Sir Arthur Pearson owned the Daily Express
Sir Arthur Pearson was yesterday honoured with a prestigious English Heritage blue plaque for his inspirational work helping blinded servicemen and women. His great granddaughter, the honourable Mrs Marya Egerton-Warburton, brushed tears of pride from her eyes as she unveiled the plaque at 21 Portland Place, London, saying: “I am immensely proud of my truly great grandpappa on this very special day.” It was at this very address more than a century ago that Sir Arthur, who launched the Daily Express in 1900, entertained the great and the good of the day, including an up-and-coming young politician by the name of Winston Churchill.
In the early months of the First World War, the philanthropist, whose own sight had been blighted by glaucoma, leaving him almost blind by 1912, became concerned there was no help for the increasing numbers of men returning home with eye injuries.
Blindness, temporary or permanent, was a frequent consequence, adding to the savage toll on men’s vision exacted by bullets, shells and, increasingly, mustard gas. In the four years of the struggle, some 31,000 British soldiers were discharged with damaged or defective eyesight. More than 2,000 were fully blind.
So, in 1915, Sir Arthur founded St Dunstan’s charity for blind veterans, devoting his tireless energy to help them lead normal lives. Severely injured men were welcomed to his central London home where he personally helped them cope with the trauma.
Inspirational and practically minded, he boosted flagging spirits, teaching them braille and playing a huge part in their recovery and their eventual return to normal life.
The organisation took its name from St Dunstan’s Lodge in Regent’s Park where its first headquarters was based.
Due to Sir Arthur’s determination to focus on practical help, veterans were given a crash course in Braille and were also taught a number of trades, including shorthand, carpentry, boot repair and telephony so they could return to work.
An article published by the Illustrated London News in 1915 said: “In a quiet corner of London’s most beautiful park is a house where miracles are performed.”
Sir Arthur’s infectious positive philosophy, echoed in his slogan that there should be ‘victory over blindness’, was years ahead of its time. Explaining philosophy, Sir Arthur Pearson wrote in 1919: “I wanted them to be led to look upon blindness, not as an affliction, but as a handicap; not merely as calamity, but as an opportunity.”
St Dunstan’s men play football
Sensing that the football and cricket-loving young men returning sightless from the battlefields missed the joy of sports, a giant ball was created for them to push around Regent’s Park.
Sir Arthur presented the men with silver braille watches on arrival and silver tea pots when they got to the stage when they could live independently or with their families.
At the unveiling yesterday, Andrew Norman showed Mrs Egerton-Warburton a watch and teapot which Sir Arthur had given to his great grandfather, rifleman Thomas Waldin, after he was blinded by shrapnel near Ypres in 1915.
Andrew told her: “Thomas was very nearly killed by shrapnel from two mortars. Sir Arthur gave him the strength and will to carry on, despite his terrible injuries.
“Sir Arthur recognised the men needed to learn new skills to help them lead normal lives, so Thomas learned how to repair shoes.”
Partially sighted Peter Brice, 70, personally thanked Mrs Egerton-Warburton for help afforded his grandfather Ernest Sayers, also blinded in the First World War.
Ernest had already lost the sight in one eye because of disease, and was blinded in the other laying barbed wire in 1916.
“A horse was being used to pull a wheel and his job was to unfurl the barbed wire, but it got to the end and whipped back and ripped his eye,” said Peter. “Ernest was hugely inspired by Sir Arthur.”
The Regent’s Park hostel eventually became St Dunstan’s charity, which was renamed Blind Veterans UK in 2012.
Blind Veterans President Colin Williamson said at the unveiling of the English Heritage plaque: “We are here today to pay homage to Sir Arthur Pearson, who has touched the lives of countless thousands of blind and visually impaired ex servicemen and women and without his vision the story of St Dunstan’s and Blind Veterans UK would never have been written.
“We owe Arthur Pearson a huge debt that we can never fully repay and one that we must never forget.
“Because of his work ethic, early St Dunstaners were trained and subsequently skilled in poultry farming, boot repairing, physiotherapy and other manual occupations.
“Our older members are also benefitting enormously from this great man’s legacy, enjoying life to the full, and discovering new pastimes and hobbies. All is well with Blind Veterans UK and that can be traced back to the fantastic work started by our founder, Sir Arthur Pearson.”
Although blind, Thomas Waldin worked as a cobbler
Born on February 24, 1866, at Wookey in Somerset, Cyril Arthur Pearson was the son of clergyman Arthur Pearson and his wife Philippa Massingberg, whose grandfather, the Rev Francis Lyte, wrote the hymn Abide With Me.
At Winchester College, Hampshire, nicknamed ‘Pigeon’, his storytelling prowess and pranks made him popular.
However, at 16 he was taken out of the school because his father could no longer afford the fees.
Undeterred by the setback, and despite suffering poor eyesight, he wrote for many publications. In 1890 he published Pearson’s Weekly, often sleeping at his desk in the early days, to make sure copies sold well.
He needn’t have worried – the first edition sold 250,000 copies. His motto was “to interest, to elevate, to amuse”.
Around this time he launched the Fresh Air Fund which paid for trips to the countryside for children to escape Britain’s smog-choked cities. More than 200,000 youngsters benefitted from the breaks.
Flushed with the success of his weekly publication, he launched the Daily Express in April 1900 to great public fanfare with the axiom ‘Never forget the cabman’s wife’.
His offices were at the heart of Britain’s newspaper-land, at 8 Tudor Place, just off Fleet Street, London. The first editions cost half a penny and created newspaper history by putting news on the front page instead of adverts.
The birth of a vibrant new paper created so much excitement there were orders for 1.5 million copies and readers were not disappointed.
Foreign reporter Hesketh Prichard travelled to Haiti to write about human sacrifice. Author Rudyard Kipling was a great supporter and contributor to the new paper.
Groundbreakingly, the paper carried crosswords and puzzles, covered sporting events and wrote articles for women.
Correspondents were scattered around the globe, including outposts at Natal in the Orange Free State, to cover the Boer War, and most European cities.
LEGACY… Great grand-daughter Marya Egerton-Warburton
Realising Queen Victoria was close to death, it was arranged that a hankey would be waved from Osborne House on the Isle of Wight when she died.
That then led to a carrier pigeon being sent to Portsmouth where a telephone call was made to journalists in London.
The paper’s quest to find a sloth in Patagonia inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write his novel The Lost World.
While living at Farnham, Surrey, Sir Arthur designed an 18 hole golf course and had a huge tree house built for his children. The structure was said to have inspired his dinner guest JM Barrie to write Peter Pan.
Despite all his successes, he was dogged by poor eyesight.
He founded St Dunstan’s while his own eyesight was in decline and in 1916 sold the Daily Express to Sir Max Aitken, who took the paper to even greater heights. Both men were fired by a tireless passion for newspapers, their country and those injured in war.
Tragically, Sir Arthur died in 1921 aged just 55 after an accident in his bath.
The Daily Express carried a detailed report on his extraordinary life, prompting William Girling to write in response: “As a blinded soldier it is only natural I should be thinking of him with gratitude for the great work in the foundation of St Dunstan’s.
“I am thinking of him as the one who came to my comrades and I when our needs were greatest and who changed our darkness into light and transformed our possible despair into certain hope, confidence and success.
“Often in my simple belief I have wondered whether he was not sent to us by some divine promise.”