Jane Groom and the Deaf Colony - Missionary Colonialism and Disability History
Updated 15 February 2022
By Bethan Davis
“It appears that there is in England somewhere, a Miss Groom who thinks she is doing a good work by purchasing a quarter section of land in the North West and settling a colony of fifty deaf mutes upon it.”
Toronto World, 1884
This alarmist article refers to an emigration scheme invented by Jane Elizabeth Groom, a deaf, education advocate in the late nineteenth century. From her own experience as a deaf woman teaching deaf students in London, she devised a migration scheme where working-class people with hearing difficulties, living in poverty, could migrate from England to remote parts of Canada to start their own self-sufficient colony.
Groom was born deaf in 1839, with her sister and cousin also having hearing difficulties. At age twelve she attended the ‘Deaf and Dumb School at Old Trafford’. Here, historians argue her middle-class upbringing around similar, educated children with deafness sparked her educational aspirations for the greater Deaf community. Unfortunately, she believed her deafness was an affliction, brought on by the consanguineous marriage of her great grandparents who were first cousins. She wrote for An Evangelist in 1884, ‘such marriages are evils which should be avoided’.
While she spent her adulthood advocating for disabled people to have their own rights, she never celebrated her deafness, instead she believed her deafness was an impediment to prevent. Because of these views, the Deaf working-class were often seen as burdens economically and socially in Victorian society, and normally lived in squalor.
Groom felt this discrimination first hand when she moved to London to teach at The British Asylum for Deaf and Dumb Females. She earned less than her co-workers because of her deafness. Furthermore, if it was not for their staffing difficulties she may not have been hired in the first place. The Ladies Committee who studied her application stated: “the ladies do not consider that J. E. Groom would be at all desirable. Her being so nearly deaf and and dumb herself would be a great disadvantage.”
The idea of an ‘emigration scheme’ came to Groom on her voyage to Canada in 1881. She visited two deaf men whom she’d sent to Manitoba from a London workhouse eighteenth months prior. She reported these men were doing ‘exceedingly well’ despite their impairments and was inspired to help those living in poverty. She wrote: “I have noticed so much distress among deaf and dumb that I feel perfectly sad at witnessing it and I am sure nothing can be done for them here [in London] to establish them satisfactorily.”
She added: “My opinion on this subject is that the only scheme to accomplish their ultimate well being is to carry out my scheme of emigration to Canada.”
During her time in London, Groom successfully networked with philanthropists to bring her emigration scheme to life. Historian Paddy Ladd noted Groom became a ‘Deaf Compatrador’ a Deaf person of middle-class standing who was able to persuade philanthropists to engage with them in a form of ‘missionary colonialism’.
In other words, Groom was able to use her deafness to her advantage, asking philanthropists to donate or purchase land in Canada for her scheme. However, this was still a form of colonisation. Groom was taking land that did not belong to her or Britain in the first place, whether or not all parties believed they were acting benevolently.
Canada quickly caught wind of Groom’s plans and its press did not hesitate to retort. The Winnepig Daily Times argued Canada did not want a colony of the ‘deaf and dumb’ anymore than they wanted a colony of ‘one-armed or cross-eyed men’. They suspected the scheme came from an anxious, metropolitan government who was eager to get rid of them, inspired by the British’s dumping of convicts in Australia between 1768-1868.
Still, her scheme went ahead and Groom acquired land three-hundred miles away from Winnepig, at Wolseley. At first, only ten deaf men from East London and two deaf Jewish boys emigrated. Groom placed five of the men with Major Robert Bell on his farm in Manitoba, and one with shoemaker Mr Parker, who was also deaf. The other members were drafted to nearby farms, to save enough money to start their own businesses. It seems, the first deaf settlers acclimated well.
In 1882, Groom visited the settlers and reported they were ‘doing well and able to make good money and that I believe they are happy and contented being better off than living in England.’
Investigating Groom’s life, with the little evidence available, allows us to delve into both women’s history and disabled people’s history - in order to see how women with disabilities in the past comprehended themselves and their own agency. Groom’s life follows an inspiring trajectory as a disability advocate and many working-class disabled workers were granted a better quality of life.
Yet, as Esme Cleall explains, “she endorsed rather than challenged many of the negative images of her disability.” Groom saw her deafness as an “evil to be avoided” rather than part of her identity. She also played an ambivalent role in nineteenth-century colonialism as her scheme relied on acquiring indigenous land.
All in all, coming to terms with this uncomfortable mix between deaf agency and colonialism is undoubtedly important in placing disabled people back into our bigger historical narratives.
Esme Cleall, ‘Jane Groom and the Deaf Colonists: Empire, Emigration and the Agency of Disabled People in the Late Nineteenth-Century British Empire’, History Workshop Journal, 81:1, pp. 39-61.
Carbin, Clifton F. Deaf Heritage in Canada. Whitby, Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.
Campbell, Hilda Marian, Robinson, Jo-Anne, and Angela Stratiy. Deaf Women of Canada. Edmonton, Canada: Duval House Publishing, 2002.