- The Guild of Brave Poor Things
In 1894, members of a newly formed organization for people with disabilities, the Guild of Brave Poor Things, met at the invitation of Grace Kimmins (1871–1954), a welfare reformer working in London’s Bermondsey Settlement. Kimmins, who identified the experience of disability with suffering, believed that a guild would improve the lives of people with [End Page 21] disabilities by providing them with an opportunity to join and be supported by a community of similarly circumstanced people. Her plans for the guild prospered: by 1901, the organization had recruited more than a thousand members, all of them with disabilities and almost all of them lower class (Kimmins 7).
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Whereas organizations such as the British and Foreign Blind Association brought together people with a specific type of disability, the Guild of Brave Poor Things prioritized the fact of disablement over either the kind or degree of a prospective member’s disability. Visual disability, hearing impairment, paralysis, palsy, limb loss, and chronic pain were all qualifications for membership. As a reporter for the Quiver observed in 1906, “The disqualifications of ordinary life are the qualifications for membership of the Guild of Brave Poor Things; the hale and hearty are ineligible” (Philpott 888). The guild also differed from other nineteenth-century organizations focused on the needs of people with disabilities in that it did not provide members with commonly offered services and support. It did not, for example, campaign for changes in government policy or public perception, nor did it provide vocational training, income assistance, or shelter.
The guild was, first and foremost, a social group. There were twelve branches active in 1901, six in or near London and six in regional centres (Kimmins 30). These branches held meetings, either weekly or fortnightly, in the afternoon or evening. The halls in which members met were decorated with Union Jacks, guild banners, and donated flowers. In addition to conversation and tea, meetings featured music, singing, crafts, games, and [End Page 22] lectures. The meetings were organized by guild workers—volunteers responsible for recruiting members, for fundraising, and for visiting members in their homes or in hospitals or workhouses. Guild workers also led day excursions, and some members took summer holidays in the country, staying in tents or in cottages owned or rented by the guild. Costs were covered by donations and by profits from craft sales.
While the opportunity to socialize in pleasant surroundings attracted members, many of whom lived in poverty and were isolated by limited means and mobility, the organization’s military ethos also contributed significantly to its appeal. The guild constructed life with a disability as a battle, encouraging its members to perceive themselves as soldiers and to approach challenges related to their disabilities with fortitude. New members, having pledged to be “a brave and loyal soldier of the Guild” (Unwin 47), received a bright red membership card and a medal, both of them decorated with the guild’s emblem: a crutch crossed by a sword. Ada Vachell (1866–1923), the founder of the Bristol branch, describes the success of the organization’s efforts to promote a military discipline and outlook: “Strange and incongruous as it may seem, this unwarlike company consider themselves a regiment of Soldiers … a small battalion of the great Army of suffering ones” (“City of Bristol” 2). Reflecting on the experiences of one of her branch members, a paraplegic girl named Pollie, Vachell observes, “She knows quite well she must try to be brave and happy and good, as indeed must all those who belong to the Guild of the Brave Poor Things—an army of soldiers, sore wounded in Life’s battle, but all striving to endure and be worthy the blood-red banner that is over them” (“Pollie” 3).
Although the military trappings of the organization were well received by members, the guild’s name provoked a mixed response. The phrase “poor things” succinctly articulates a conventional view of people with disabilities as objects of pity, a...