Writing by people with disability in Australia has received relatively little critical attention, with the exception of memoirs fitting the ‘overcoming adversity’ trope (White). The genre of protest writing is usually associated with movements for independent living and greater autonomy from the 1970s onwards (Cooper), however, there are some rich seams of protest writing earlier in the twentieth century. In the interwar years, the general climate of activism and campaigns of marginalised groups for citizenship rights and social equality were reflected in activities by some groups of people with disability. For example, a consumer group called the Association for the Advancement of the Blind (later Blind Citizens Australia) protested against the oppressive practices of the Industrial Blind Institution in Sydney during the 1920s and 1930s (Campbell) and deaf groups in New South Wales and Queensland, dissatisfied with their lack of representation, formed breakaway associations from the established Deaf Societies (Carty). Much of the contemporary writing about those activities was buried in short-lived magazines, letters to newspapers, and private correspondence, but some longer-form writing was also produced. A useful example can be found in the work of deaf writer John Patrick Bourke (circa 1884–1960), whose self-published output from 1933 to 1941 is available in the National Library of Australia.1
Bourke’s writing is unusual. Historically, few deaf people have left significant bodies of published work (including self-published); in Australia, Bourke was one of the first. While there were capable deaf writers before him, they seem to have confined their writing to newsletters (e.g. Matthew Miller in Victoria and Fletcher Booth in New South Wales) or letter-writing schemes such as the Cosmopolitan Correspondence Club initiated by Daisy Muir in Victoria (Anderson and Carty).2 There are several reasons for this dearth of literary output, but the most pressing is that those who are born deaf or become deaf in the first few years of life have long been the victims of language deprivation and an education system riven by ideological debates between ‘oral’ and ‘manual’ approaches, leaving deaf children with incomplete access to language development and impacting on their literacy abilities and usage (Lederberg, Schick and Spencer 15). Deaf people who write well and prolifically have usually been late-deafened – like Bourke – or hard of hearing. It can be difficult to identify the ‘voice’ of deaf communities in historical records, unless their more literate members write to represent them – and Bourke attempted to do this, declaring that his writing was ‘a message to humanity on behalf of the adult deaf’ (Bourke, Drudge Preface).
His writing could be one-dimensional, but also tireless and revelatory, standing in stark contrast to the glowing official and public records of the Deaf Societies and missions of the time. He used political events such as the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism and Fascism, and Aboriginal struggles for citizenship as context and metaphor in his writing, and this set him apart from most other writing by or about deaf people at the time.
John Patrick Bourke
Bourke was born in Adelaide in 1882 or 1884. In his longest work The Story of a Deaf Drudge, he wrote:
I lost my hearing when I was about twenty years of age. I was a Junior teacher at the time. My deafness making teaching impossible, and not wishing to be a burden on a married sister, I set out to fight the battle of life for myself, untrained, without a home, with one or two friends to help, and with about £5 in my pocket (1).
He lived in Melbourne from young adulthood onwards, and most of his experience and commentary related to the organisations and people he encountered there from 1918 onwards. At that point, he was unemployed and struggling with vision problems as well as his recently acquired deafness. He wrote that he approached the Charity Organisation Society – an organisation set up to ‘coordinate Melbourne’s charitable organisations and foster the idea of ‘self-help’ in the poor’ (Francis). This Society assured him it would refer him to a Society for Helping Persons of Education. However, they sent him instead to the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of Victoria (ADDSV), where he met the Superintendent Ernest Abraham.
The ADDSV was one of several state Deaf Societies, or ‘Missions’, which were established in Australian capital cities from the early 1880s onwards. Modelled on British missions, institutes or societies for deaf people, they were charitable organisations which offered religious services, club rooms, welfare services such as employment support, sign language interpreting in limited situations, and a variety of activities for the moral and educational ‘improvement’ of deaf people. Although deaf people had been active in establishing these organisations and raising funds for them, the Deaf Societies soon adopted the socially recognised form of charities funded by public subscriptions and gala social events, and governed by boards of philanthropic men. In Victoria, these men were generally lawyers, accountants, politicians and businessmen, and few if any had actual experience with or knowledge about deaf people. Deaf communities usually developed a variety of social and sporting networks based around the Deaf Societies. Some societies also provided accommodation and supervised employment for those deemed most in need. The ADDSV was one of these, with a ‘Farm and Home’ in Blackburn in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. This was where Bourke found himself on Abraham’s recommendation, and where he lived for the next two to three years.
Ernest Abraham was an important, though divisive, figure in the history of Australian deaf communities and organisations in the early twentieth century. He arrived in Melbourne from England in 1901, and held the position of Superintendent of the ADDSV until his death in 1940. He was hearing, but had grown up with a deaf aunt and stepfather and could use sign language fluently.3 He was a charismatic leader, an energetic producer of entertainments, fund-raising campaigns, newsletters and (later) short films. He galvanised the Victorian deaf community and is credited with much of its early development and the expansion of its property and activities. He also involved himself in the affairs of other state Deaf Societies and organised national gatherings and the first, short-lived, national association – the Australasian Deaf and Dumb Association. However, he was also mercurial and controlling, a holder of grudges and not averse to making life difficult for institutions – such as the Victorian Deaf and Dumb Institute, the state school for deaf children – and individuals who attempted to resist his authority and reputed abuse. Through his writing, John Patrick Bourke has given us an invaluable portrait of Abraham and others like him, and the strategies they used for consolidating and maintaining their control. Bourke would play an agent provocateur role in Abraham’s iron control and vast influence in deaf affairs in Australia as well as Victoria.
Bourke learned sign language and evidently found a measure of acceptance and fellow feeling with the other deaf people living at the Blackburn Farm and attending the clubrooms at the society (Bourke, Drudge 34). While living on the farm he had frequent disputes with Abraham over materials for a poultry project he managed, as well as his own remuneration. He left the farm after almost three years, feeling ambivalent about the ADDSV and Abraham but he ‘bore neither him nor the Board members any grudge’ (Bourke, Drudge 23). He later returned to work as a gardener at the ADDSV’s new premises at Jolimont Square, just east of Melbourne’s CBD, and during this time had escalating conflicts with Abraham over his unauthorised purchases of items, failure to receive a portion of profits and working additional hours as a caretaker (101). After his final bitter break with Abraham, he increasingly saw writing as a way to expose what he considered were the corruption and abuse embedded in the ADDSV, its board and superintendent, and in the wider social restrictions and lack of awareness of deaf people’s lives.
Bourke’s experience growing up as a hearing person, becoming deaf in his early twenties, and joining the community of those who had grown up deaf would have given him a different perspective from most of the deaf people he knew. He would have grown up with the skills in English, the education, expectations and work aspirations of a hearing person, and would have interacted as an equal with other hearing people. He would have been affronted by the marginalisation and reduced expectations directed at deaf people at the time, and would have smarted at the casual assumptions most hearing people made about deaf people. These assumptions are referred to now as ‘audism’ – discriminatory attitudes towards deaf people arising from the belief that people are superior based on their ability to hear (Humphries). Unfortunately, many of the deaf people Bourke knew were likely to have internalised these attitudes themselves as they grew up, accepted their low status and acquired a belief that hearing people were more knowledgeable and capable than themselves and should not be challenged. This has been referred to as ‘dysconscious audism’ (Gertz 219) and was a major frustration to Bourke when he tried to articulate his outrage and expose the faults of hearing people such as Abraham and the board members of the ADDSV. Bourke always struggled to gain support from the deaf people around him.
Bourke appears to have been educated and well-read, with an awareness of contemporary politics and social movements. He brought these attributes to his writing and was able to compare events and organisations in the deaf world to those in wider society. His background gave him an awareness (over time) of the ways in which deaf people were exploited and the models of charity and paternalism that allowed this exploitation to flourish. Bourke’s experiences with the ADDSV and its Blackburn Farm and Home were the impetus for his writing.
Influences on Bourke
Bourke’s wide reading is evident in his writing. He regularly compared Abraham to Dickensian bullies such as Bumble in Oliver Twist and Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. When writing about Blackburn Farm for instance, he drew direct parallels with Dickens’ descriptions of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby, and an apparently violent incident at the farm:
Squeers caught Smike firmly in his grip; one desperate cut had fallen on his body – he was wincing from the lash and uttering a scream of pain – it was raised again, and again about to fall – when Nicholas suddenly starting up cried, ‘Stop’! in a voice that made the rafters ring (qtd. in Bourke, Drudge 12).
Abraham came into the dining-room in a towering passion one day just as we were about to sit down to a meal. I had my back to S. at the time, but I noticed everyone in the room looking in his direction. I would not swear that Abraham struck the lad, but when I turned S. was crouching over the table with Abraham standing over him in fury. The lad was staring up at Abraham with a look of fear on his face (Bourke, Drudge 13).
When writing about his endless correspondence with the Charities Board, he compared them to the ‘Circumlocution Office’ in Little Dorrit.4 Towards the end of Drudge, he introduces his chapter 'My Experience with the Government' with
The Charities Board and the Government like Abraham and his Board are products of the English social system ... According to the Charities Board, Abraham and the members of his Board were always right and we deaf were always wrong ... Anyone who has read Dickens’ "Little Dorrit" will remember the Circumlocution Office, and they will understand what I have been through (70).
He quoted American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison inside the front cover of each issue of his magazine The Australian Deaf Citizen – ‘I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?’ (Garrison). Bourke also made reference to British social reformers Elizabeth Fry and John Howard and their work to improve conditions in prisons, and to Lord Shaftesbury’s advocacy for children working in factories and the insane (Bourke, Fiction 1).
Bourke often quoted from A. H. Payne’s novel King Silence, which had been published in England in 1918. This was written by a hearing son of deaf parents, and was an outspoken attack on the education system which so often denied deaf children access to sign language (Sayers). It also offers some searing examples of the way in which ‘hearing’ becomes a general social category in the eyes of deaf people and those who work with them:
The deaf set out with a cheery smile and no word of complaint along an uphill road of life strewn with hard boulders of isolation, misunderstanding, unfairness, and often tyranny. The hustling hurrying sons of Sound elbow them aside, shameless by taking many a mean advantage of them, and noisily squabbling over the good things of life as they go. The deaf glance wistfully at them as, at best, the hearing pass them by on the other side, or, worse, give them a kick or a cuff to hasten them out of the way (Payne 203).
An American deaf writer who was roughly contemporaneous with Bourke was Albert Ballin. Ballin’s writing reflected many of Bourke’s themes and preoccupations, though there is no evidence that either of them was aware of the other’s work. Ballin published a book called The Deaf Mute Howls in 1931, attacking the inadequacies of the education system for deaf children, and the ways in which hearing people continued to control deaf-related institutions. Ballin’s underlying premise echoed Bourke’s and used similar language: ‘All [the deaf-mute] asks for, nay, demands, as his birthright, is to be respected and treated as an equal and be given an equal chance in this life’ (35, emphasis in original).
Bourke’s work reflected the influences of many other writers and reformers, and also shared the preoccupations of other social critics in the deaf world, both in Australia and abroad.
Bourke’s Body of Writing
In reviewing some examples of Bourke’s protest writing, it is important to recognise the context of what we know of Bourke’s life. No writers write in a vacuum. They are influenced by what is going on around them, by what they see, hear and read, by their personal circumstances, and by their motivation and desires. The challenge in understanding the context of Bourke’s life as he wrote in the 1920s, the 1930s and briefly in the 1940s is the limited material we have on Bourke himself. Although he wrote in great detail about his involvement with the ADDSV and other deaf organisations, he was guarded about his personal life. Outside the ADDSV, we know he had some involvement with the emerging Catholic Deaf Association of Victoria (Wallis 252). It seems he did not marry, and we know nothing about his personal relationships. It is not clear how he made a living after his last period of employment with the ADDSV ended in 1925. The ADDSV’s records give an unflattering picture of the man who became one of their most inconvenient critics, describing him as a ‘lonely fellow’ and an inveterate complainer.5 The events Bourke writes about were part of a tumultuous time in the Australian deaf community, and other commentary on these events gives us some perspective on Bourke and his role in them (Carty).
Bourke’s writing was plain, unadorned and straight-forward, with few stylistic points of interest. He did not write for a deaf audience; he intended his work as an exposé for the average, interested reader from the wider community, but his regular use of the first-person plural ‘we’ set himself as a spokesperson for deaf people – since no other deaf person at the time had achieved his reach in writing.
There is a curious lack of descriptive text (although deaf people are generally assumed to be more ‘visual’). We gain no sense from Bourke of Abraham’s physical appearance, nor of the grounds of the Society’s new premises at Jolimont, nor of the Society’s Home and Farm and the acreage at Blackburn, all places that form the backdrop to clashes with Abraham. Although Bourke does not describe sounds, he does use ‘sound metaphors’ in the same way as a hearing writer would – for example, he describes Abraham initiating ‘whispering campaigns’ to discredit or marginalise people (Bourke, Drudge 38).
Bourke’s evidence of Abraham’s wrongdoing was based on what he experienced in person, on what he observed, on what others told him, and on what he could corroborate by way of letters, ADDSV reports and other sources, for example Hansard, when Victorian State parliamentarians raised concerns based on his letters to them. However, Bourke occasionally succumbed to sweeping and unverifiable conclusions about Abraham, for example, ‘His whole aim in life has been to live in ease and luxury on the deaf and dumb, and to make as much money as he could out of them’ (Bourke, Drudge 10).
Bourke appeared to be meticulous in verifying his claims, but at times he seemed to struggle to keep his anger in check.
Bourke’s determination to catalogue the injustices and corruption he saw around him resulted in some compelling, if at times overwhelmingly negative, writing. He did not always manage to conclude his booklets with considered reflection or thoughtful summaries. The final paragraphs of his longest work, The Story of a Deaf Drudge, continued to reveal wrongdoing at Blackburn Farm, until he suddenly added ‘THE END’ (87). Bourke missed some opportunities to summarise, and perhaps even to offer some hope.
Early Writing: Letters to Newspapers
From the 1920s until the early years of the 1940s, Bourke’s writing output was consistent. During the 1920s, very soon after his acrimonious breakup with Abraham at the end of his last period of employment with the ADDSV, he began to publish letters in Melbourne daily newspapers, notably The Age and The Herald. During 1926 and 1927 in particular, his letters followed a pattern: he would point out some failure or shortcoming by the ADDSV against a deaf person, and a day or two later, there would be a letter published rebutting his claim, usually signed by James Johnston, a deaf man employed by the ADDSV as a missioner or welfare officer, or Eileen Empson, a hearing woman, who was an assistant to Ernest Abraham. (However, it was alleged by Bourke and others in the community that Abraham routinely wrote these letters and had Johnston or Empson sign them.) Below is an example of this pattern, which provoked a significant counter-attack on Bourke:
Sir – May I plead for more public interest in the afflicted deaf and dumb at the Blackburn Home? There is need for a new policy and a new spirit in the management of this home.
One of the blind deaf men there met with an accident, and has been in the Eye and Ear hospital nearly a month, and he told me bitterly that not a soul had been to see him for a week. The deaf of Victoria need a new leader (Bourke, ‘Deaf and Dumb’ 6).
Bourke’s suggestion is that due to lack of leadership and poor management at the ADDSV, a hospitalised deaf man had no visitors. He could not resist a specific dig at the Society’s ‘leader’, which of course was Ernest Abraham. The reply, ostensibly from Johnston, was swift:
... permit me to say that one of my duties is to visit the deaf and dumb when sick, and I frequently visited the patient referred to. A large number of the deaf mutes have also visited him, and he has had every kindness and attention, and would be the last to complain.
He became so ill that, on the advice of the hospital staff, we warned friends to refrain from visits for a few days. He is now in the Alfred Hospital (Johnston 4).
The point of dispute about whether the deaf patient in hospital had been receiving visitors was relatively minor, but from the ADDSV’s, and especially Abraham’s, point of view, there was something of greater significance. For the first time they had to deal with something hitherto unknown: a criticism of Abraham, and therefore of the ADDSV, in a mainstream publication by an articulate deaf person.
In his letters to newspapers, Bourke found his métier. His letters began soon after his final estrangement from Abraham. Perhaps unwisely, Abraham had decided an all-out attack on Bourke, using the resources of the Society and the support – genuine or demanded – of deaf loyalists, would silence him. However he inadvertently encouraged Bourke’s hostility. Bourke was soon to find a congenial literary home for his protest writing.
Bourke Extends His Audience: The Deaf Advocate 1929–1937
In an era when written publications were a dominant form of communication within the Australian deaf community, the magazine The Deaf Advocate, which appeared between 1929 and 1937, stands out. It was founded in the months after the formation of the ‘breakaway’ New South Wales Association of Deaf and Dumb Citizens in 1929. Although New South Wales-based, it soon acquired a national audience (Carty 86).
Before this, most publications within deaf communities were small local circulars such as Our Monthly Letter in Victoria, which commenced in September 1904. This was an informative publication (edited and largely written by Abraham) that reported the activities of the many sports and social groups at the Society. The opening pages carried a message or homily from Abraham, sometimes with advice about how to live a good life according to Christian principles. The magazine also carried news and reports on the board members of the Society, and occasionally reported deaf news from interstate or overseas. Much more common were local deaf sports results, the outcomes of elections on the various committees, and pages of social news and jottings about births, marriages and deaths, holidays and interstate visitors.
The Deaf Advocate soon provided a striking contrast. It was produced by an emboldened group of deaf people and hearing allies in Sydney who had broken away from the New South Wales Adult Deaf and Dumb Society to form their own independent association. They were not bound by the traditions and expectations of magazines like Our Monthly Letter or The Silent Messenger, its New South Wales counterpart. Bourke must have been delighted to find that in other states there were like-minded deaf people. He soon became an enthusiastic contributor to The Deaf Advocate, and used it to press forward his attacks on Abraham and promote his new suggestion for an independent national organisation controlled by deaf people.
While the Advocate retained paragraphs of social news and jottings, it was notable for instances of parody, satire and biting humour. Although Bourke must have enjoyed these, he rarely incorporated this into his own writing, which stylistically remained somewhat stolid.
Bourke used the pages of the Advocate to hit back at increasingly strident criticism of the deaf rebels in Australia’s eastern states by the stalwarts of the societies and missions. In early 1931, the President of the ADDSV, E. A. Peacock, had addressed the growing unrest within the Victorian deaf community in an issue of The Victorian Deaf. In an article titled ‘A Message from our President’, his commentary took on a scolding tone:
It is also quite understandable that some who now are reaping the benefits of the work of others should think that they can kick away the ladder which has enabled them to climb, and that they can manage by themselves. That is a serious mistake (Peacock 2).
Bourke wrote an emphatic and swift response in The Deaf Advocate:
He talks to us as if we were a lot of children that have nothing to do with our Society except to take what Mr Abraham gives us and obey the rules he has made. Mr Peacock admonishes us to be good little boys and girls and to beware of the company we keep (vol. 1 9).
Bourke’s claim that Abraham and the hearing men on the ADDSV board regarded deaf adults like children was a common theme in many of his works.6
In 1932 Bourke stepped up the pace of his writing in The Deaf Advocate. Its first issue for that year revealed Bourke sending in one pound to the magazine’s subscription funds. Its annual subscription was three shillings, but Bourke directed that the additional seventeen shillings be kept for a donation. He clearly saw it as a valuable outlet for his writing. In this issue, he adopted the role of a national commentator on deaf affairs. He wrote a rallying call for a national organisation controlled by the deaf, saying that the dissension in New South Wales and in Queensland ‘has drawn the deaf of Australia closer together’ (The Deaf Advocate, vol. 2 3–4). His calls, along with those of other deaf people, were heeded – a national organisation called the Australian Association for the Advancement of the Deaf (AAAD) was established at a meeting in Sydney over 22 and 23 March 1932 (Carty 141).
By this time the breakaway movements, the New South Wales Association of Deaf and Dumb Citizens and the Queensland Deaf and Dumb Citizens Reformed Association, were attracting attention from the other states. Bourke must have hoped for a similar organisation to set up in Victoria, although this never eventuated. He must also have felt the incipient tension of deaf Victorians keen to follow their counterparts in New South Wales and Queensland, but who were frustrated by Abraham. Bourke wrote what he could to push matters along in Victoria, in a terse 1932 article called ‘The deaf A R E managing their own affairs’ (The Deaf Advocate, vol. 2 2–3).
The Deaf Advocate, though short-lived, remains as one of the most extraordinary deaf publications to have appeared in Australia. To modern eyes, it gives the impression of deaf people being freed from editorial constraints. Its style and tone are considerably broader than that of the traditional newsletters of the time. It sought contributors from around the country and offered a voice to dissident groups and individuals in other states (such as Bourke). Its contributors’ voices ranged from social and sports reporting to bold and satirical descriptions of the New South Wales Deaf and Dumb Society’s meetings and paternalistic practices. The Advocate’s passages of sarcasm, wit and snide humour still retain an impact ninety years later.
However, it is doubtful Bourke attempted to emulate some of the Advocate’s more colourful writers.7 He seemed to have felt safe sticking to his somewhat plodding style, as can be seen in the first of his longer works.
Bourke Consolidates His Anger: The After-School Problems of the Deaf and Dumb 1933
By 1933, with The Deaf Advocate in full cry and the AAAD established, Bourke must have felt emboldened to write longer-length works to advance his plan of informing the public about the needs of deaf people. His series of three booklets under the title The After-School Problems of the Deaf and Dumb, published in 1933 and 1935, set out his concerns on the significant issues for deaf people as he saw them.
The first instalment was The Problem of a Central Meeting Place. After a short primer on the history of deaf people through the ages, Bourke described the lives of deaf people of the time, their jobs and skills, the particular issues in educating deaf children, and the importance of sign language. He said that in contrast to blind people, ‘who are on the same mental plane as the hearing’ (7), the deaf person remained isolated, able to communicate only with those similarly afflicted, and therefore a meeting place for deaf people was extremely important.
Bourke’s premise was that while the deaf school looked after children in preparing them for adulthood, once they left school at around sixteen years of age, there was the ‘problem’ of what to do about them. That was why the missions and societies for adult deaf people had been set up around the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Unsurprisingly, Bourke described the government of these societies by hearing men as inadequate, misguided and grievously ill-informed. A mere three paragraphs into his Foreword, he launched into attack, describing such hearing board members as having only a ‘superficial knowledge’ of deaf people. He summarised their attitude by claiming they treat deaf people ‘like a subject people’(3). The analogy between ‘subjects’ or colonised people and deaf people appears several times in Bourke’s writing. He seems to have been an early adherent of the explanatory power of colonialism in analysing the relationships between disabled people (specifically deaf people) and those who sought to control them, anticipating modern theorists who discuss the parallels between nineteenth and early twentieth century European attitudes to those with disabilities, and their commentary about ‘natives’ or ‘heathens’ in their colonies.8
In the second of these booklets, The Problem of Ministering to their Spiritual and Religious Needs, Bourke presented a longer case, starting with the need for special attention to young deaf school-leavers, especially girls, during the vulnerable time of mid to late teens. He said this demanded special skills of those employed by the missions and societies. After an apology for ‘digressing’, he devoted the next nine pages to a detailed description and analysis of the upheavals during the 1930s, when deaf dissidents and their hearing supporters established breakaway organisations in two states, independent of the traditional societies and missions. He described the formation of the Australian Association for the Advancement of the Deaf and the attempt by the societies to set up a rival national organisation. Throughout these pages, Bourke made unflattering references to the boards of management of the societies and missions of the eastern states as ignorant and self-serving.
In 1935 Bourke published a third and longer instalment in this series – The Problem of the Impotent Deaf, whom he defined as deaf people who were ‘mentally deficient’, ‘semi-skilled’ and ‘untrained’ (3). These were the people who were usually residents of the Blackburn Farm and Home, where Bourke himself had lived earlier. The booklet is a forensic description of the neglect, poor conditions and frequent abuse of deaf residents, which Bourke claimed to have witnessed or been informed about there. This rigorous documentation of grievances is characteristic of much protest writing – it was as if Bourke was building a case against these conditions, preparatory to presenting a better alternative. He argued for vocational training for deaf people so that they were less likely to fall victim to such conditions, pointing out that ‘The world is beginning to find out that a nation’s best asset is the citizen in permanent work on a living wage, and that, in order to win people to better ideals, you must give them better conditions of life’ (27). This statement, written towards the end of the Great Depression, is a good indication of the way in which Bourke could set deaf people’s experience in a wider social context, and appreciate the political implications of improving their lives. In one of his more grimly eloquent passages, he wrote:
The depression that has overtaken Australia is no new thing to the intelligent impotent deaf. The hopeless and worried lives being led by the hearing employed on sustenance and on employment relief is a measure of the lives the impotent deaf have had to lead from time immemorial. Thousands of them in all parts of the world have lived in the midst of such depressions from generation to generation all down the ages. The idea of all after-school care for them is to prevent them from becoming engulfed in such depressions (20).
This passage shows Bourke's capacity to rise above forensic description and to think considerably beyond local deaf politics. It is a powerful rebuttal of the prevailing attitude that deaf people were best kept safe and secure in their little communities.9
Hinting at Social Realism: Benevolence and the Banned Baby 1937
In February 1923, the Melbourne daily newspaper The Herald ran several short articles that were highly critical of Abraham and the ADDSV. They were prompted by Abraham’s decision to withdraw an offer of employment to a new caretaker after he discovered that the caretaker’s wife was pregnant. On the promise of employment at the Society’s Flinders Street building, the caretaker had resigned his previous position, but the sudden withdrawal of the position left the caretaker unemployed, and soon his new family was left destitute. The articles and ensuing letters to the editor attacked Abraham’s cruelty.
Bourke wrote an account of this episode fourteen years later in 1937 – Benevolence and the Banned Baby. In a realist style he imagined the plight faced by the couple and their newborn. He wrote of a starving baby, an undernourished mother, and a father who tramped the streets looking for work. It did not take Bourke long to segue into another prolonged broadside at Abraham.
Bourke used this publication to analyse the evolution of his own attitudes towards Abraham, particularly in the early 1920s when he had oscillated between anger and gratitude. At the time of the ‘banned baby’ incident he had written to The Herald defending Abraham from their attacks. He wrote that he had ‘received much kindness from Mr Abraham’ and concluded ‘our committee consists of shrewd businessmen, and they know better than we deaf people what should be done’ (‘Shrewd Men’ 7). It was through this experience that he learned of Abraham’s tendency to write letters to the newspapers and have other people sign them – as deaf people at the time assumed his letter to The Herald had been written by Abraham.
Bourke’s brief dip into realist writing may well have reflected his own frustration. It was fourteen years from the incident in 1923 to when he wrote Benevolence, and he opened by bemoaning his fruitless efforts over the years, the dwindling support for his work, and the crumbling of the AAAD and the breakaway association in New South Wales. This may have been a way to shore up the defences and rally the troops, especially by presenting new evidence of Abraham’s deviousness.
‘Fiction and Fact’ – A Pamphlet, 1937
One issue that always vexes the disability sector is public portrayals of people with disability, especially in the media. From Victorian-era fundraising tracts to modern social media clickbait, hack writers have used people with disability (especially children) to attract readers. Contesting these images has been a never-ending task for disability activists. Bourke played his part – especially in a small 1937 self-published booklet called ‘Fiction and Fact’ – A Pamphlet.
This was prompted by a feature article in the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial newspaper in September of that year, about a deaf-blind man who was living in the Deaf Society’s Blackburn Home. It was published under the byline of R. L. Hoffmann, but Abraham’s guiding hand is evident throughout. Although ostensibly about the deaf-blind man, much of the article was a mawkish tribute to the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of Victoria and especially to Abraham himself:
The Society assumes responsibility for its children – they are all children, whether 16 or 60 – so soon as they leave school … in every way they are taught to adjust themselves to a world for which nature forgot to equip them.
[Abraham has] a sort of patriarchal authority over the large family. To him they bring their joys and sorrows, their differences and perplexities. They even approach his advice on matters of romantic interest – should they marry, and if they marry, should they have children? ... and all the whys and wherefores of this shuttered world of theirs. (Hoffman 49).
Bourke’s booklet was a furious response to this article, objecting to the way in which the deaf-blind man had been portrayed. He reported that the man had in fact grown up and been educated as a blind man, and had not become deaf until he was thirty, so ‘whatever he knows he learnt long before he ever came under the control of the Abrahams’. He accused Abraham of merely ‘us[ing] him for publicity purposes by flaunting his terrible handicap in the country’s face’. Bourke and others had organised a braille transcription of the article for the man, who was reportedly ‘very indignant’ about it (Bourke, Fiction 9).
He also wrote that he had tried to raise a more general protest about this article from other deaf people but without success. He considered that ‘the majority of the deaf and dumb resent the way [Abraham] talks about them, but take all his lies as a matter of course’ (Bourke, Fiction 8). This may be an example of the ‘dysconscious audism’ which Bourke regularly despaired of, but it probably also indicated that the deaf community was tiring of Bourke’s regular tirades.
Bourke Presents His Case: The Story of a Deaf Drudge 1939
Bourke self-published his major piece of writing, The Story of a Deaf Drudge, in 1939. He would also serialise parts of it in his final written work, the magazine The Australian Deaf Citizen, in 1940–41. At an estimated 42,000 words, it is the size of a novella.
The Story of a Deaf Drudge is probably Bourke’s most complete work, combining social commentary with analysis and some autobiography. The narrative format helps the reader to identify with Bourke and see the pattern of events and experiences which fed his rage and persistence. He would have been writing Drudge during 1938, a time when earlier progress all appeared to have been lost. The fledgling national organisation, the Australian Associations for the Advancement of the Deaf, had died away. The New South Wales Association of Deaf and Dumb Citizens had been re-absorbed into the New South Wales Deaf Society and the bold magazine The Deaf Advocate had ceased publication. Bourke had lost most of his support from the Victorian deaf community. In writing Drudge, Bourke focused on telling the full story of his involvement with the ADDSV and the reasons for his ongoing campaign against its Board of Directors and – in particular – Ernest Abraham.
Drudge is divided into fourteen chapters. Its first chapter, ‘A Social Discard’, is brief, and in unsentimental prose records Bourke’s loss of hearing at age twenty, followed by deterioration in his eyesight, forcing him to launch into ‘the battle of my life’ (1).
The next four chapters establish his view of Ernest Abraham, the Society’s superintendent, as power-hungry, hypocritical and a devious manipulator of deaf people and of the hearing board members of the ADDSV. Other chapters are bluntly titled ‘Bribery’, ‘Corruption’, ‘Tyranny’ and ‘Slander’.
Bourke used quotes effectively throughout Drudge, not only to set the tone of each chapter but also to reinforce the points he made. The range of quotes was extensive, and included Dickens, Shakespeare, Emil Ludwig’s biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, H. G. Wells’ Outline of History, and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. At the beginning of Chapter IX, in which he describes the development of his animosity towards Abraham, he quoted from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
Romans, countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause, and be silent that you may hear: … censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand, why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: – (39).
This quote is evocative of the vacillation and conflicting loyalties which can surround powerful people, and the difficulty faced by those who publicly disavow them. Bourke evidently felt this reflected his relationship with Abraham.
He also quoted from Abraham’s earlier writings in the 1890s in England for The British Deaf Mute, to point out contradictions between what he wrote and how he acted. Bourke was a dedicated and astute researcher, aware of his hard-hitting claims but determined to back them up. A prolific letter-writer, he quoted from his correspondence with Abraham to drive home the points he made of Abraham’s dishonesty, broken promises and malfeasance.
The Story of a Deaf Drudge gives us some insight into Bourke’s motivation for his long and increasingly bitter campaign to expose the Deaf Society’s Board and in particular, Abraham, – recurring themes throughout all his writing:
I had begun to realise the problems, needs and difficulties of the adult deaf and dumb, and to take an interest in their welfare and future. I had seen many of our best young manhood travelling the same hard road in life that I had travelled, or had watched them, through Abrahams’s malignity and treachery, sinking into the unskilled, submerged and depressed portion of the community and becoming demoralised and embittered through idleness and despair (43).
Bourke is at his most bitterly eloquent and insightful when he is analysing Abraham’s hypocrisy – ‘Abraham has a condition of health which most of us could envy … [y]et he has always talked as if he was a frail, sickly fellow hanging on to life by the flimsiest of threads which love for the deaf and dumb has kept from snapping’ (27). He also brought this insight and eloquence to exposing Abraham’s strategies for controlling and dominating people. These strategies included setting deaf people against each other:
Left to themselves the deaf are the best of friends, but Abraham has done everything he can to create ill-feeling and bad blood between those who are under his influence or in his power, and those who oppose him (75).
Bourke accused Abraham of promoting a particularly intelligent and outspoken young deaf man (to whom he gives the name ‘Clay’) to the role of assistant missioner at the Society, in order to keep him from challenging Abraham and to have him carry out disciplinary tasks against other deaf people: ‘He has made Clay one of the worst enemies of the deaf. He forces him to hurt, insult and humiliate his mates, to help him keep the deaf in subjection, and to allow himself to be used to trick and deceive the public’ (55).
Abraham also worked on individuals, identifying and using personal information and aspirations so he could further manipulate and control problematic people. Bourke discovered this to his cost:
He noticed my nervousness and asked if I was a nervous man. I said ‘No, but that I had worked hard all my life and yet could find no one who could see any good in me and give me a chance in life.’ He told me not to worry, but to stick to him, that he was my friend and he would see that I got my chance (21).
Bourke acknowledged the effect this could have: ‘I was completely under Abraham’s spell and no-one could make me believe a word against him’ (20). Elsewhere in Drudge he describes himself as ‘whimpering’ and humiliated after particularly bruising encounters with Abraham’s abuse (37). Abraham was able to use his knowledge of Bourke’s desperate desire for recognition and a secure and respectable job as a way of reining him in for some time, until Bourke recognised and rejected the strategy. His final rebuff of these strategies was in a letter to Abraham:
Well you might get me a job at full wages! You have made me pay in ten years of bitter drudgery for believing in [obscured] honour and sincerity. Poor fool that I was. You go and buy someone else, I’m not for sale! (Bourke, Drudge 48–49).
At the beginning of Chapter III Bourke used a quote defining Fascism from Harmsworth’s History of the World, and declared: ‘That, without any exaggeration, is the system by which Abraham and his hearing board govern us deaf’ (4). He considered that Abraham, along with his compliant board, ‘govern us by the methods that have been found effective for keeping subject races in their place’ (7). This was a prescient use of colonialism analogies in writing about charity organisations for people with disability, and Bourke's references to colonialism were a striking example of the breadth of his protest writing. He was perhaps the first deaf writer in Australia to range into the wider fields of colonial history in a bid to establish a broad context for what faced deaf people at the time.
In many ways, Drudge anticipates the role of the future social historian, in that it looks behind the scenes of many of the events in the official records and shows how these events and the commentary of the time appeared to a deaf person. It helps the contemporary reader gain a much fuller and more realistic picture that exposes the anodyne official records and the gloss they paint on Abraham and his work. As Bourke wrote in the Preface to the book,
The Reader, if he has heard anything about the adult deaf and their society, has done so per medium of the Superintendent’s voice and seen it through his eyes. I have found it necessary therefore, to take the public behind the scene and show it things as we deaf see them.
Bourke’s Last Stand: The Australian Deaf Citizen 1940–1941
By the time Bourke put together this little magazine, which ran for six issues, the AAAD had come to an end in 1937 (Carty 175–8). The New South Wales Association, the epicentre of the deaf dissidents in Australia, had been forced into an amalgamation with the New South Wales Society in the same year, and had closed. It seemed that the old status quo had been re-established, and that the few years during which deaf people in Australia were able to manage their own affairs as they considered best, had come to an end. Only the Queensland Deaf and Dumb Citizens Reformed Association continued until the early 1950s.
We speculate that Bourke set about this brief magazine publishing venture (to which he was the sole contributor) to consolidate his years of attacks on Abraham’s work for deaf people in Victoria, and to justify the approach that he had taken for so long. He made the point that his task was to expose evil, and he would do so by revealing facts. He may also have been making yet another attempt to galvanise deaf people by presenting a viable alternative to the regular newsletters produced by the societies and missions. The middle pages of each edition were given over to social news, jottings and items of general interest, in a style generally similar to what society newsletters had been producing since the 1900s.
However the magazine did not succeed. The news of Abraham’s death in July 1940 did not inhibit Bourke, who continued to attack Abraham. By this time however, such attacks were serving no purpose, and once the target of his bitterness disappeared, Bourke seems to have lost some motivation.
In the penultimate edition in April–June 1941, Bourke wrote a description of a cross-examination during a fictitious royal commission into the ADDSV, which revealed his writing at its best. While terse courtroom exchanges are not difficult to write, the effect is pointed; in fewer words Bourke revealed much of what he had spent years writing about. The passage below is part of a cross-examination by a sympathetic barrister at such a fictitious hearing, with a hapless ADDSV board member in the witness box:
Do you believe that working class people are less intelligent than the professional and commercial classes?
Then how came you to sign a statement that you would not make yourself and with which you do not agree?
Mr Abraham claimed to have had mesmeric powers, did he hypnotise you and make you sign the report?
No. (‘Wishful Dreaming’ 2)
In these lines Bourke revealed the ADDSV board member as lazy and exposed, rather than telling readers directly. This passage reveals what Bourke could have achieved as a writer had he explored other genres and writing styles. However at this time Bourke was in his mid-to-late fifties, and may have become set in his writerly ways.
‘The Outsider’: Responses to Bourke’s Writing
Unsurprisingly, reactions to Bourke’s writings were frequently negative. Abraham himself wrote in response to Bourke’s early letter-writing endeavours:
Whatever I have tried to do for you has produced its batch of bitter, complaining letters. In fact you are always grousing and I am weary of such epistles (qtd. in Bourke, Drudge 29).
While opposition could be expected from Abraham and his supporters, it would soon begin to have serious consequences. The ADDSV Board minutes from September 1929 reveal a decision to ban Bourke from ‘all privileges of the Society’, because he had written a long and apparently vitriolic letter to the premier about Abraham and the Society (Carty 187). The ban was lifted in March 1930 after Bourke used a solicitor to challenge the Society about the ban.
Bourke was also the subject of an undated circular, published about February 1931 and circulated to ADDSV members and subscribers (on whom the organisation relied for funding). Quite deliberately, Bourke was not mentioned, but anyone with even a cursory knowledge of deaf affairs at the time would recognise him as the subject.
This four-page document, addressed to ‘Dear Sirs’, was intended to ‘reassure subscribers’ against the remarks made by an ‘unfortunate person who has developed a bitter hostility towards the Superintendent’ (527).10 It was a reaction to Bourke’s letter-writing campaign which had prompted an investigation of the Blackburn Home and Farm by the Charities Board. The circular pointed out that the writer of the letter ‘is not a deaf mute in the usual sense’ (527). After quoting extracts from correspondence between Bourke and Abraham (which Bourke would have assumed was private), the circular concluded with a remarkable declaration of loyalty from the ‘Deaf Mutes of Victoria’. About 210 names, mostly of deaf people, were appended to a declaration of gratitude and thanks to the public and to the men on the ADDSV board.
Consistent with this theme of casting Bourke as an outsider, his superior education and early life with hearing people was used against him. By 1939, following the demise of the Australian Association for the Advancement of the Deaf and the collapse of the breakaway movement in New South Wales, Bourke had resorted to writing long tracts attacking Abraham and board members. A protest letter against Bourke, prepared by the Deaf Committee and believed to have been sent to the Society’s board, described Bourke as ‘not deaf and dumb in the generally accepted sense of the word.’11
The leaders of Victoria’s deaf community were effectively saying about Bourke: he is not really one of us.12 While the impact of such a statement on Bourke remains unknown, he seems to have doubled down on his strident criticism of Abraham, notably with his publication the next year of The Australian Deaf Citizen, discussed earlier in this paper.
It would not be long before Bourke commented, perhaps ruefully:
We have had more kicks than ha’pence over this magazine and not a scrap of encouragement from anybody (The Australian Deaf Citizen, no. 6 8)
In the same edition lies perhaps the only positive note we have been able to find. Bourke reported some encouragement he had received from people who read his fictitious retelling of a royal commission hearing into the management of the ADDSV.
The consistent theme of responses to Bourke’s writing was clear. Abraham brought the full weight of the ADDSV against Bourke. It banned him from its activities, rebutted his claims, launched a public circular against him, attempted to turn deaf people against him, and repeatedly cast him as an outsider, as not really a deaf person. We can only imagine the impact of this on Bourke himself.
For the final six years of Bourke’s life, he found himself once more in the Blackburn Home for ‘aged and infirm’ deaf people. He died in 1960, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Box Hill Cemetery in Melbourne. The archive of the Victorian Deaf Society includes batches of record cards for former clients and residents, including brief notes written after their deaths. Bourke’s record card bears the succinct comment: ‘Intelligent man. Deafened. Has been a stormy petrel in the deaf world’.13 This is probably an accurate description of how Bourke and his writing were perceived during his lifetime. It is probable that his work may be more appreciated by later generations than it was at the time of writing.
In the late 1980s another small magazine was founded by a group of deaf writers in Australia – Sound Off. Like Bourke’s magazine it was short lived, lasting for only five issues, but it provides a valuable window into the everyday lives and literary aspirations of Australian deaf people during the late twentieth century. It too grappled with the obstacle of deaf people’s literacy issues and their unwillingness to write, regularly exhorting readers to submit their writing even if they did not feel confident about their English skills. In one of the later issues, the editor wrote, ‘remember you don’t have to have perfect English to get published in Sound Off – you just have to have something to say’ (Lloyd 1).
In the very first article in the first issue of this new magazine, Michael Uniacke wrote about an intriguing discovery – he had recently found all six issues of Bourke’s 1940–41 magazine The Australian Deaf Citizen in the State Library of Victoria (Uniacke, Sound Off 2–4). He was struck by the similarities between this unknown deaf man’s 1940s protest writing and that of his own contemporaries – ‘The sentiments behind [it] are just the same as written by deaf activists today. Some basic philosophies never change’ (4). Bourke’s message still resonated:
Bourke saw and felt what he believed was gross injustice. He was desperate to bring hearing people to account and to shake what he saw was apathy of deaf people around him (4).
Uniacke’s rediscovery of Bourke helped bring to light his earlier writings. Carty’s book-length study of the Australian deaf community in the 1920s and 1930s uses Bourke’s writings as a major source and Bourke himself as a key commentator.
Bourke has left us a detailed picture of the social structures that shaped the lives of deaf people in early-mid twentieth century Australia. His descriptions of Ernest Abraham inadvertently provide a classic case study of a charismatic but paternalistic and controlling figure, all too common in the welfare and education systems that have impacted on people with disability. He gives us fleeting portraits of the businessmen, lawyers and politicians who took a charitable interest in the deaf community of the time, the forms that interest took, and the language they used.
Bourke’s writing is imbued with a profound sense of justice and an insistence on human worth and rights to dignity and autonomy. He is able to suggest the psychological and emotional impacts of abuse and discrimination on a self-aware and perceptive deaf person. His descriptions of his frustration, powerlessness, and lack of access to full information – all of these come through his writing in ways which resonate with later generations of protest writers and activists. The contemporary online magazine The Rebuttal, for example, echoes many of Bourke’s themes.14 The range of Bourke’s work also demonstrates how protest writing is so often grounded in the daily toil of writing letters to newspapers, seeking out and attempting to penetrate government and charity systems (the ‘circumlocution offices’ of every era), contributing to and editing small-scale newsletters and magazines, and dealing with rejection of and indifference towards one’s work.
Without writers who provide this level of detail, our opposition to charitable controls of the lives of people with disability remains vague and theoretical. Writers such as Bourke show us how those restrictions historically played out for deaf people in their individual and communal lives, and help us recognise the ways in which they still do. While the public he wrote for at the time may have given him scant attention, the fortuitous preservation of his work has informed later historical writing in the Australian deaf community and is a valuable addition to the literature by and about people with disability in Australia.
John Patrick Bourke was a diligent and meticulous writer. From a literary point of view, his writing had only occasional flair, and could be oppressive in its preoccupation with Ernest Abraham and the hearing men on the societies’ and missions’ boards of management. However to dismiss his work purely on stylistic grounds would be to do him a considerable injustice. Readers of his own era may have wearied of him, but his rediscovery and appreciation in the context of another wave of deaf activism in the 1980s and 1990s showed that his work has a continuing resonance. Deaf people and other disability activists today will read Bourke with a greater understanding of the entrenched attitudes of paternalism and control that he struggled against, attitudes so pervasive that most deaf people at the time accepted them as a normal state of affairs. Bourke was one of the first to throw out a direct challenge to this system, and he continued in spite of all that was arrayed against him. Present and future readers will recognise his courage and foresight as he persisted with his ‘message to humanity on behalf of the adult deaf’ (Bourke, Drudge Preface).
In this paper, we use the lower-case ‘deaf’. This usage has been proposed by Kusters, et. al. (2017), who challenge the late twentieth century convention of using ‘Deaf’ to refer to those individuals who use sign language and identify culturally with Deaf communities, and ‘deaf’ to refer to all others. At the time when Bourke was writing, ‘Deaf’ was used regularly to refer to deaf people collectively – e.g., ‘the Deaf and Dumb’. Bourke himself rarely capitalised the word ‘deaf’ in his writing.↩
The deafness of Henry Lawson (1867–1922), who was writing several decades before Bourke, is becoming better known; see for example Uniacke (2006) and Tink (2016). However Lawson rarely referred to his deafness and did not write nonfiction about other deaf people. Much of Lawson’s earlier works could also be seen as protest writing, but it was usually about other marginalised groups such as the unemployed, unionists, and Australians living in the bush.↩
Although ‘hearing’ is not usually an identity marker for those who hear, it is a key characteristic from the perspective of deaf people – in the same way that ‘sighted’ is used in discourse by and about blind people. It denotes more than mere ability to hear, it indicates that the person does not have the lived experience of navigating the world as a deaf person. It can also mean that the person does not know sign language or the many cultural mores of the Deaf world.↩
The Charities Board (1923–1948) was a state government body charged with supervising the disbursement of public funds to charitable organisations and ensuring that funds were discharged appropriately. Bourke’s letter-writing campaign resulted in the Charities Board running checks on the ADDSV, an example of the impact of his writing.↩
Farm & Home Committee Notes on John P. Bourke. File No. 668, John W Flynn Collection.↩
The April 1915 edition of Our Monthly Letter described a garden party, held each year close to Abraham’s birthday on 12 March. It included Abraham’s comments in a thank-you speech in which he ‘still looked upon the whole of the deaf as his children’, and referred to deaf men and women as ‘his own boys, his own girls’ (9).↩
One memorable piece from an unknown writer in the July 1932 edition paints a picture of Abraham, sitting alone in his garden, eating worms and muttering that ‘nobody loves me’. No doubt Bourke would have approved the sentiment, but this acid-tongued writing was not his style.↩
See for example Cleall 22–36.↩
The discussion below of the newspaper article in ‘Fiction and Fact’ – A Pamphlet in 1937 is a succinct capture of this attitude of a safe haven for deaf people.↩
Copy of this circular sighted in digitised version of ADDSV ‘Scrapbook’ of published ephemera such as invitations, newsletters, newspaper cuttings. Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of Victoria. Circular. Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of Victoria, Feb. 1931. State Library of Victoria, VicDeaf Collections.↩
E. R. Noble, letter to unknown recipients but believed to be to the board of the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of Victoria, Deaf Committee for Centre Activities, 11 July 1939, File 0772 Box 25 JWF Collection MS 13555.↩
A counterargument to the suggestion that members of the Deaf Committee were the Deaf community’s ‘leaders’ was that Abraham manipulated the membership of the committee, stacking it with loyalists to such an extent that it no longer reflected the breadth of views of the deaf community at the time.↩
Victorian Deaf Society, Record card, 1961, Victorian Deaf Society Collection, Box No. 31.↩
See The Rebuttal, https://therebuttal2.com/.↩