Thomas Braidwood (1715–1806) was a Scottish educator, significant in the history of deaf education. He was the founder of Britain's first school for the deaf.[1]

Early life

The fourth child of Thomas Braidwood and Agnes Meek, Braidwood was born in 1715 at Hillhead Farm, Covington, South Lanarkshire, Scotland.[2]

Professional career

Teaching career in Scotland

Braidwood originally established himself as a writing teacher, instructing the children of the wealthy at his home in the Canongate in Edinburgh.

In 1760, he accepted his first deaf pupil, Charles Shirreff (1749–1829), who later became known as a painter of portrait miniatures. Shirreff, then ten years old, was the son of Alexander Shirreff, a wealthy wine merchant based at the port of Leith, who convinced Braidwood to undertake to teach the deaf-mute child to write.

Braidwood changed his vocation from teaching hearing pupils to teaching the deaf, and renamed his building Braidwood's Academy for the Deaf and Dumb, the first school of its kind in Britain. Braidwood developed a combined system for educating deaf students, which included a form of sign language and the study of articulation and lip reading.[3]: 151  This early use of sign language was the forerunner of British Sign Language, recognized as a language in its own right in 2003.

In October 1773, Dr. Samuel Johnson visited the school while traveling through Scotland, and wrote:[4]

There is one subject of philosophical curiosity in Edinburgh which no other city has to show; a College for the Deaf and Dumb, who are taught to speak, to read and to write, and to practise arithmetic, by a gentleman whose name is Braidwood. It was pleasing to see one of the most desperate of human calamities capable of so much help: whatever enlarges hope will exalt courage. After having seen the deaf taught arithmetic, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides.

Teaching career in London

In 1783 Thomas Braidwood moved with his family to Hackney on the eastern outskirts of London,[3]: 150 [4] and established the Braidwood Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in Grove House, off Mare Street.

Joseph Watson, a nephew of Braidwood, began working with him in 1784. In 1792, Dr. Watson went on to become the first head teacher of the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, which was established on Old Kent Road in Bermondsey.[3]: 109–110  Watson's pupils included England's first deaf barrister, John William Lowe.

Braidwood died in 1806, in the parish of Hackney.

Notable students

In addition to the painter Charles Shirreff, Braidwood's pupils included:

Personal life and family

Braidwood married Margaret Pearson on 1 October 1752. The couple had three daughters, all born in Edinburgh: Margaret, born 4 September 1755; Elizabeth born 1757; and Isabella, born 27 January 1758.

All three daughters followed Braidwood in becoming teachers of the deaf, and Isabella continued the running of the school after Braidwood's death in 1806. Little is known about Margaret, and there is no mention or record of her having moved south of the Scottish border with her family in 1783. Elizabeth married early to a Durham surgeon and went to live in his city.

A grandson, John Braidwood, began tutoring deaf students in Virginia in 1812, and ran the short-lived Cobbs School for the deaf from its founding in 1815 until its demise in the fall of 1816.[6]

Braidwood was a distant cousin of Thomas Braidwood Wilson (1792–1843), after whom the Australian town of Braidwood, New South Wales is named.


On 6 September 2017 Google celebrated the British Sign Language and the Braidwood Academy with a Google Doodle.[7]


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain"Braidwood, Thomas". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.

  1. ^ Lee, Raymond (2015). Braidwood &c. Feltham, Middlesex: British Deaf History Society Publications. ISBN 978-1-902427-42-3. OCLC 925361455.
  2. ^ He was christened 28 April 1717. "Braidwood, Thomas" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  3. ^ a b c d Scott, W.R. (1870). The Deaf and Dumb: Their Education and Social Position (2nd ed.). Bell & Daldy. pp. 64–65.
  4. ^ a b Jackson, Peter W. (1990). "The Late 18th Century (1750–1800)" (PDF). Britain's Deaf Heritage. Pentland Press. pp. 23–24. ISBN 978-0946270958. Archived from the original on 3 August 2017.((cite book)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  5. ^ Hall, John E., ed. (August 1822). "Guillie and Arrowsmith, on Instructing the Blind and the Deaf". The Port Folio. Philadelphia: Harrison Hall. XIV (Vol. II, No. 2): 120–121.
  6. ^ Crouch, Barry A.; Greenwald, Brian H. (2007). "Hearing with the Eye: The Rise of Deaf Education in the United States". In Van Cleve, John Vickrey (ed.). The Deaf History Reader (anthology). Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. pp. 29–39. ISBN 978-1-56368-359-6.
  7. ^ "Celebrating British Sign Language and the Braidwood Academy". Google. 6 September 2017.