IF YOU walk past the Royal Infirmary and glance up at the clock tower on Castle Street, you might notice a sculpture, ‘Christ healing a blind boy’. The monument is a reminder of Glasgow’s important role in education for the blind.

The first Glasgow Asylum for the Blind on Castle Street was opened in 1828.

A key figure in its early success was John Alston, a Glasgow muslin manufacturer, town councillor and philanthropist. Alston helped raise funds for the new institution via public subscription and became a committed advocate of education for the blind, which he believed was “not only a reasonable but incumbent duty.”

Residents of the Asylum were initially taught by oral instruction, then by using a string alphabet where letters were formed by making knots in a cord, but neither method proved very efficient.

In the 1830s, Alston developed a reading system that incorporated raised letters. He felt that basing his system on the Roman alphabet would be better for those familiar with it before they lost their sight, and easier for sighted instructors to teach.

Alston worked with the Asylum’s residents to test his experimental designs. He published his alphabet in 1836 and in 1840 printed the world’s first edition of the entire Bible in raised type, using the Asylum’s own printing press. Alston Type was also used at the School for the Blind in Paris before the adoption of Braille.

Education of the blind, in common with many philanthropic ventures in the Victorian period, contained a strong spiritual component. Many of the texts printed were religious in nature, but the centre also prepared maps and globes to impart knowledge of the earth.

In addition to general education (including musical tuition), the Asylum offered instruction in trades and provided employment in its workshops. Inmates were trained in weaving, knitting and sewing and produced a range of products including baskets and brushes. These were sold in the Asylum’s own shops on Candleriggs and Sauchiehall St.

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By1842 the Blind Asylum housed 80 people, by 1878 that number had nearly doubled so new premises were required. An ornate new building on Castle Street was completed in 1881 at a cost of £21,000 - twice the original estimate. In 1898, Queen Victoria granted permission to add a regal prefix and the institution was renamed the Royal Glasgow Asylum for the Blind.

By the 1930s, the new Castle Street building was acquired by the adjacent Royal Infirmary and part of it still stands.

Although the Asylum no longer exists, its manufacturing enterprise continues under the auspices of the Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries, which carries on the valuable work of Alston and his contemporaries.