‘Friend and benefactor’: Selwyn Oxley and the caravan for the deaf

There is a undated photograph of Warden Adam Fox in the archives. It shows him wearing cap and gown, seated on the steps of a horse-drawn caravan with the hand-written caption ‘Headmaster of St Peter’s College Radley visiting the van.’ An unidentified man looks out from the interior. Until recently, there was nothing to tell us where, when or why this photo was taken, apart from narrowing it down to the short wardenship of Fox himself, from 1918 until 1924. Then a few years ago Old Radleian John Hudson drew our attention to a collection of postcards for sale by auction. They were described as a’ visit to Radley College by ‘Ephphatha’ – Mr Selwyn Oxley’s caravan for the deaf.’

Selwyn Oxley’s name is well-known in Radley College Archives. The College Geography Prize which has been awarded annually since 1947 was renamed the Oxley Prize in his honour in 1951. This renaming was linked to his bequest of books for the school library. They are a superb collection mostly on travel and topography, many from the Batsford series of the 1930s, alongside books on archaeology and local history. Clearly the library of a man who enjoyed travel, possibly slow travel by horse-drawn caravan à la Toad of Toad Hall. The Radleian, 3 June 1951, records the bequest:

‘Within recent weeks we have received one of the most munificent bequests ever bestowed on the Library. By the will of the late Selwyn Oxley (O.R) we were invited to choose 500 books from a large collection of volumes on a wide range of subjects that Mr. Oxley had gathered round him. He was an indefatigable traveller and had specialised on topography; he had a cultivated taste in music, biography and English literature; he was clearly interested in curiosities of all kinds, and was fascinated by railways, rivers and canals. It was a moving experience to look through this strongly individual collection and most difficult to limit ourselves to 500 volumes.’

The bequest increased the size of the contemporary school library by 20%. But this magnificent gift to Radley barely scratched the surface of the collection of books, pamphlets, journals and photographs which were housed at his home in Cheltenham and gave no clue to the purpose of his indefatigable travels.

Radley boys learning sign, 1919

Selwyn Oxley was born in 1890, the only child of Rev William Oxley, Vicar of Petersham in Surrey, descended from a wealthy Yorkshire family. He came to Radley in 1904 as a member of D Social. Within a year of his arrival, he was organising expeditions for the Natural History Society Archaeology Section to visit local churches, and his father donated specimens to the museum. His interest in the Mission at St Peter’s, London Docks, began as a Radley pupil: he organised a trip to Long Wittenham and Sutton Courtney for the visiting Londoners in the summer holidays in 1908. He left school in the autumn of 1908, and marked this by giving his first donation to the school library – a copy of Holy Orders by Marie Corelli. By December 1908 he had become the Organising Secretary for the Radley College Mission at St Peter’s. For the next few years all articles about the Mission published by The Radleian were written by him – the start of a lifetime of meticulous report writing.

Selwyn suffered from a twisted spine which stopped him from taken part in much school sport and eventually meant that he was excused from military service in WW1. Independently wealthy, both he and his father sought a worth-while occupation for him which would allow him to put his Christian faith, his organising ability and his love of travel to good use. His father had already become connected with an organisation in the north of England which was dedicated to the education of the deaf. The Guild of St John of Beverley was founded in 1895 with the aim of uniting the various organisations currently working with the deaf ‘into one great federation.’ The highlight of each year’s activities was a service for the deaf at Beverley Minster. The attendance list for June 1914 recorded a newcomer: ‘the Rev WH Oxley, who came down from Kensington for the purpose, and also his son, Mr Selwyn Oxley, honorary worker among the deaf.’

That job description needs a little explaining. The Radley College Registers published in 1923 and 1962 have slightly confusing records for him. In 1923, his brief foray into Pembroke College, Oxford (he left within one year) was not mentioned, and his work among the deaf listed simply as ‘Hon. worker among the deaf and dumb [sic]’ He was also recorded as the Hon. Organising Secretary of the Guild of St John of Beverley, and a licensed lay reader in many dioceses. By 1962, eleven years after his death, the record included his year at Oxford and his job description had been expanded ‘Hon. Missioner for the Deaf from 1914.’ So what did this mean in real life?

Precentor George Wharton greets the visitors, 1919

The 1954 biography by his wife records his own story of how he found his life’s calling. He withdrew from Oxford on medical advice and planned a cruise to recover. On the train to Liverpool, he happened to meet a distant relative, Rev Payne, the son of a deaf headmaster and later chaplain to the deaf of Liverpool. This chance encounter enthused Selwyn with a purpose in life, and (judging by the size of his lantern-slide collection by the time of his first recorded tour in 1914) he began almost immediately to create what would become the Library of the Guild of St John of Beverley. He seems to have appointed himself a worker for the deaf at the age of twenty-two, but by 1915 he received official sanction: The Radleian for December 1915 records that he had ‘been appointed Hon. Missioner to the Deaf and Dumb in the Diocese of Salisbury and has been empowered by the Archbishop of York to preach in any Church or Chapel in his Province to the Deaf and Dumb.’ So began his appointment as ‘lay reader in many dioceses.’

The Guild’s report of the meeting at Beverley for 1914 outlined the terms and subject matters of a two-month tour of lectures with lantern slides as twenty-four-year-old Selwyn set out to visit ‘those parts of England which have no Deaf Missions.’ The first three pages of The British Deaf Times for December 1914 were almost exclusively given over to a report of his first year of caravan-based mission touring and lecturing throughout northern England, with brief excursions to visit deaf institutions in Milan, Florence and Rome. Along the way, he added more than 300 new lantern slides to his already ‘irreplaceable’ collection. This was the start of an incessant programme of travel, lectures and meetings which occupied the next twenty-five years.

Italy was just the beginning of his overseas tours. In 1916, Radley College Library received the gift of Work among the Deaf in India and Ceylon. Price 1d. Edited by M. Saumarey Smith, assisted by Mr. Selwyn Oxley, O.R. The journal American Annals of the Deaf published his reports of visits to missions and schools for the deaf in South Africa and in Scandinavia in the 1920s. He toured parts of Europe in the 1930s. Mostly these were fact-finding missions to record the work being done by different organisations working among the deaf, reflecting the original aim of the Guild. But there was also some activism: his first act in South Africa was to place adverts in the local press to draw attention to the need for specialist schools and teaching. He was critical of lack of provision in parts of Scandinavia and praised and promoted the work being done by nuns in Kingwilliamstown in South Africa.

The aim of the caravan tours was two-fold: primarily, to find individual deaf people and to include them in leisure excursions; secondarily, to educate the hearing about the world of the deaf. And so, in 1919 ‘Ephphatha’ came to his old school as part of a tour of Oxford Diocese. The visit coincided with the annual trip to Radley of boys from the Mission at St Peter’s, London Docks:

Radley College boys with Ephphatha, 1919

‘Coinciding with the coming of the boys from the Mission was the visit of the caravan ‘Ephphatha’ in aid of the Guild of St. John of Beverley for the help of the Deaf and Dumb. The Caravan arrived at Radley from Thatcham on Friday, June 6th. On the following day the deaf members of the Diocese visited Radley and a service was held in chapel at which the Warden preached, his sermon being interpreted to the deaf. After evening chapel we had a most interesting informal address by Mr. Selwyn Oxley, who is himself an old Radleian, and also a demonstration of speaking by signs and on the fingers by Mr. G. H. Brooks.

On Monday some of the boys from the Mission visited the Caravan, and also Mr. Harris Stone, the Honorary Secretary of the. Caravan Club; the visit closed the following day.

This visit was of great interest to all members of the school and, we hope, of some value to the Guild; It gave us all an insight into the work that is being done for the deaf and dumb, a work which is far too little appreciated or supported, and also gave us a very good idea of the nature of the work and of the immense scope which there is for individual and combined effort in this direction.’

This visit wasn’t just educational – it was also a recruiting drive. Selwyn’s thank you letter outlines his plans for excursions and activities for the deaf for the school holidays and the following summer:

‘We hope that any members of the school or various staffs connected therewith who in holiday time would like to see more of the work, or take a caravanning trip, will write to us at the above address and we will do our best to meet their wishes. We will also gladly take anyone to the East London Mission who cares to come with us.

May we point out that workers are urgently needed, and at the moment we shall be glad to hear from two members of the school who like rowing, archaeology, or kindred pursuits and travelling generally, and would be willing to give us part of their summer holiday either this or more probably next year; as we are contemplating a barge or rowing trip round some of our canals in the hope of opening up new ground. This offer is open to members of other schools besides Radley.’

George Brooks, who accompanied the trip and demonstrated the use of sign, was himself deaf and became famous as a photographer of the deaf. The majority of Selwyn’s photographic collection, including the visit to Radley, were probably his work. These constitute the most comprehensive collection of images of deaf people from the beginning of the twentieth century.

At the Guild meeting in 1914, the Chairman, George Stephenson, welcomed Selwyn’s proposal to establish a branch of the Guild in the south of England. Selwyn was immediately elected a Vice-President. Within a year, George Stephenson had resigned as President, and it was agreed that Rev Vernon Jones should become President of the southern branch, which was now permanently based at the Oxley’s home in Kensington. Rev William Oxley was elected Warden of the Guild, which gave him a supervisory role over all three existing branches in Sheffield, Hull and ‘the south’. He was also commissioned to draw up a shortened version of an Anglican service appropriate for use by a deaf congregation: this was approved for use by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. In 1913, the Church of England gave land in north London for a new institute for the deaf. In 1920, the Bishop of Stepney consecrated the newly built church of St John of Beverley on the site. The building was designed to facilitate services in sign and was substantially funded by the Oxleys. Gradually the focus shifted from the north of England to the south. By then, Selwyn and his family had used their connections and networks so effectively that they could count more than 7000 members of the Guild, including bishops, archbishops, earls, dukes and large numbers of the clergy. Selwyn’s meticulously kept report books list the benefactions by which individuals became members of the Guild, with actions ranging from ‘hospitality’, ‘gave books’, ‘helped deaf woman’, but the majority of the work was funded by himself. The Oxleys came to dominate the Guild, so much so that when Gallaudet University awarded Selwyn an honorary MA in 1939 the citation read ‘Founder of the Guild of St John of Beverley, friend and benefactor of deaf people.’

A major part of his contribution to deaf activism was the Guild library. Originally, the library was housed at his parents’ house in Kensington, but after his marriage in 1929, it was moved to his new home and from 1932 American Annals of the Deaf always carried an advertisement on the back cover:

‘When in England, Don’t Forget The DEAF LIBRARY “Ephphatha House,” 5 Grange Road, EALING, W.5 (Middlesex) All visitors interested in the Past, Present and Future of the Deaf, Deaf-Blind, Hard of Hearing and other grades and types of Deafness, are cordially welcome to view the Collection of: 1. Over 5,000 Ancient and Modern Books, Pamphlets, Magazines and Foreign Papers. The largest and most complete Deaf Library in London and the South of England. The books are for reference only, and no book or other item may he removed or borrowed. 2. Newspaper Gutting Albums, Model Theatre Scenes of Deaf Historical Groups, Gramophone Record Library and various data likely to be of use to those working among or for the Deaf. 3. Over 4,500 Slides, Photographs and Picture Post Cards of Deaf Work throughout the world from the earliest times. For further particulars please apply to : Mr. SELWYN OXLEY, Officer d’Instruction Publique des Beaux Arts Francais, Hon. Secretary and Librarian of the Guild, 5, Grange Road, Ealing, London, W.5. Stations: Ealing Broadway (G.W.R. and Tubes), Ealing Common and South Ealing. ‘Buses and Trams. A CORDIAL WELCOME AWAITS YOU!’

Creating the library allowed Selwyn to follow his passion for archaeology and history as he identified and acquired books and pamphlets to create a history of approaches to deaf education and methods of communication. One of the oldest books in his collection was the study of cryptography De furtivis literarum notis by Giambattista della Porta printed in 1563. In 1930 he published a study offering new insight into Henry Baker, a pioneer of deaf education from the early 18th century, drawn from a manuscript of financial accounts he came across at the Royal Microscopical Society. He also added modern works – in 1940, he submitted a review of recently published Language of gesture by MacDonald Critchley to American Annals of the Deaf.

Selwyn and his wife both wrote and published historical fiction featuring deaf characters. In 1928, Selwyn joined in the passion of the times and wrote a pageant play entitled The deaf of other days: in twelve episodes. He gave a copy of the script to Radley College:

‘Mr. Oxley’s six episodes are:-

I. Home life at Harpham.

2. School life at Canterbury.

3. The healing of the dumb boy.

4. The healing of the nun at Walton.

S. The ordination of Bede.

6, The arrival at Beverley. There are also four tableaux.

Mr. Oxley must have taken some pains in collecting these stories, which form so fitting a subject for a pageant play.’

There is no record of a performance. His wife, Kate Whitehead, was more celebrated as a children’s author and Selwyn ensured that her books of historical fiction, The King’s Legacy and For Prince Charlie, were also given to Radley. Herself profoundly deaf and formerly a student at the Yorkshire Residential School for the Deaf, Kate always included a deaf person as a major character. In For Prince Charlie, she included the same Henry Baker that Selwyn had recently written about. She also wrote a series of books about the couple’s cats. The cats were central to their lives (some were enrolled as members of the Guild) and alongside the phenomenal library about the deaf was an even more extraordinary (and even larger) Museum of Cats which contained a reported 20,000 books, pamphlets and cat-related objects. Sadly, when she died in 1978, Kate bequeathed the residue of her estate to be shared jointly between the Yorkshire Residential School for the Deaf and the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, there is no mention of the cat museum. In 2014, Cheltenham Local History Society tried in vain to find out what happened to it.

Selwyn and Kate Oxley moved to Cheltenham in 1939. By then, Selwyn was already being to flag and, with petrol-rationing in WW2, the now motorised trips and overseas visits ceased. The visitors’ book for the library, which had once had daily entries, shows only four visitors for 1940 and then no more. Selwyn became an honorary assistant missioner for Gloucester mission which he had founded with his father – a return to his Radley roots. The changes brought about by the post-war Welfare State from 1945 introduced new access to heath and education for all which profoundly affected the role of philanthropists such as Selwyn. In the last few years of his life he began to worry about the collection of books and materials. Several lots were sent off to other deaf institutions in Britain and abroad but, by Kate’s intervention, the bulk of the collection was lodged with the National Institute for the Deaf. Kate’s bequest in 1978 ensured that the library could be maintained there. This now forms the heart of the collections about deaf history, most importantly perhaps, George Brooks photographs. It is currently held in the Special Collections section of University College Library in London.

Kate’s biography of him, Man with a Mission, was published in 1954. The reviewer from the magazine Silent World sums up his life:

‘a man who dedicated his life to the social, intellectual, moral and spiritual welfare of the deaf. In affluent circumstances, he never had to concern himself about earning his livelihood, but he was unwearied in his labors for the deaf, in whose interests he travelled thousands of miles, wrote interminable letters, and spent a fortune. He personally visited and gave addresses on the subject in South Africa, Scandinavia, Italy, Switzerland, France, Holland and Belgium, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with interested bodies and individuals in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Hong Kong, Burma, Ceylon, Nygeria, the Sudan, Persia, Korea and the Gobi Desert.’

Clare Sargent, 2023

I am grateful for information for this article from

Waite, N. Alone in a silent world: the story of the Stephensons and the Sheffield deaf. Matador, 2016

Boyce, AJ. The History of The Yorkshire Residential School for the Deaf, 1829—1979. Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, Museums and Arts Service, 1987

American Annals of the Deaf. Gallaudet University

And the excellent blog by H Dominic Stiles for the UCL Ear Institute & Action on Hearing Loss Libraries (formerly RNID Library)