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UK Disability History Month

Ben Purse

Ben Purse, born in 1874, was a blind piano tuner who had trained at Henshaw’s Blind Asylum, Old Trafford. 
Purse had lost his sight completely by the age of 13. 

After failing to get work Purse decided to form a radical organisation of only blind and partially sighted people. Purse and the newly formed National League of the Blind (1899) argued the need for an entitlement to direct state aid and the abolition of all charities. The National League of the Blind became affiliated to the TUC in 1902 and the Labour Party in 1909.

Purse was a strong advocate of self-representation, using parliamentary and direct action, arguing a trade union was required in order to represent workers who were being exploited in private industry and in the charity sector.

In 1917 he became a member of the first ever Advisory Committee for the Welfare of the Blind. To ensure that the cause of blind people was advance a Private Member’s Bill was put forward in 1920.

workers on the march to parliament in 1920  behind Justice not charity bannerUnfortunately, the Government did not allow the Bill to proceed, although Parliamentary time was promised.  To increase pressure on the government for this the National League of the Blind organising a march from three locations in Britain – Newport, Leeds and Manchester. A total of 171 blind workers marched to Trafalgar Square behind a banner that read ‘Justice Not Charity’, and raised awareness of the plight of blind people as they walked through the country.  The Blind Persons' Act became law in September 1920.

Purse stayed connected to NLB until 1920s, then moved away from the NLBs radical aim wishing to work with charities to improve the lot of blind people. He set up a breakaway union (National Union of Industrial and Professional Blind – later the National Union of Blind Workers).

In 1928 he wrote a book, The British Blind, where he argued that more self-help was required and less interference from the state, and that the 1920 Act had already given a blind person the opportunity ‘to win himself a place in society by the exercise of his own initiative and capacity.’

His dream of a minimum wage was only introduced 48 years after his death in 1954.