‘A little army of girls’ – early volunteers at Blind Veterans UK

1 June 2017 09:00

Today marks the beginning of Volunteers’ Week - an annual national event that celebrates the difference volunteers’ make to every community across the country.

Our charity has been fortunate throughout its 102-year-old history to have been helped by thousands of wonderful volunteers.

Some of our earliest volunteers were female students from Bedford College. Founded in 1849, it was situated in Regent’s Park and close to our then headquarters at St Dunstan’s Lodge. Bedford College was the first university for women in the country.

Black and white photo of several blind veterans dancing with nurses in Regents Park
By May 1915, only a few weeks after our charity had first arrived in Regent’s Park, women from the college were already assisting blind veterans with one of our then most popular activities. 

Black and white photo of blind veterans rowing three boats on the lake in regents Park with women coxesThey acted as coxswains for our blinded men when they rowed on the lake in the park. Our founder and first Chairman, Sir Arthur Pearson, described them as “a little army of girls, living in all parts of London, regularly getting up very early to come to steer the St Dunstan’s boats”. According to our second Chairman, Lord Fraser, there were often fifty boats on the lake by as early as half past six in the morning.

Close relations between the College and us were evidently established and our charity even held a dance in honour of our incredible volunteer coxswains students.

Black and white photo of blind veterans enjoying tea in Regents Park
A group of our blind veterans taking tea at Bedford College. This image (ref. BC PH/6/4/1) has been reproduced with the very kind permission of the Archives, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Many romances, some leading to marriage, ensued between the blind veterans and these same college ladies. Though we still strive to engage our volunteers as much as we can, this no longer involves any wedding proposals.

To see more stories from our Historical Photography Project click here or check our Facebook page for our #ThrowbackThursdays.