Rob Baker tells the story of why our founder, Sir Arthur Pearson, was honoured with an English Heritage blue plaque.
During our centenary year in 2015 Blind Veterans UK produced and placed three blue plaques, commemorating important places in our history. These were on the site of our very first building in Bayswater Road, London; at our former West House (later Pearson House) building in Kemp Town, Brighton; and at our Second World War headquarters at the Longmynd Hotel in Church Stretton, Shropshire.
On 26 June 2019 we added another blue plaque to recognise the work of the most important person in our history, our founder and first chairman Sir Arthur Pearson. Unlike our previous plaques, Sir Arthur’s was undertaken as part of the official and prestigious English Heritage blue plaque programme, which dates back to 1866 and is believed to be the oldest such scheme in the world.
We were delighted that Sir Arthur’s significance, in particular his founding of Blind Veterans UK, was recognised by English Heritage. The building on which the plaque was placed is 21 Portland Place, in Marylebone, which is now the headquarters of the Association of Anaesthetists.
Casualties of war
Following our founding our headquarters were located at St Dunstan’s Lodge in Regent’s Park, to which we had moved after a few weeks in Bayswater Road. Most of the blinded men who came to St Dunstan’s lived in the building in Regent’s Park, but Pearson invited war-blinded officers to live with him and his wife Ethel in their own house at 15 Devonshire Street.
Quickly the numbers were such that this property soon filled up. The former Conservative MP Sir John Stirling Maxwell loaned Pearson his property, 21 Portland Place, and they all moved there in September 1915. The officers would spend the day undertaking training and rehabilitation activities at St Dunstan’s Lodge, returning afterwards to Portland Place for their evening meal and to relax. There was a weekly dinner party with a special guest, which on one occasion was the future wartime leader Winston Churchill.
The unveiling of the plaque was introduced by Professor Ronald Hutton, who is the Chair of English Heritage’s Blue Plaques Panel, and our archives executive Rob Baker, our President, Colin Williamson and our Chief Executive, Nick Caplin spoke. The speeches reflected on Sir Arthur’s many achievements, the inspiration he still provides for blind people today and his legacy for Blind Veterans UK.
The Association of Anaesthetists’ President, Dr Kathleen Ferguson, spoke at a reception which they kindly hosted for us. The special guests included Sir Arthur’s great-granddaughter, the Hon Marya Egerton-Warburton, and current blind veterans including Peter Price, whose grandfather Ernest Sayers was also a blind veteran and would have known Sir Arthur. We were also very pleased to have guests from a number of other organisations, including Winchester College, which Sir Arthur had attended, and the Royal National Institute of Blind People, of which he was President. The unveiling was performed by Marya and Colin.
We are very grateful to English Heritage and the Association of Anaesthetists for working with us to provide this wonderful tribute to the work and life of Sir Arthur Pearson.