of Patagonia (he arrived 10,000 years too late, which in geological time scales is like arriving on the platform to see the train pulling out, as Bruce Chatwin would have known, being the owner of a mysterious swag of ground sloth pelt which is made much of in the opening pages of ‘In Patagonia.’)

Sir Arthur's coffin on its way to the graveside
In the 1900’s Person began to suffer with glaucoma. Despite undergoing an operation in 1908 he eventually lost his sight completely, his son telling the inquest into his death that his “sight began to fail in 1913. It came on gradually, not suddenly, and from 1914 he had been unable to distinguish light or darkness.” He remained an active and independent individual despite his disability and as he gradually relinquished his business interests threw himself into philanthropy instead becoming president of the National Institution for the Blind in 1914 and founding the Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Care Committee in 1915. He died on Friday 09 December 1921 at home 15 Devonshire Street, Marylebone, after slipping in his morning bath, gashing open his head and drowning.  The inquest was held by the West London Coroner H. R. Oswald the next day and reported in detail in many newspapers in their evening editions, including the Yorkshire Evening Post of Saturday 10 December. The main witness was Sir Neville Pearson, the dead man’s son. He told the coroner that “he last saw his father alive on Thursday night about 11 o'clock, and he was then in good health and spirits. He had followed his usual occupation during the day, and had been to the theatre in the evening. Physically, his father was a strong and well built man. It was his custom to take a bath every morning in his dressing-room.”  The account continues:

The principal mourners, Lady Pearson and the deceased's son Sir Neville Pearson
Portrait of Sir Arthur
TRAGEDY DISCOVERED. On Friday morning, about a quarter nine, Sir Arthur's secretary, Miss Campbell, told witness she had found him lying face downwards in a bath of water. As Sir Arthur had not come down to breakfast at half-past eight, Miss Campbell had gone to discover the reason for his non-appearance. Witness went up and saw his father in the bath. Sir Arthur s head was thrust down between the shoulders, and the water was bloodstained. His head was completely submerged. There were bloodstains on the nozzle of the tap. Only the previous day Sir Arthur mentioned that had once before slipped in his bath. If he slipped and fell forward in the bath his head would strike against the nozzle. Witness presumed that his father had been in the position in which he was found for about half an hour. Naomi Alice Glennie, head parlourmaid at 15 Devonshire Street, said she called Arthur at half-past seven on Friday morning, and took him a cup of tea. He seemed exactly the same as he always was, and inquired about the weather as usual. Sir Arthur always prepared his own bath.

Miss Amy Campbell, the secretary, said Sir Arthur was always very independent and did not let people help him. He preferred to do things for himself.  Sir Milson Rees, medical practitioner, said he was called by telephone and found Sir Arthur in the bath face downwards, with his head submerged. Death had taken place quite recently. There was a wound of about an inch in length between the temple and the forehead on the right side. It was exactly such a wound as would have been caused  by falling against the nozzle of a tap. It was obvious that Sir Arthur slipped in the bath and in falling struck his head. A man with sight could have recovered himself. He was evidently stunned.


The Coroner said enamel baths were slippery and such accidental falls were often heard.

A general view of the funeral showing the size of the crowd

The article in the Illustrated London News