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Sherrington Alexander Gilder (1828 – 1902)

Sherrington Alexander Gilder (1828 – 1902) and the commencement of the education of the deaf in NSW.

In her work on the history of the academic education of deaf children in NSW, Barbara Crickmore points to three options available to parents of the deaf in Colonial Australia in the 1850s. They could send their children back to England or some other country for education, keep the child at home and face the prospect of supporting them for the rest of their lives or attempt to place them in an asylum for destitute children.[1] In the late 1850s, says Crickmore, a fourth option became available through the establishment of special schools for deaf in Australia. This move for the provision of special schools is seen, by Crickmore, as commencing in Victoria rather than NSW. It began with some agitation in the letters to the Editor of the Melbourne Argus by parents of deaf children seeking their education.[2] Fredrick Rose, an Englishman who had been deaf since he was four, read the letters and offered to start a school and did so in November 1860. In NSW, Thomas Pattison, formerly associated with the Edinburgh Deaf and Dumb Benevolent Society, commenced a school just prior to this on October 22, 1860[3] and thus by ‘opening three weeks ahead of the Victorian Institution became the site for the first school for the deaf in Australia.’[4] It was this work which developed into the Deaf and Dumb and Blind Institution (DDBI).

The history of the beginning of the education of the deaf in NSW is, however, a little more complex and earlier than this account would indicate. In December 1850, the Rev Samuel Wilkinson, the Wesleyan minister at Windsor, after having been in the colony for twelve years, wrote a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald advocating the formation of a public institution for the benefit of the deaf and the dumb. Such an Institution was needed, he said, for the deaf and dumb were more numerous than generally supposed and because of the ‘little success that has attended my own efforts, and the private exertions of others’.[5]  The letter was unproductive but on December 16, 1852 the Anglesay arrived in Sydney harbour and on board was William Thompson and his wife and three children. One of these children, a daughter, was deaf and so the family brought a tutor with them. The tutor was Sherrington Alexander Gilder who, it was said, had been the senior Master of the West of England Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (WEIDD) for the past six years.[6] Gilder had deliberately exaggerated the importance of his position for in 1850 he is listed merely as the second of two assistants to Dr W R Scott who had been the master of the Institution for some time.[7]  The later description of Gilder’s role at the WEIDD, no doubt supplied to the journalist of the SMH by Gilder himself, as “having for seven years had nearly the entire conduct” of the Institution is highly unlikely as Gilder was, at the commencement of that seven year period,  only 17 years old.[8] While Gilder was prone to exaggerate his importance and role, he did work at the WEIDD and his presence there can be established for at least two years so he may well have commenced there in 1845 as a pupil teacher in order to learn under Scott. By early 1853, Gilder was advertising his services to teach, as boarders, both the deaf and the blind[9] and later in 1854 he was offering evening classes for adults in French as a “Professor of French”.

In February 1854, Gilder wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald and raised the issue of the lack of an Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Sydney.[10]  In response a newspaper article appeared stressing the importance of the issue calling on Australia to do what countries had done in responding to the speechless appeal of the deaf. The article promoted Gilder’s credentials and willingness to act:

No delay need arise from the supposition that we have no individual who is competent, from skill and experience, to inaugurate such an establishment as that which we advocate. A benevolent gentleman, well versed in all the details of the matter, has … generously offered his services.[11]

Nothing came of this. Then, in June 1857, an advertisement appeared in the SMH for parents or friends of the Deaf and Dumb to communicate with the advertiser with the purpose of setting up an institution for their instruction and, in the meantime, it was proposed to ‘procure their instruction by a competent teacher’.[12] In response to this Gilder wrote to the SMH[13] outlining his efforts to achieve such an outcome. He had, he said, come to the colony in December 1852 ‘with a view to the immediate formation in Sydney of an institution for the education of the deaf and dumb in this and the neighbouring colonies’.[14]  He found, however, despite his efforts, that the matter was treated with lukewarmness and he was forced to abandon his efforts. Later, around 1854/55, he wrote to the Governor Sir Charles Fitzroy seeking his support to bring the matter before the Legislative Council, but this was also unsuccessful. He then suggested, through H. J. Porter a collector for Destitute Children’s Asylum, that a deaf and dumb school be set up as a branch of the Asylum. [15] This suggestion was also unsuccessful. Gilder then said that in 1857, in response to the increasing public interest in the issue, he began to teach

a class which I have been induced to open at the earnest solicitations of the parents of several deaf and dumb children, whose means are inadequate to such payments as would enable me to devote my whole time to their education, but merely a few hours in the week after the conclusion of my regular daily occupation.[16]

How long Gilder persevered with this class is unknown but it was not more than a few years for by 1859 he was living in Yass and was declared to be insolvent.[17]  In Yass he became involved in the local community being secretary of the Yass Agricultural, Horticultural and Pastoral Association (YHPA)[18] as well as secretary of the Yass Mechanic’s Institute.[19]  Gilder moved out of the district in 1864 and left behind a trail of dubious financial dealings. Legal action was contemplated to recover some £27 he had failed to return to the Mechanic’s Institute[20] and criticism of him was made for his repeated failure to give an account of the affairs of the YHPA and it was implied that its financial affairs, for which Gilder was responsible, were in disarray.[21]

Thomas Pattison had opened a school for deaf children in Sydney on October 22, 1860, which was to become known later as the Deaf and Dumb and Blind Institution and more recently as the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children. In 1863, Pattison married and in December the matron and the assistant teacher appointments were terminated by the board and Mrs Pattison was made matron with Thomas Pattison as sole master.[22] By June 1864, the Ladies Committee were complaining of Mrs Pattison’s management and in October Mrs Pattison was discharged and Pattison himself was discharged from his position in early 1866.[23]

The board needed a skilled teacher to take on the duties of teaching the children and advertised for a ‘Principal TEACHER’ in February 1866.[24] By March, probably due to a lack of suitable applicants, they had changed their requirements and were prepared to entertain employing simply a “Head Master” noting that “preference would be given to one accustomed to teach the deaf and dumb; but this would not be absolutely necessary provided his other qualifications were satisfactory”.[25] On March 26, 1866, S.A. Gilder was appointed and his employment was secured in part by a reference supplied by Mrs William Thompson,[26] whose family had brought him to the colony in 1854 to tutor their daughter. His salary was £150 pa which was increased to £175 pa at the end of 1869.

Gilder’s teaching methods are not clear and regrettably there are no records of a series of six lectures about them that he gave to the general public from January 3 to January 14, 1867.[27] In the annual meetings of the DDBI there are references, in demonstrations with children, to use of the “manual alphabet” and “signing” but Walter cautions that ‘one must not assume that the terms “signs” and “manual alphabet”’ were correctly used’.[28] Gilder was trained under Dr W R Scott[29] who noted that deaf “education demands a special method of instruction, and that such persons only as have made that method their peculiar study can be entrusted with carrying it out with any prospect of success.”[30] In his work first published in around 1849 and revised in 1870, Scott provides “the most complete view of the use of sign language in the education of deaf people in Britain during the nineteenth century”.[31] Scott favoured the extensive use of the manual alphabet and was also “an excellent and graphic signer”. [32] Gilder said he was assistant to Scott for seven years and if the length of time cited in this claim is to be believed, for he tended to exaggerate about his service at the WLDDI, then he would have been trained by Scott in his methods which included both the manual alphabet and signing.[33] In 1866, a quite detailed newspaper account of the DDBI’s work, which would have been written from information supplied by Gilder, says that the methods used to educate the deaf were “two deaf and dumb (manuel [sic]) alphabets – two-handed and one-handed – the former being more commonly used’’ and signing which is developed from the characteristics of the person or object being signed.[34]

Initially, Gilder’s work was praised, but over time dissatisfaction crept in and there was tension between himself and the matron.[35] Gilder was again declared insolvent in 1868 [36] and if this was known to the Committee, and it most probably was, then this would not have been viewed very favourably. It would have been seen as indicative of some lack of financial discipline within his personal life which could potentially impact upon the Institution and its future management. The influential Ladies Committee, who seemed to have a much better appreciation of the actual work and progress of the Institution than the male governance committee, wrote to the committee suggesting that a ‘competent’ teacher should be obtained from Britain for the Institution. This was most likely an implied criticism of Gilder as Ann Goodlet, the secretary and a key member of the Ladies Committee, had a poor opinion of Gilder.[37] Mrs Goodlet was going to Britain in January 1869 and her assistance was sought in securing a suitable person of about 35 years of age who could teach deaf and dumb as well as blind children.[38]

By January 17, 1870, the Committee had made a decision to appoint Samuel Watson to the position on the recommendation of Mrs Goodlet, and on the basis of the references he had supplied. Yet, just one week later, the Committee had a change of heart and decided that the matter ‘of sending home for a teacher to be deferred for one month’ in order to ‘examine the efficiency of the instruction given to the children and the management of the Institution’.[39] This was a decision to examine the efficacy of Gilder’s work. The only reason for delaying the appointment of Watson, at this stage of the process of appointment, was because some of Committee were not convinced of the need to replace Gilder. The examination went badly however, and ‘the result of the examination was very unsatisfactory’.[40] It was decided to give Gilder six months’ notice of termination and engage Watson.[41] Gilder was not one to give in easily and when the engagement of Samuel Watson was announced at the 1870 Annual Meeting of the DDBI, he “complained, in general terms, of the action of the committee in getting another teacher out from Ireland, when they had repeatedly acknowledged the value of his long-performed services.”[42] Gilder concluded his work at the DDBI at the end of October 1870.

This is the last known involvement of Gilder in deaf education. By 1872, Sherrington Gilder was living in Mudgee and was the acting Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. In 1873, he published a collection of his poems[43] and in 1882, he was advertising his application to the Supreme Court of NSW to be granted a Certificate to practice as a Conveyancer.[44]  In Sydney, in March of the same year, he fell from a tram and was injured.[45] He sued the Commissioner for Railways claiming that ‘his sight was injured … a nerve in one eye being partially paralysed, causing him to see two images … he also complained injuries to his head … would prevent him from undergoing much mental exertion.’[46] Gilder won the case and compensation was awarded to him.

There is a sad postscript to the life of Sherrington Alexander Gilder. On January 17, 1889, he was arrested in Glebe and charged with a sexual assault upon a girl under the age of 10, two days earlier at Redfern.[47] He was tried on February 15, 1889, and found by the jury to be insane. He was imprisoned in Darlinghurst Gaol prior to transfer to the Criminal Division of the Parramatta Lunacy Asylum on March 18, 1889. After four years he was transferred to the free division of the Asylum on February 2, 1893, and discharged as a recovered person on August 11, 1897.[48] He was thought to be going to Western Australia and nothing further was heard of Sherrington after this date until his death in Sydney in 1902. He was buried in a family grave in Waverly Cemetery.


© Dr Paul F Cooper, Christ College, Sydney 2014


The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. Sherrington Alexander Gilder (1828 – 1902) and the commencement of the education of the deaf in NSW. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, August 26, 2014. Available at

[1] Barbara Lee Crickmore, An Historical Perspective on the Academic Education of Deaf Children in New South Wales 1860s-1990s (PhD, University of Newcastle, 2000), 32.

[2] The Argus, February 14, 1859; February 16, 1859;

[3] SMH, October 15, 1860.

[4] Crickmore, An Historical Perspective, 34.

[5] SMH, December 23, 1850. Samuel Wilkinson (1814-1899) was supportive of the DDBI and often attended annual meetings and he continued this practice right up to the year of his death in 1899. SMH, December 24, 1899.

[6] SMH, December 23, 1852; March 19, 1853. He did not remain in the employment of the Thompson family for long for eighteen months later the Thompsons were advertising for a deaf and dumb instructor. SMH, August 22, 1854.

[7] HISTORY OF THE CITY AND COUNTY OF THE CITY OF EXETER From White’s Devonshire Directory of 1850 [accessed 6/12/2013].

[8] SMH, October 22, 1866. Gilder was born around 1828 in Paris the son of Dr Sherrington Gilder, a Surgeon from Exeter, Devon.

[9] SMH, March 19, 1853.

[10] The issue of the SMH, February 1, 1854 is lost but a response to his letter SMH, February 6, 1854 gives an indication of the contents of Gilder’s letter.

[11] Illustrated Sydney News, February 11, 1854.

[12] SMH, June 22, 1857; June 29, 1857; August 3, 1857.

[13] SMH, August 7, 1857.

[14] SMH, August 7, 1857.

[15] SMH, August 7, 1857.

[16] SMH, November 9, 1857.

[17] SMH, June 24, 1859.

[18] Goulburn Herald, September 6, 1862.

[19] Illawarra Mercury, March 1, 1861.

[20] Goulburn Herald, March 12, 1864.

[21] Goulburn Herald, March 9, 1864.

[22] Minutes DDBI, December 14, 1863.

[23] SMH, July 14, 1866. Pattison sought to open his own boarding facility for deaf children at Woolloomooloo. Miss Lenz now Mrs Wilson, also formerly employed by the DDBI and whose services were no longer required,  also sought to start a private school for Deaf and Dumb children. SMH, February 28, 1866. She did so on the ‘solicitation of several influential families’. Clearly parents were concerned about the lack of a teacher at the DDBI.

[24] SMH, February 17, 1866.

[25] SMH, March 12, 1866.

[26] Minutes DDBI, March 19, 1866.

[27] Empire, January 2, 1867. He gave the one lecture at six locations: Woollahra, Surry Hills, Parramatta, Burwood, Ashfield and Balmain.

[28] Jean Walter, “History of the New South Wales School for Deaf Children”. Australian Teacher of the Deaf, 2, 1, November 1960, 9.

[29] William Robson Scott (1811-1877) Principal for the West England Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb at Exeter from 1841 until his death in 1877. He had been trained by Charles Baker at the Doncaster Institution.

[30] W.R. Scott, The deaf and dumb: their education and social position, 2nd Ed (Bell and Daldy, London: 1870), iv.

[31] Jan Branson and Don Miller. Damned for their Difference. The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled. (Washington; Gallaudet University, 2002), 158.

[32] Jan Branson and Don Miller. Damned for their Difference, 158.

[33] W.R. Scott. First Book of Reading Lessons for the Deaf and Dumb. (Exeter, 1860). Gilder is definitely known to be at the WEDDI from 1850-1852 and may have been there for the six years that he claimed to be at the Institution. 1851 England Census, Devon and Exeter, St Leonards, District 2b.

[34] SMH, October 22, 1866 October 29, 1866; November 5, 1866.

[35] Minutes DDBI, November 4, 1867.

[36] SMH, June 27, 1868.

[37] Ann A Goodlet to Samuel Watson, February 25, 1870. [Ferguson Library, Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW] For the Goodlets’ contribution to the DDBI see Paul F Cooper, John and Goodlet, a study in Colonial Christian Philanthropy. (PhD Thesis, Macquarie University, 2013), 144-152.

[38] Minutes DDBI undated but sometime after 26 October 1868 and before the end of the year.

[39] Minutes DDBI, January 24, 1870.

[40] Minutes DDBI, January 31, 1870.

[41] Minutes DDBI, February 7, 1870. Gilder continued to be employed until the end of October 1870. Minutes DDBI, September 26, 1870.

[42] SMH, October 25, 1870.

[43] Scriblings of my leisure hours: being a collection of rhymes and poems. (Mudgee, NSW: Henning and Mason, Printers, Mudgee Times Office, 1873). He also published in 1880 under the nom de plume “Inaurator”, The Wanderings of my Pen, Being a Collection of Original Rhymes or Poems, to Which is Added a Short Tale, The Spaniard of the Côte D’Ob (Sydney: Inaurator, 1880).  ‘Inaurator’ is French for gilder.

[44] SMH, January 6, 1882. Auslit ‘S.A. Gilder’ [accessed 22/12/2013].

[45] SMH, May 19, 1882; Evening News, May 18, 1882.

[46] SMH, December 8, 1882.

[47] Evening News, January 25, 1889: SMH, February 16, 1889.

[48] Parramatta Lunacy Asylum, 1889; Register of Discharges from Parramatta Lunacy Asylum Free Division, 1897, State Records of NSW.



  1. Kelli Hogan says:

    Hello, I am researching the Gilder line of my family tree and found this post very informative, thank you.
    Would you mind contacting me via my email address so that I could ask a couple of questions regarding the documents and sources? Thanks, Kelli


  2. […] Paul F Cooper, Sherrington Alexander Gilder (1825-1902) of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind Institution, Unpublished paper, January […]


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