Our Deaf legend: Leslie Edwards

leslie edwards presenting

He may have been dead for almost 65 years ago but the legacy of Leslie Edwards lives on. A whole new generation has been introduced to the influential, charismatic Deaf Missioner through footage of him from the 1930s shown in the recently released film Power in our Hands, compiled from the BDA’s digitised archive footage.

Leslie Edwards was Deaf from the age of 7. His school days were far from happy but despite this he became an educated and articulate personality.

He trained as a teacher and became Teacher of Art at the School for the Deaf in Gorleston-on-Sea, where he met Marion F Thorpe, also a teacher there and later to become his wife.

In 1915 he became Missioner to the Deaf to the Diocese of Peterborough, covering Leicester, Loughborough, Northampton, Irthlingborough, Peterborough and Rutlandshire on his motorbike. In 1926 when the Diocese was split into two he remained in Leicester and served Deaf people there.

leslie edwardsHe was well known for being a strict old fashioned disciplinarian. No women were allowed in the Billiards room at the Deaf club and those who left the club to go to the public house a few doors down were not allowed back into the club after a drink!

He was also a noted cricketer and helped Leicester Deaf Cricket club achieve their first district championship trophy in 1929.

In 1935 he succeeded William McDougall as Honorary Secretary/Treasurer of the BDDA, a voluntary post that he held until his death.

Edwards built upon the foundations set down by McDougall and the BDDA continued to gain considerably in reputation and strength.

In 1949 he was rewarded for his life-long work on behalf of Deaf people with the OBE.

Leslie Edwards died suddenly on October 3rd 1951 at the age of 65.

His memory is honoured in the Church of the Resurrection in Forest Road, Loughborough, where an oak memorial tablet is inscribed. The dedication service was reported in the first ever edition of British Deaf News in January 1955.

“To the glory of God and in memory of Leslie Edwards, OBE, Missioner to the Loughborough and District Mission for the Deaf, 1915-1951. The Chancel Furnishings and Reredos have been installed by his deaf and other friends in recognition of the great happiness which he brought into their lives by his untold energy and also to commemorate the magnificent work he did on behalf of the Deaf throughout the country”

Leslie Edwards remembers his school years: “My education for what it is worth, was at Dr William Stainer’s private school, first at Finsbury Park and afterwards at Highgate. There were about twelve pupils whose ages ranged from eighteen down to seven. Dr Stainer died when I was fourteen and a half and for the next eighteen months I attended one of the LCC Day schools. My schooldays are the one period of my life to which I do not care to refer and were anything but happy. The only pleasant aspect of them was the fact that the chief method of communication was by finger-spelling.”

Leslie Edwards as Hon. Secretary/Treasurer of BDDA: “It has often been said that the British Deaf and Dumb Association is to the Deaf what a Trade Union is to the hearing workman, but it is more. It is a great brotherhood of mutual service, membership of which is open to deaf and their hearing friends alike”.

The following are extracts from Rev. George C. Firth’s chapter on Edwards in his book Chosen Vessels – A tribute to those pioneers in the care of the deaf: “Edwards had strong views on many subjects concerning the quality of life of Deaf people. He was an advocate for professional standards of competence for workers with the Deaf; and with Ernest Ayliffe of Liverpool, Albert Smith of the RADD and Carey Roe of Derby among others, drew up a scheme for a “Joint examination Board” to be sponsored by the then leading organisation for the deaf, the Church Advisory Council for the Spiritual Welfare of the Deaf and the Council of Church Missioners to the Deaf. He himself was appointed the first honorary registrar of the JEB.”

“Edwards was greatly concerned to provide Deaf people with opportunities to continue and expand their education in adult life. When BB Morgan, who became a lifelong friend, proposed a system of Summer Schools for Deaf adults to be sponsored by the BDDA, he took up the idea most enthusiastically.”

“Most of us encountered Edwards at national meetings and conferences. Frankly many of us were afraid of him, as he never hesitated to contradict someone’s views if he did not agree with them, no matter who the opponent might be.”

“When BB Morgan asked him why he had never written a book expressing his views, he replied that he was far too busy with his daily tasks to find the time and energy to write it; and also that he was afraid his opinions might give pain and offence to some of his contemporaries.”

“His drive and enthusiasm might merely have encountered a rebuke had he been an ordinary hearing citizen. It was because of his deafness that people took him seriously and accepted his sometimes blunt behaviour. People also understood that his forcefulness was not the result of personal ambition or conceit, but was part of his genuine concern for the welfare of his fellow Deaf people.”

In his 1990 book The Deaf Advance, Brian Grant wrote: “He had been one of the most respected and admired deaf men of his time and he was missed not only within the ranks of the BDDA but also of the NID, on whose executive committee he had served since its reorganisation in 1924. With his death the close cooperation between the two organisations, initiated by Ernest Ayliffe and William McDougall, came to an end. Henceforth they went their different ways and gradually became friendly rivals in their respective spheres of activity on behalf of deaf people.”

Comments about Leslie Edwards from the film Power in Our Hands:

John Hay: “He was the first example of ‘Deaf power’. Leslie had a unique understanding of the lives of Deaf people. He recognised that their experiences should be captured on film for future generations to see.”

June Smith: “My parents would take me to the Deaf club and Leslie Edwards would be there. He was a good man. Fair and knowledgeable. The members would ask him for information and he would happily tell them. He was very patient but he did have a strict side and would discipline those who misbehaved! We got all our information from him. This was before technology like mobile phones. We relied on him.”

Rosemary Ottaway: “Leslie Edwards had a genuine vision that Deaf people ‘can do it’.”