Australian Women’s History – Memoirs of Tilly Aston

Although we have not seen a million things we understand quite well, we have seen something else with which we can compare new impressions; something which makes it possible for us to SEE, perhaps more vividly than many unseeing sighted people, the gifts of beauty or grandeur strewn around us.

Tilly Aston

If you are Australian, and especially outside of Victoria, you might well be wondering: who was Tilly Aston? Tilly has been described as Australia’s Blind Poet, Author and Philanthropist and she forms the next instalment of my series on Australian Women’s History. Endeavouring to present a more diverse picture of women in Australian History I thought it would be good to find the story of an Australian woman with a disability. There is some really great writing around from contemporary women with disabilities, but to find someone historical required a bit of research. And then I came across Tilly Aston. Fortunately for us, Tilly penned her own biography titled, Memoirs of Tilly Aston. First published in 1935 you might be hard pressed to find a copy but thanks to the Internet Archive you can download a free copy here. As always we do need to keep in mind the time and attitudes of when it was written. There are a few mentions of “our young and happy nation” and references to blackface, but on the whole, it is quite an entertaining read.  

Tilly (Matilda) Aston was the youngest of eight children. Her parents had emigrated from Gloucestershire to Australia in 1855, first settling in Kapunda, SA before eventually moving to Carisbrook in Victoria. While still in infancy it was discovered that there was something wrong with her eyesight, which continued to fail until she was blind by the age of seven. Aston doesn’t give the specifics about why she lost her sight but suggests it was due to lack of medical knowledge at the time.

Tilly as young woman (Culture Victoria)

Tilly displays a keen intelligence and bright sense of humour. She recalls how one of her brothers sent her a pair of gold sleeper earrings for her 6th birthday. Apparently at the time it was believed that piercing the ears would help the eyes – who knew? Tilly bravely endured the piercing, however it did little to save her eyesight. For her following birthday he sent her a necklace made of iridescent shells. Unfortunately by this time she had lost her sight but the necklace became one of her most treasured possessions.

The early part of her memoir recounts a happy childhood and family life, with many happy memories of family celebrations. Encouraged by their family doctor, Tilly’s family were determined that her blindness would not become a barrier to experiencing a full and happy life. Tilly says that she always felt loved and her family did their best to foster and develop her talents.     

I was taught to take notice of the things about me, natural objects, astral phenomena, the calls of birds, and the like; also I was encouraged to make simple playthings for myself, to run wild in the bush with the other children, to climb trees, to prowl and investigate the surroundings of the old mines around town. The independence thus acquired has been one of my chief assets.

Before her sight faded completely, she learned to read with the assistance of books in giant type. Even once her sight had completely disappeared, she was never restricted in her movements or wrapped in cotton wool. She continued climbing fences and fruit trees and running errands for her mother. Tilly describes the loss of her sight in this way…

Gradually it crept upon me – first a mist over everything, then a grey twilight through which objects showed indistinctly. Finally the world vanished, never again to be visible to the bodily eye, and by my seventh birthday total eclipse of sight had fallen on me.

One day a stranger knocked on their door and this meeting would change Tilly’s life. This stranger had become blind through a mine accident and now travelled around the country with his guide dog, teaching the visually impaired to read Braille. Very quickly Tilly learned to recognise the raised alphabet and so her love of reading and learning could continue unabated. Sadly Tilly’s father died when she was only 8, but the following year her life took a new path as she went off to Melbourne to attend the School for the Blind. Fortunately for Tilly and the other students, the superintendent possessed attitudes way ahead of the times, instilling students with confidence in their own abilities and encouraging them to live life for themselves.

Tilly did very well at school and after graduating from high school went on to attend Melbourne University. Of course there were no text books in Braille at that time, so every book had to be transcribed into Braille – by hand. Even with the assistance of a tutor, the physical and mental strain of this eventually became too much for Tilly and sadly she was unable to continue her university education. However that was not the end of her education, as she continued to make the most of every opportunity to read, study and develop her own knowledge and understanding about the world.

Her university experience was not wasted though because it demonstrated to Tilly that there was a great need to improve the lives and opportunities of the visually impaired. While children were able to attend the School for the Blind there was no training facility for people who lost their sight at an older age. Many of them lived isolated and restricted lives with no encouragement to help themselves. They were often even denied the vote as they couldn’t use pen and paper.  

 Tilly started by enlisting a small group of volunteers who transcribed books into Braille to establish a library for the blind but her major achievement was the foundation of the Association for the Advancement of the Blind in 1895. One of the most important first steps was developing a register of all the visually impaired throughout Victoria. People were often know within their own small communities but not at a state or national level. The Association campaigned and achieved travel discounts, voting rights and free postage for Braille literature. They also established a home for those who were homeless or unwanted by their family. And all of this was achieved without any government financial assistance.

Image courtesy of Culture Victoria

As well as being a tireless advocate for people with visual impairment, Tilly was also a poet, publishing her first book of poetry in 1901. She also regularly had short stories published in weekly journals. While Tilly was clearly a very capable and intelligent woman, she often faced opposition from those who had a more limited view of the capabilities of the visually impaired. Tilly believed she had a lot to contribute to the education of visually impaired children. After all, who better to equip and encourage young children than someone who actually knew what it was like to be blind. However, this view was not shared by the educators who ran the School for the Blind. Eventually though, with the backing of the Education Board, Tilly successfully gained employment as a head teacher at the school, though not without trouble from the existing staff at the time.

Throughout her life Tilly often brushed up against the stigma or ignorance about the visually impaired. Quite strangely, people often thought she was deaf as well as blind, saying things in her presence such as…  

Oh, they are blind! Poor dears! How terrible! They would be better in their graves! 

Blind people should not be allowed to go about lest their physical defect upset an expectant mother.

Blind people don’t need so much money for clothes as they cannot see what they are wearing.

But the best story occurred when she was once travelling by train and a young couple, realising she was blind, started making out. The young man reassured his companion it didn’t matter since she, Tilly, was blind, to which Tilly promptly retorted that while she might be blind, she certainly wasn’t deaf! Strangely enough the young couple got off at the next station.

I quite enjoyed reading Tilly’s memoir and admire her spirit. You can read more about Tilly on the Culture Victoria website here.

2 thoughts on “Australian Women’s History – Memoirs of Tilly Aston

    • Yes, I had never heard of her either. I guess there are probably a lot of people from the past, both men and women, who have made contributions to society and we’ve never heard of them. We often think of the disability movement as recent history, inspired by the civil rights movement, but just shows there have always been people working to improve the lives of the disabled and advocate for rights that everybody else took for granted.

      Liked by 1 person

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