History of British Sign Language


History of British Sign Language

Welcome to the History of BSL exhibition catalogue. Please leave us feedback after your visit.

The Beginnings

Sign languages are natural human languages, with their own vocabularies and grammars. They arise wherever Deaf communities come into existence. There is no universal sign language: each community has its own language but these are not manual versions of the spoken or written language used by the hearing communities around them.

BSL is the creation of the British Deaf community and this exhibition traces is history from the earliest references to signing in Britain until the present day - and into the future. For more information, The Beginnings »

Early Deaf Education

includes historical volumes by

Thomas Braidwood, The Braidwood School

Joseph Watson, London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb

L'Abbé Sicard. For more informationEarly Deaf Education »

Late 19th-20th Centuries

illustrations and pamphlets

Ash, H. (c. 1890s) Royalty and the deaf, with some striking faces about the deaf and dumb, their alphabet, and a few signs. [Engraving] Herts: Watford. (Action on Hearing Loss library)

William Agnew, Royal Condescension paintings

Ash, H. (c. 1890s) Guide to Chirology [Print] Herts: Watford. (Action on Hearing Loss library). For more informationLate 19th - 20th Centuries »

Late 20th Century Onwards

includes dictionaries, BSL teaching materials and photographs from the BSL recognition campaign.

Selection of Sign Language Dictionaries including BSL, AUSLAN, South African Signs and Maltese Sign Language.

Christmas Carols in Sign, Ill. Pauline Gibson, Interpreted by Bill Gollop & Mervyn Rees, Rank Xerox. (British Deaf History Society)

Dowling, D & J. (1990) Learning Together:  ABC:  a Fingerspelling Alphabet with Signs for Deaf and Hearing Children. Sheffield: South Yorkshire Printers Limited. (British Deaf History Society). For more information, Late 20th Century Onwards »


early examples of fingerspelling including

The dumb language or the art of talking with the fingers. [Coloured line engraving] (1644) Published: Bowles & Carver, 69 St. Pauls Church Yard, London. (Wellcome Collection) John Bulwer, Chirologia

Plate with rabbits and manual alphabet. (c. 1860) [Ceramic plate] Manufactured: H. Aynsley & Co. Potteries, Longston, Staffordshire. For more informationFingerspelling »


Collection of film clips from 1930s-1970s of Deaf Club outings, sports events, church gatherings (the BDA Film Archive project)

Earliest known film of BSL (c. 1927) (DCAL Research Centre)

Slides of various sign dictionaries from pamphlets and Deaf community magazines in late 19th- early 20th centuries. For more informationFilm »

BSL Timeline

The time line shows important events in the history of BSL, from the first defined use of fingers to create an alphabet to 2010 when the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf, held in Vancouver, Canada passes a resounding resolution that rejects the motions passed back in Milan in 1880. For more informationBSL Timeline »