History of British Sign Language


BSL Timeline


First defined use of fingers to create an alphabet.



Princess Katherine Plantagenet born deaf, dies at ages of 3.


Princess Joanna of Scotland - reported to have communicated using sign language interpreters.



Publication of the History of the Syon Monastery at Lisbon and Brentford. Contains descriptions of signs some, of which are still in use.


Earliest documented use of sign language in the registry records at St. Martin's Church, Leicester, of a marriage ceremony between Thomas Tilsye and Ursula Russel.



Eye-witness accounts of the life of Edward Bone, a Deaf manservant, including how he communicated with Deaf friends and hearing people.


Sir Edward Gostwicke is recorded by the Archdeacon of Bedford and a suitor, Dorothy Osborne, as a user of "signes and tokens".


 Sir John Gaudy (1639-1708) and Framlingham Gaudy (1642-1673) are the first Deaf people in the UK reported to have been educated using the manual alphabet and signs.


Publication of John Bulwer's Philocophus: Or the Deafe and Dumbe Man's Friende


Alexander Popham (1649-1708) is the first Deaf person in the UK recorded to have been taught by oral methods (although he was first taught with fingerspelling).


Publication of George Dalgarno's Didascalocophus, Or the Deaf and Dumb Man's Tutor, containing a 2-handed manual alphabet.



Publication of Digiti Lingua, by an anonymous Deaf author, containing manual alphabet charts that laid the foundation for the British Sign Language two-handed alphabet.


Publication of Daniel Defoe's The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell, Deaf and Dumb, containing a manual alphabet chart which closely resembles modern British Sign Language two-handed fingerspelling.



Opening of Thomas Braidwood's Academy for the Deaf in Edinburgh, the first school for the Deaf, which saw the education of many famous Deaf sign language users.


Publication of Francis Green's Vox Oculis Subjecta, about the education of an American boy at Braidwood's school and the use of his sign language.



Establishment of the London Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb Poor at Bermondsey, the first public Deaf school in Britain.

John Creasy (1792-1855) first Deaf teacher of the Deaf in England, employed at the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb.



An author identified only as 'RR' publishes the Invited Alphabet: Or, an address of A to B, with illustrations of the manual alphabet, intended for hearing children.


The first adult Deaf society is established in Glasgow by the then headmaster of the Glasgow Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.



Alexandra, Princess of Wales and later the Queen, is Britain's best known Deaf Royal. She was taught fingerspelling and regularly attended Deaf services at St. Saviour's Church, London.


Charles Dicken's Doctor Marigold's Prescription is published - a story about a Deaf girl brought up using signing, who marries a Deaf man and has a hearing child.



The Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf, held in Milan, infamously passes several resolutions declaring that sign language was inferior to Oralism, and ought to be banned. This leads to the widespread suppression of sign language in many Deaf schools throughout the world.


The British Deaf and Dumb Association is founded in response to the influence of the Milan Congress resolutions.



The Elementary Education (Deaf and Blind Children) Act is passed. This accepted, in full, the recommendations of the Milan Congress, leading to an era of Oralism in British Deaf schools.


The Guide to Chirology pamphlets are first published by Harry Ash (1863-1934). These ran through until 1920.



The forerunner of the current Action on Hearing Loss organisation (RNID) is launched.


The first World Games for the Deaf (now Deaflympics) are held in Paris.



The National Deaf Children's Society is formed, coinciding with a new Education Act.


The first public demonstration of a TTY (known in Britain as a Minicom).



The British Deaf and Dumb Association re-brands itself as the British Deaf Association (BDA).


The first documented reference to British Sign Language as the name of the language of Britain's Deaf Community (Brennan 1975, in American Annals of the Deaf).



The organisation that grew into today's Signature is established, as the DHSS Communication Skills Project.


Research projects into British Sign Language are set up in Moray House (University of Edinburgh), the Centre for Deaf Studies (University of Bristol) and the Sign Language Linguistics Group (University of Newcastle).



The National Union for the Deaf is formed by a group of radical Deaf people impatient with the lack of progress made by other deaf organisations. One of its key successes is laying the foundations of the BBC See Hear television series.


The Warnock Report was published, advocating the integration of Deaf and disabled children into mainstream education. This eventually led to the closure of many residential schools for the Deaf.



The International Congress on the Education of the Deaf, held in Manchester, saw what Deaf historians regard as the 'true birth' of the campaign for the use and the recognition of British Sign Language. Deaf delegates and international Deaf groups abandon the Congress and join to organise an 'Alternative Conference' at Manchester's Deaf Centre.


Deaf Studies programmes are established at the University of Central Lancashire (Preston) and University of Wolverhampton to encourage people to obtain degrees in British Sign Language related subjects.



Bencie Woll becomes the first Professor of Sign Language and Deaf Studies in the UK, at City University London


The Disability Discrimination Act is passed.



Rachel Sutton-Spence and Bencie Woll publish Linguistics of British Sign Language, still regarded as the definitive work on British Sign Language Linguistics.


The first British Sign Language march of the Campaign for the Recognition of BSL takes place in London.



British Sign Language is officially recognised by the British Government.


DCAL (the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre) is established in University College London.



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.