Mr. William Sleight (1819-1912)

Photo:Mr William Sleight

Mr William Sleight

Silent Times

Headmaster, Brighton Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb.

By John Walker

William Sleight was a God-fearing man who moved from Knaresborough, Yorkshire to become the first Headmaster of the Brighton Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf & Dumb in 1842. The school was situated in Egremont Place before it moved to Eastern Road, in Brighton. 

Sleight originally taught at the Yorkshire Institution in Doncaster under Charles Baker, he spent three years in the institution under Baker's guidance (Branson and Miller, 2002: 196); Baker was a great advocate for the use of sign language in education (Jackson 2001: 68).

Sleight was in fact the second choice of Headmaster as the Governing Board originally offered the post to Thomas Arnold, who declined the position on religious grounds (Branson and Miller, 2002: 196). Arnold also trained under Charles Baker and later opened the first Oral School in Northamptonshire, in contrast to his mentor (Jackson, 2001: 68).

The Brighton Institution started with just 9 pupils and £5 in the bank. There is an indication that the instruction was by sign language or the combined method (Log book).

"The Combined System of instruction is used [at the institution]. Mr Sleight has great faith in signs and they are used very freely in the classrooms." (Silent Worker, vol. 7 no. 5 [Jan 1895])

In 1867, the school was registered as the Brighton Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf & Dumb in Hampshire, Sussex and Kent with the local Post Office. Sleight's wife, Sarah, was registered as the matron of the school and R.C. Glyn as the Treasurer. His son, William Blomefield Sleight (b. 1850), grew up in the Institution and became a Vicar in Northamptonshire - he later sat on the 1889 Royal Commission on the Blind and Deaf & Dumb in 1886-8 and became the first president of the BDDA in 1890. William (sr.) was the father of several children.

Pritchard (1963) quoted Sleight's experience of isolation, as a school, from a conference proceedings, "I am one of the old school teachers. I have been Head Master of the Brighton Institution forty three years tomorrow. I went there from Yorkshire. For a long time, I didn't see a fellow labourer once in three or four years; we were isolated and alone."

William Sleight was the Head Master of the school until 1907 [1], and he passed away in 1912, of which he remained as a teacher for 73 years. His legacy left a school for 101 pupils and a financially secure institution. Albeit, at some point after his death, the method of instruction in the school changed from the combined to the oral method.

His death was mentioned in the Silent Worker (1913: Vol. 25, No. 4):

"Mr William Sleight, founder of the Brighton Institution of the Deaf at Brighton, England, and its Head Master for a long period of seventy years, died at his home in Brighton last April, aged ninety-four. He was a teacher of the deaf for seventy-three years, having taught in the Yorkshire Institute for three years before going to Brighton. This is probably a world record of long service as an educator of the deaf and it is more remarkable that three score and ten years were spent in one school." (The Virginata Guide)


Pritchard, D.G. (1963) The Development of Schools for Handicapped Children in England during the 19th Century in History of Education Quarterly (Vol.3 No.4, pp. 215-222)

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

Jackson, P. (2001) A Pictorial History of Deaf Britain. Cheshire: Deafprint Winsford.

This page was added on 23/03/2010.
Comments about this page

[1] Please note that Rev William B. Sleight was not the first headmaster. He was the son of William Sleight, the first headmaster of BIDD in 1842. He retired in 1907 and died in 1912.

By Geoffrey Eagling
On 24/03/2010

Thanks Geoffrey. I should have guessed that it was two different people. What I realised for sure was that Rev. Sleight sat on the Commission, so he must have been nominated by his father, the Head Master. I have adjusted the text to distinguish between the father and son.

By John Walker
On 24/03/2010

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