The good life at Blind Veterans UK, or how to bee happy

12 November 2013 11:50

This year has seen the arrival of bees at our Llandudno centre. However, this is not the first time that Blind Veterans UK and its members have been involved with bees.

A 'country life' section was established very soon after we moved to Regent's Park in March 1915, just a few weeks after we were founded. The work was led by Capt. Francis Peirson-Webber, who had lost his sight whilst serving with the Indian Staff Corps. Peirson-Webber, like our founder Sir Arthur Pearson, remained very positive-minded following his loss of sight and a 1906 Daily Mail interview with him says he 'shuddered at the idea of continued inertness' after his return home. He went on to study poultry farming and to run a successful business. As well as his work with us Peirson-Webber was actively involved with many other organisations, including the National Poultry Club and the Guild of Blind Gardeners.

The scope of the country life section is outlined in a letter which Sir Arthur wrote to the New York Times in May 1915: 'The Country Life Section, which is under the supervision of Captain Webber, the well-known blind expert, is a most interesting feature. Instruction is given in all branches of poultry farming, in bee keeping and in market gardening, and there are many simple and clever plans to enable the blind men to pursue these avocations with accuracy and ease'.

Many of our early members undertook this training and went on to pursue careers in poultry farming, with some also doing some market gardening. Popular also as a hobby activity, our former Chairman Lord Fraser estimated in his 1961 autobiography that 'Probably over half of all our men have done gardening in some form or other'.

A lack of later references in our archives to involvement with beekeeping indicates that this did not become so popular with our members. However, there is a notable exception in Samuel Keith 'Jerry' Jerome. Jerry served in the First Australian Imperial Force and was wounded at Gallipoli, losing his left eye. He came to our hostel at Regent's Park in August 1916 and trained in poultry farming and mat making. Soon afterwards he married Marjorie, the voluntary nurse who had looked after him in hospital. Jerry's father had kept an apiary, and he came to draw upon childhood experience of assisting him with it. By the 1920s, with the assistance of Marjorie, he had established his own apiary, and by 1930 this had grown to 60 hives. Jerry stated that he needed his wife's assistance on matters such as how the bees were looking and whether the queen was laying but that 'I can tell if the hive is strong, also if they have much honey by the weight of the frames in my hands; and by putting my ear to the hives I can tell if all is well with them by the noise they are making'.

In 1933 Jerry and Marjorie wrote two sketches about bees which were broadcast on the BBC's Children's Hour programme, and their hives continued to grow and thrive. Marjorie died in 1957 but Jerry married again, and his second wife Vivien shared his enthusiasm for beekeeping. Jerry himself died in 1966 but Vivien continued on with her bees for many decades afterwards. She also remained actively involved with Blind Veterans UK as a widow, and in 1992 her short story 'A Bee Line…', written under the nom-de-plume of Queen Bee, won first prize in our Short Story Competition. Vivien passed away earlier this year at the age of 103.

Rob Baker
Information & Archives Officer
Blind Veterans UK provides free support for blind Armed Forces and National Service veterans. Request free support by calling 0800 389 7979.