This photo was taken at the beautiful chapel that is part of the 262 building that the South Australian Deaf Community are fighting so hard to save. What you see is a Baptismal font. This was donated to the South Australian Deaf community by Deaf pioneers, Christopher Hawkins and his wife, Marion Hawkins. Hawkins, it seems, introduced the famous Samuel Johnson to Irish Sign Language. Johnson is a famous supporter of Deaf people in South Australia. He came over from Ireland and worked under FJ Rose at what is now the Victorian College for the Deaf. Johnson moved to Adelaide and became principle at the School for the Deaf that is now Townsend House.
Johnson worked hard to set up the first kind of Deaf mission in South Australia. His aim was to get Deaf people off the street and into church. He apparently asked his old sign language mentor, Hawkins, to run the mission. Hawkins is said to have declined and recommended Eugene Salas. Salas was a very driven person and was responsible for collecting huge amounts of money to build the first Deaf Society on Wright Street in 1895. He drove a further fundraising campaign to build an extension to this building in 1898.
All of the work of these early pioneers set in train the momentum that led to further fundraising and the eventual building of the current home of the Deaf community, 262 South Terrace. The Baptismal font is irreplaceable history and it is right there in the chapel at 262 South Terrace.
I was given a tour of the chapel by a wonderful stalwart of the Deaf community, who shall remain unnamed to protect her privacy. My friend told me, with tears of frustration, how her own children had been Baptised using this very same Baptismal font. She rolled off the names of many older members of the Deaf community who were also Baptised using this font. I was awe struck because I knew nearly all of them. When I worked at the Deaf society in the early 90’s I delighted in joining the senior citizens group. They would tell me the most wonderful tales. One fellow, who now uses a walking frame, would tell me the most corny but hilarious dad jokes. It was truly a privilege to be seeing the history and hearing it first hand from my friend who is such a wonderful stalwart off the South Australian Deaf community.
I looked around the chapel and there are these wonderful, beautiful and eerie lead windows. The windows pay homage to those early pioneers of the South Australian Deaf community, both deaf and hearing. On the wall is a brass plague that honours Eugene Salas. The chapel, and indeed the whole 262 building, is steeped in history.
My friend took me downstairs to show me photos and the most beautiful tapestry. The tapestry had the entire finger spelling symbols of the alphabet. It is a huge and beautiful thing and was made by members of the Deaf Women’s Friendly Society. It hangs proudly in the entrance hall. My friend bridled with emotion as she told me of the rumour suggesting that the Townsend House CEO wished to take the tapestry and hang it in her office. “If we have to move out of here.” she declared, “ that’s coming with us.
And it seems Townsend House are forcing the Deaf community to move out of their home now. Until the 31st December the only rooms that the Deaf community can use are the very small Women’s Guild room in the upstairs attic and the Chapel. In the building is some of the most beautiful antique furniture. Some of it has actually been made by Deaf tradesmen and lovingly looked after over the years. All of this must be removed.
The Deaf community has been told to remove everything. At the back of the Adelaide Deaf Centre there is a metal shipping container. Deaf community stalwarts are hastily removing everything that they can that is associated with their history and storing it in this container. What they can’t store in the container, they are storing in the little Women’s Guild Room in the attic and the chapel. Records dating back to 1891, which include sporting records and meticulous handwritten records of the fundraising initiatives of those famous early pioneers, are being hastily boxed.
Without ceremony and very little respect the Deaf community are being evicted from their home. It is a home that is a fundamental part of South Australian history. The Deaf community is being thrown out and the building is being sold purely for monetary value. No thought and no care is being given for the efforts of those wonderful pioneers Johnson, Hawkins and Salas. The South Australian Deaf community is being treated like a squatter and being thrown out onto the street.
The Deaf community can continue to access their chapel until the 31st of December and then they must be out. Without respect and without regard everything is being pulled from under them.
What we see unfolding is a very real human tragedy. And Townsend House is doing it without the consent of the Deaf community. All the history, all the plagues, all photographs – Unless they are removed – will be unceremoniously ripped down. Townsend House is about to be responsible for making a community homeless. They are about to be responsible for destroying a community. They are about to be responsible for destroying a history that is almost as old as the State of South Australia itself. South Australia was founded in 1836.
And they are going to buy them a new building they say. Well I am sorry it doesn’t hack it. And what will that building do? Will it have the connection of 262? Will it have the rich history of 262? Outside of 262 there are Deaf people that have passed over who have had their ashes scattered in the flowerbeds. What is to become of them? What respect is there for the dead?
To Judy Curran and the Board of Townsend House, I say this! You are an absolute disgrace. You have spat in the face of the Deaf community. You have trampled their dignity. And all for a buck and to save what are absolutely irrelevant services that are duplicated elsewhere. You have ripped away the heart of a community. That is your legacy; I hope that you are proud!
To anyone out there that can help the South Australian Deaf community save their home, history and community – Please, Please act now.
The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the Author, Gary Kerridge. Mr Kerridge takes full responsibility for what has been printed.
Acknowledgements to the late Rhonda Loades, Angela Dillon and Kats Parker whose work has been used here to document the history of the South Australian Deaf Pioneers