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Archives and Special Collections

Welcome to the Disability History Resources Guide

This resource guide highlights archives and books held at the University of Exeter Heritage Collections that may be useful for researching disability history. These resources may not always be easily identifiable via our webpages or catalogues, so we hope this guide will provide a more accessible means of exploring this material. The collections highlighted in this guide have been identified using our catalogues, but are not exhaustive. If you come across any other sources within our collections that you think should be included in this guide, we would be very pleased to hear about them.

For the purpose of this guide, disability is taken to include all types of mental and physical impairments, including chronic health conditions. Deafness and blindness are also covered as these have historically been treated as disabilities. We acknowledge that many people who are covered by the definition of a disabled person may not identify as having a disability. We also recognise that there is ongoing discussion concerning terminology around disabilities. Our collections may contain offensive terms or terms that have changed meaning over time. In some cases these terms are included in our catalogue descriptions in order to provide information about the content and nature of the source. The inclusion of these terms does not reflect the views of the University of Exeter Heritage Collections and we apologise for any offence that may be caused. 

To discuss our resources in more detail, please contact us at We would welcome your feedback on our approach to this resource guide, its content and the terminology used.

Archives and rare books held by Special Collections and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum are available to everyone. More information about accessing the collections can be found in our Visiting Heritage Collections LibGuide. Please note that there may be some restrictions on accessing and copying (including photography) material in the archives and books held by Special Collections and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in line with current data protection and copyright legislation. Always make sure to check the access conditions on the archive catalogue and email Special Collections before your visit for more information about specific restrictions.

Detailed guidance on researching disability history in archives can be found on the webpages of The National Archives.

A Disability and Inclusion Guide created by the University of Exeter Library provides links to e-books, digital collections and websites available to University of Exeter staff and students. A Disability History, Equality, Inclusion and Awareness Resource List is also available.

Searching the Catalogues

Searching for archives:

Archive materials can be found by searching the University of Exeter Special Collections archives catalogue

  • Narrow down your search by going into advanced search
  • Enter a keyword, name or title
  • If you already know an item’s reference number you can search by this
  • Optionally refine the results by date

Searching for books:

Rare book collections can be found by searching the University of Exeter Library catalogue

  • Narrow down the search by selecting the catalogue tab, then go into advanced search
  • Enter a keyword, title or author
  • Use the dropdown arrow beside “Collection:” to select Special Collections
  • Optionally refine the results by date

Research requires an awareness of the history of disability and how attitudes and terminology have changed over time.

Try to find out:

  • the type of disability and how it was referred to in the past
  • the dates and places associated with your research
  • how and why the state was involved

Certain disabilities, such as those caused by inadequate medical treatment, are uncommon in Britain today but affected large numbers of people in the past.

Be aware that many terms used in historical records are now considered offensive.

(Source: The National Archives,

Personal and literary archives

Correspondence between Kenneth Allsop and Henry Williamson and related papers (EUL MS 403/8/2/12)

Kenneth Allsop [1920-1973] was a broadcaster, author and artist. He served in the RAF during the Second World War, before injury resulted in the amputation of his leg. Allsop published a number of books, including 'Adventure Lit Their Star', for which he was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and 'The Angry Decade'. He worked for the BBC current affairs programme 'Tonight', and wrote for the Picture Post, Daily Mail and the Sunday Times.

This section of the Henry Williamson papers contains 6 folders of correspondence and other related papers sent between Kenneth Allsop and Henry Williamson.

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue.

Literary and personal papers of Frances Bellerby (EUL MS 331, MS 82, MS 50b)

Frances Bellerby (1899-1975) was a poet, short story writer and novelist. She was born in Bristol and later settled in Cornwall and Devon. In August 1915, her brother Jack was killed in action and his loss affected her all her life. From the age of twenty, she began writing articles for 'The Bristol Times and Mirror'. In 1930, she had a fall while walking along the Lulworth Cliffs on the Dorset coast, which resulted in a spinal injury that recurrently affected her for the rest of her life. Her mother died by suicide in 1932, and Bellerby became estranged from her father. Her marriage faltered from the mid-1930s, ending in divorce in circa 1948, and she moved to a cottage in Cornwall in 1940, where she published poetry, short stories and a novel. In 1950, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 1954, she bought a semi-detached cottage in Goveton, near Kingsbridge, Devon, where she remained for the rest of her life and continued to write. In 1957, she contracted arterial claudication, a circulatory condition which made it difficult for her to walk. The cancer recurred in 1973 and she died of breast cancer and ankylosing spondylitis in 1975. Frances Bellerby is primarily remembered for her poetry, of which the main themes are nature, memory, and loss.

The University of Exeter Special Collections holds several collections of Bellerby's personal and literary papers. In addition, correspondence between Bellerby and the poet Charles Causley - who were close friends - can be found in the Papers of Charles Causley.

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue.

R D Blackmore literary papers (EUL MS 41)

Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900) was a novelist, poet and fruit farmer, born in in Longworth, Berkshire. In August 1837, he entered Blundell's School in Tiverton, Devon. Blackmore lived with epilepsy. He gained a school scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford, where he went at the end of 1843. After a short time as a tutor decided to study law; he was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in June 1852, and is said to have practised as a conveyancer for some years. On 8 November 1853, Blackmore married Lucy Maguire or McGuire. By 1855, Black had left his career as a lawyer, and worked first as a teacher and then as a fruit farmer in Teddington, which remained his main occupation for the rest of his life. Blackmore's earliest publications were all verse: two volumes under the pseudonym Melanter. For his third novel, 'Lorna Doone', begun in February 1865, Blackmore drew on legends and tales circulating in Devon and Somerset associated with the area of north-east Exmoor. A steady stream of novels continued to flow from his pen, and although they never made as much money for him or their publishers as 'Lorna Doone' had, he was able to place them as serials and obtain good prices. After the death of his wife Lucy in 1888, Blackmore seldom moved far from home. He died of abdominal cancer on 20 January 1900.

The collection amounts to four boxes of literary fragments, exercise books, completed drafts and corrected proofs. These include poems in progress and finished, whole manuscripts, and a number of short stories in proof. There are also a few letters. In addition there is a set of 21 printed pamphlets of editions and transcriptions of Blackmore's work donated to the University of Exeter Library by R D Blackmore's relative, David Blackmore in 2018.

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue.

Letters from Daphne du Maurier to Maureen and Monty Baker-Munton (EUL MS 462/2/2)

This collection includes letters from Daphne du Maurier to her friends Maureen and Monty Baker-Munton. The mental health of her husband, Frederick 'Boy' Browning, is referred to in 20 letters written between 1956 and 1964. During this period, Frederick Browning experienced episodes of depression and alcoholism and received treatment, including Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). A detailed account of Browning's mental health condition and treatment can be found in a letter from Daphne du Maurier dated 14 August 1957 (EUL MS 462/2/2/27).

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue

Jack Clemo literary and personal papers (EUL MS 68)

Reginald John 'Jack' Clemo (1916-1994) was a poet who was born in Cornwall. As a child he experienced two periods of blindness, and by the age of 19 he had lost almost all of his hearing. He began to write at the end of his schooldays, but for many years his only vehicle for publishing his verse and stories was a local newspaper. In 1948, he published a novel, followed by an autobiography in 1949, and a volume of poetry in 1951. Further volumes of poetry in 1961 and 1967 furthered his reputation as a poet. By 1955, he was totally blind and, although periodically he was able to faintly hear music, he could no longer recognise speech. He continued to write and publish.

The collection includes all of his manuscript notebooks and typescripts for prose and poetry, personal letters, diaries, photographs, reviews, newscuttings and correspondence. The papers include items that reflect on his vision and hearing impairments, as well as correspondence with the 'National Deaf-Blind Helpers League'.

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue.

A selection of items from this archive have been digitised and are available to browse via the Open Research Exeter.

Titles from the library of Jack Clemo can be browsed via the library catalogue (local classmark: Clemo)

Letters from St John Ervine to Henry Williamson (EUL MS 43/PERS/1/E/ERVINE)

John Greer Ervine [1883-1971] was an Irish playwright and novelist. Born in Belfast, he moved to London in his teens, where he began to write and perform under the name St John Ervine. Ervine's first full length play 'A Mixed Marriage' was performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1911. He served as a lieutenant in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers during the First World War, and an injury he sustained in France resulted in the amputation of one of his legs. After the war he worked as a drama critic for the Morning Post and the Observer, as well as writing plays and biographies, including a substantial study of George Bernard Shaw.

This file in the Henry Williamson papers contains three letters from St John Ervine.

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue.

Papers relating to schizophrenia in the Jack Clemo literary and personal papers (EUL MS 68/PERS/12/2/9)

The archive of the poet and writer Jack Clemo includes papers relating to Jack Peaty (the brother of his wife, Ruth Clemo), who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. These papers include sketches and letters by Jack Clemo and publications relating to schizophrenia.

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue.

Literary papers of David Rees (EUL MS 271)

David Rees (1936-1993) was an author, lecturer and reviewer, born in Surbiton. He came out as a gay man in 1974 but had previously been married with two children. In 1968, he moved to Exeter to take up the position of lecturer in Education at St Luke's College, which merged with the University of Exeter in 1978. He remained at the University until 1984, when he retired early to write full-time.

Rees was a prolific writer, producing more than thirty works between 1975 and 1993. He also regularly wrote literary reviews and articles for magazines and newspapers, including Gay News and Gay Times. He is best known as a writer of novels for children and young adults. Some of these works have a historical setting, with several set in Exeter and Devon, while others explore themes around sexuality and life as a gay teenager. 

From 1985, David Rees lived with HIV and AIDS. He continued to write and publish until 1992. He died in 1993 

The archive collection at the University of Exeter comprises literary papers of David Rees dating between c 1975-1993. They include manuscript and typescript drafts of novels, short stories, poems, reviews, articles and interviews; printed copies of articles and reviews; as well as correspondence and reviews relating to his works. The literary papers of David Rees have been catalogued and can be browsed via the online archives catalogue.

Books by David Rees are held within our Reserve Collection, catalogued under the classmark Reserve 828.9/REE-9. You can browse the titles in the library catalogue.

Correspondence between Ann Quin and Henry Williamson and related papers (EUL MS 43/PERS/1/Q/QUIN)

Ann Quin (1936-1973) was an English writer. She was educated at a Roman Catholic school in Brighton until the age of 17, before going on to train as a shorthand typist. She worked in a solicitors office, before taking up a position at a publishing company, moving to Soho and beginning to write. Quin published novels such as 'Three', 'Passages' and 'Tripticks'. 'Berg', her earliest novel, was adapted for film in 1989 as 'Killing Dad', directed by Michael Austin with Julie Walters and Richard E Grant. Quin experienced episodes of depression. She died by suicide in 1973 at the age of 37.

The correspondence includes 31 letters mentioning Ann Quin's sentimental relationship with Henry Williamson and including some literary discussion of Ann Quin's books and Henry Williamson's books; a folder of newscuttings with MS annotations; a photograph of Ann Quin.

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue.

Literary papers and photographs of Denton Welch (EUL MS 123)

Denton Welch (1915-1948) was a novelist and artist. Born in Shanghai, he entered Goldsmiths School of Art in 1933. His time as an art student was cut short when, on 09 June 1935, he was hit by a car while cycling. He sustained several injuries, including a fractured spine. He was paralysed for several months and was able to learn how to walk again, though with difficulty. The accident also resulted in lifelong chronic pain and recurrent kidney and bladder infections.Towards the end of 1939, Welch sold his first painting to the oil company Shell. His paintings were also exhibited in several art galleries in London. Welch wrote an autobiographical novel, which was published in 1943 as 'Maiden Voyage'. That same year, Denton Welch was introduced to and fell in love with Eric Oliver (d 1995). The relationship endured for the rest of his life. Welch's second novel, 'Youth is Pleasure', was published two years later. A number of Welch's short stories, all in effect autobiographical, were published during his lifetime. Within the space of only eight years, he completed some sixty short stories, all published posthumously, three novels, and a quarter of a million words of journals. He also continued to draw and paint, and nine of his late paintings were reproduced in 'A Last Sheaf' (1951). It took him four years to write his third, and posthumously published, novel, 'A Voice through a Cloud' (1950), an account of the accident itself and the difficulties he experienced recovering from the accident. The manuscript was found beside his bed when he died at home in Kent in 1948. During the last four years of his life he lived with and was cared for by his partner, Eric Oliver.

This archive includes photographs, letters, and manuscript drafts of his stories.

Further information can be found on the online archives catalogue.

Special Collections also holds a small collection of published items by Denton Welch, including catalogues, first editions, copies of biographies and editions of the journals, poems and paperback editions. This is catalogued under the local classmark: Welch Coll. You can browse the titles in the library catalogue.

Printed books by or about people with disabilities

  • I proved thee at the waters: the testimony of a blind writer's mother (1976?) by Eveline Clemo with poems by Jack Clemo. Inscribed by Jack Clemo inside front cover. (EUL MS 395)
  • Uncertain Journey: a woman's experience of living with cancer (1996) by Anne Dennison (Hypatia HEA/DEN)
  • A Special Gift: the story of Dr Vicky Clement-Jones and the foundation of BACUP (1991) by Carolyn Faulder (Hypatia HEA/CLE)
  • Legally Dead: experiences during seventeen weeks' detention in a private asylum (1910) by Marcia Hamilcar (Hypatia HEA/HAM)
  • Jean's Way (1978) by Derek Humphry with Ann Wickett (Hypatia HEA/HUM)
  • Midstream: My Later Life (1929) by Helen Keller (Hypatia BIO/KEL)
  • The Story of my Life: with her letters, 1887-1901 (1904) by Helen Keller (Hypatia BIO/KEL)
  • Flying in the Face of Fear: Surviving cervical cancer (1998) by Mary Lunnen (Hypatia HEA/LUN)
  • The Girl Who Found the Blue Bird (1914) by Madame Maurice Maeterlinck (Georgette Leblanc) (Hypatia BIO/KEL)
  • Elizabeth Gilbert: and her work for the blind (1887) by Frances Martin (Hypatia HEA/GIL)
  • Still life: the story of a struggle with disablement (1969) by Elizabeth Twistington Higgins (Hypatia HEA/CLA)

Disability and Education

University Archive (EUL UA)

The University of Exeter archive contains records relating to the University of Exeter and its predecessor institutions, including the Royal Albert Memorial College and the University College of the South West. The lives of staff and students at the University can be researched through a wide variety of material, including photographs, student magazines and newspapers, and admissions registers. The University Archive is extensive and largely uncatalogued, but box lists for some of the material are available on request.

Find out more about this collection on the University Archive Guide

Our book collections include:

(Please note: some of books below contain offensive terms or terms that have changed meaning over time)

  • Educational technology: implications for early and special education (1976) by Alan Cleary, Terry Mayes, Derek Packham and Alan Cleary (Hypatia EDU/CLE)
  • The special child : the education of mentally handicapped children (1973) by Barbara Furneaux (Hypatia EDU/FUR)
  • Special educational treatment (1946) by the Ministry of Education (Edmund pamphlet 371.9 GRE)
  • The NAHT's commentary on the Warnock report: "Special educational needs"  (1978) by the National Association of Head Teachers (Hypatia EDU/NAT/Pamphlet)
  • Reading: problems and practices: a selection of papers (1972) edited by Jessie F. Reid (Hypatia EDU/REI)
  • The education of the socially handicapped child (1973) by Paul Widlake and Lorna Bell (Hypatia EDU/WID)

Disability and Theatre

Theatre Royal Playbill Collection (EUL MS 202)

Playbill for 'A Sacred Concert' by the Newport Welsh Chor at the Theatre Royal in Exeter on 18 November 1917.

The text at the head of the playbill reads: 'National Institute for the Blind'. At the bottom of the playbill is noted: 'Proceeds in aid of St Dunstan's Hostel for Blinded Soldiers'. The playbill also advertises that two selections will be played on the piano by 'Mr W. Wolstenholme, Mus. Bac., Oxon. The well known blind composer and extemporiser'.

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue under the reference number: EUL MS 202/1917/40

Northcott Theatre Archive (EUL MS 348)

Programme: 'Children of a Lesser God'

Two programmes for the Northcott Theatre's production of Mark Medoff's 'Children of a Lesser God'. The play by Mark Medoff focuses on the conflicted professional and romantic relationship between Sarah Norman, a deaf student, and her former teacher, James Leeds. (09 Sep 1986)

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue under the reference number: EUL MS 348/PROD/PROG/245

Poster: 'Hassan'

Poster for a Gillford Williams production of James Elroy Flecker's play, adapted by Pat Keysell and presented by 'The National Theatre of the Deaf'. (no date)

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue under the reference number: EUL MS 348/PROD/POST/359

Press Office File: 'Peter Pan'

Includes production photos, negatives, photocopies of letters from the 'Royal School for the Deaf' and an analysis of the production statistics. (13 Dec 1995 - 20 Jan 1996)

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue under the reference number: EUL MS 348/MP/PO/163

Press Office File: 'Simplicity'

Includes headshots of cast. Mention of signed performances for deaf people. (26 Apr - 14 May 1988)

Further information can be found on the archives catalogue under the reference number: EUL MS 348/MP/PO/113

Prompt book for 'Whose Life is it Anyway?'

Content Warning: Assisted dying

'Whose Life Is It Anyway?' is a play by Brian Clark which involves a sculptor who was paralysed from the neck down (quadriplegia) in a car accident and is determined to be allowed to die. The prompt book includes manuscript notes and lists relating to props, setting and wardrobe. Also includes one typescript props list. There are also manuscript notes describing how characters would fill and use a syringe, photocopied pages from the book 'Illustrated Guide to Orthopaedic Nursing' showing the care of a patient undergoing spinal surgery, and photocopied pages of a guide to the Mental Health Act. Also included are several pages of typescript production notes and rehearsal notes.

Further information can be found on the under the reference number: EUL MS 348/PROD/PB/97

Disability and Healthcare

Archival items relating to medical aid and medicine in two boxes of papers relating to Kurdish human rights issues from the Omar Sheikhmous collection of Kurdish Research (EUL MS 403/8/2/12)

A folder of papers relating to medicine and medical aid (1967-1995). Further information can be found on the archives catalogue under the reference number: EUL MS 403/8/2/12

Nursing Ethics Heritage Collection (EUL MS 472/NEHC)

Collection of books and other printed matter, papers and AV material collected, curated and arranged by Professor Marsha Fowler on the subject of ethics within the nursing profession, with the aim of providing a critical mass of materials to support research and scholarship in this area.

Sections on Health and Nursing in the Hypatia Collection (Classmarks: Hypatia/Hea and Hypatia/Nur)

The Hypatia Collection includes a wide range of materials relating to medicine and health.

Individual items in our book collections include: 

(Please note: some of books below contain offensive terms or terms that have changed meaning over time)

  • Mental Health Care in Crisis (1989) edited by Anny Brackx and Catherine Grimshaw (Hypatia HEA/BRA)
  • The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa (1978) by Hilde Bruch (Hypatia HEA/BRU)
  • On our own: patient-controlled alternatives to the mental health system (1988) by Judi Chamberlin (Hypatia HEA/CHA)
  • Women and Madness (1972 and 1989 edition) by Phyllis Chesler (Hypatia CRIT/CHE)
  • Disabled Citizens (1951) by Joan Simeon Clarke (Hypatia HEA/CLA)
  • Women and HIV/AIDS: a bibliography (1993) by Glasgow Women's Library (Hypatia HEA/ILE/Pamphlet)
  • Cervical Cancer and How to Stop Worrying About It (1988) by Judith Harvey, Sue Mack and Julian Woolfson (Hypatia HEA/HAR)
  • Return to mobility: Exercises for Stroke Patients (1978) by Margaret Hawker (Hypatia HEA/HAW)
  • A Gentle Way with Cancer: what every cancer patient should know about the therapies which can influence the fight for recovery (1983) by Brenda Kidman (Hypatia HEA/KID)
  • The Anorexic Experience (1988) by Marilyn Lawrence (Hypatia HEA/LAW)
  • The challenge of a handicap (c 1980s) by G.H. Marshall (Hypatia HEA/MAR/X)
  • The management of handicapped children (c 1980s) by G H Marshall (Hypatia HEA/MAR/X)
  • Normansfield, 1868-1968 [Note: unpublished typescript, c 1968, concerning The Normansfield Hospital, a private home in Teddington for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, which was founded by by John Langdon Down, after whom Down syndrome was named] (Brooks 362.30942 NOR/Pamphlet)
  • Parkinson's Disease, day-to-day (1977) by the Parkinson's Disease Society (Betjeman Library 4293)
  • Mental Handicap Nursing and Care (1980) by Victoria Shennan (Hypatia HEA/SHE)
  • A Cry for health: poverty and disability in the Third World (1983) edited by Oliver Shirley (Hypatia HEA/CRY)
  • Looking after people with late HIV disease (1990) by Jan Welch and Jenny Newbury (Hypatia HEA/WEL/Pamphlet)  
  • The education of the socially handicapped child (1973) by Paul Widlake and Lorna Bell (Hypatia EDU/WID)

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