Rev. William Blomefield Sleight M.A. (1850-1927)

Photo:Rev. William B. Sleight MA

Rev. William B. Sleight MA

Silent Worker

Son of William Sleight; a commissioner on the 1889 Royal Commission on the Deaf & Dumb; first President of the BDDA.

By John Walker

Rev. William B. Sleight was the son of the Headmaster who ran the Brighton Institution (see William Sleight). He was born in Brighton in 1850 and grew up in the institution. He was most probably schooled by his father, although he went to the Brighton College on the other side of the road. The Brighton Institution used the combined method of education, which included fingerspelling and sign language.

When he finished his training as a missioner, he moved to Northampton and served in a parish (St Lawrence Church, Towcester). Although he did not work directly with Deaf people in his working years, he was fluent in sign language.

From 1887 to 1889, the Deaf community was under pressure from the Royal Commission on the Blind and Deaf & Dumb, one of the series of legislation at the time to standardise the education of 'handicapped' people. This legislation supported the use of the 'pure oral method' of education and discouraged deaf people from marrying for fear of producing a 'deaf race' (as advised by Alexander Graham Bell). Rev. William B. Sleight sat on the commission (see link below) and signed it in 1889 with reservations, which were printed in the London Times:

'The contention of Messrs. Owen and Sleight is that the Oral System breaks down in after life, and that its pupils not infrequently resort to writing and the manual alphabet. They, therefore, advocate the "Combined Method" -i.e., the main instruction being carried on by means of the finger alphabet and signs, articulation and lip-reading being taught as accomplishments to those who show aptitude for receiving such instruction.' (October 24, 1889)

Francis Maggin, a Deaf man born in Mallow, Ireland, who taught at a school in Margate, attempted to set up the first National Association of the Deaf (after his stay to America) in 1888. He allocated 6 Deaf men and 6 hearing men to write a constitution for the new association, it was chaired by William B. Sleight. 

While the first attempt failed to rally enough members, the second attempt saw the inaugural AGM at Leeds in 1890. While Maggin (29 years) positioned himself to be the first Deaf president of the British Deaf and Dumb Association (now the British Deaf Association), Rev. William B. Sleight (40 years) was presented as a candidate "at the last minute" and became the BDDA's first president.

Francis Maggin (1861-1918), who lost the ballot, was given a regional Vice-Presidency with no real power; over the years, he gradually moved away from the BDDA and focussed his energy on Northern Ireland. It was many years before the BDA had its first Deaf President, Jock Young in 1983, and Deaf Chief Executive Officer, Jeff McWhinney in 1995.

The Silent Worker (1898: Vol. XI, No. 2) published an article on the Reverend:

"In 1887, Mr Sleight was appointed a member of the Royal Commission on the Education of Deaf Children, and in that capacity visited a large number of schools in Great Britain and on the continent. Being one of the few members on the commission who had any practical experience of the subject with which they had to deal, his views, favouring the combined system were among the most useful and practical contribution to the results of this enquiry, and we doubt not that they will prove to be correct. Then, as President of the British Deaf and Dumb Association, a post he held since its formation in 1890, Mr Sleight has contributed much to its successful work and in allowing himself to be re-elected for the next two years, he is falling in with the expressed wishes of the members of that influencial organisation. That he may long be spared to us in hope and prayer." (Ephphatha)


The Royal Commission on the Blind and the Deaf & Dumb and co., 1889.

Fay, E.A. (1890: 82) The Royal Commission in American Annals of the Deaf (Vol. XXXV). Washington D.C.: The Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf. (Accessed on March 23rd, 2010)

Branson, J. & Miller, D. (2002: 196) Damned for their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

The Royal Commission for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb (1885-9) (Accessed on March 23rd, 2010)

Francis Maginn (1861-1918) (Accessed on March 23rd, 2010)

This page was added on 23/04/2010.
Comments about this page

Jeff McWhinney was not the first Deaf CEO of the BDA. Although the title is different, there were two Deaf people before him at the role of the 'person at the top' [the title was 'General Secretary']. See 'The Deaf Heritage' by Peter Jackson for the names.

By Linda Richards
On 01/04/2011

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