I’ve been at the Bristol Records Office recently, trawling through the archives of The Guild of the Brave Poor Things. One of a network of membership groups for disabled people, the Bristol Guild was founded in 1896 and became the first to have its own purpose built headquarters. Bringing together disabled people in a social space, the Guild lay on entertainment, companionship, training, sales of works and apprenticeships.
Membership was pretty exacting: you needed the right impairment (physical or sensory, visible), and enough of it but not too much. It helped a lot to be male. Most of all though, you needed the right moral character, exhibiting the ‘Guild spirit’ and signing up to its ideals. Above all, the Guild set out to prevent disabled people from being a burden on society.
As I read the reams of closely written copperplate from almost 120 years ago, the sort of disabled person you needed to be and the drive towards work for independence, wellbeing and morality, feels so very contemporary. I can hear the Coalition mantra echoing through the century: ‘Strivers not Shirkers’. Now, as then, the aim is that disabled people should overcome and inspire all the way to economic self-sufficiency. Then, as now, employers were not always keen to be a part of the solution.
And yet there’s one critical difference. Then – for all the charitable and tragic overtones – there is a feeling of liberation unfurling. Against a backdrop of poverty, inaccessibility and social exclusion, and long before the welfare state was formed, lives were being transformed. The Guild of the Brave Poor Things was not a self-help group, but certainly it was a place where group identity had a chance to form.
The Bristol Guild (eventually renamed The Guild of the Handicapped) continued right up to 1987 when the building was sold and it re-registered as a charitable trust. The same year, oblivious that the Guild had ever existed, a small group of disabled people held our inaugural meeting for what would become Avon Coalition of Disabled People. We gathered through the generosity of Community Service Volunteers, in the middle of their busy lobby, since Bristol then had not a single public building that was accessible. CSV is just 200 yards up the road from the Guild.