St Dunstan’s

The national organisation of St Dunstan’s was established in 1915 and has therefore been helping blind ex-servicemen for ninety years this year. This milestone provided me with a great opportunity to research the history of an extremely successful institution and its imposing building at Ovingdean Gap.

St Dunstan’s was founded by Arthur Pearson, soon after he had become the President of the National Institution for the Blind. Pearson was the owner of the Evening Standard and Daily Express, and had lost his own sight due to glaucoma. St Dunstan’s was originally called the Blind Soldiers and Sailors Hostel when it was based in Bayswater Road, London, and adopted the new name when it moved into St Dunstan’s Villa in Regent’s Park. Pearson’s revolutionary vision was that the blind should no longer just receive charity and should instead lead useful, independent and fulfilling lives of their own.

The building in Ovingdean, known simply as “St Dunstan’s” is actually called Ian Fraser House. It was constructed from 1937-39 in the International Modern style to the designs of Francis Lorne. It is a seven storey brick giant with a glass bow and a square tower, and is said to have been built to resemble a bi-plane. A sculpted figure holding the St Dunstan’s badge adourns the front of the building. A new wing was added to the south in1975 that contains the swimming pool. The building is mainly used for training, holidays and convalescence. The Queen has actually visited twice. I recently visited the building with my neighbour Joyce, who is blind, and was given a guided tour of the 1930s interior. Another St. Dunstaner, who I would love to meet, is blind Billy Baxter, who recently travelled 167mph on his motorcycle. Above all else, the team spirit that I witnessed was fantastic and an inspiration to behold.

Although St Dunstan’s enjoys a secluded prime position on the Downs, it unfortunately fails to harmonise with its surroundings in the way that nearby Roedean School does so well. I must say, however, that when the weather is right, the orange of the bricks combined with the blue sky reflected in the windows creates quite an image. The condition of the building is excellent and it is certainly a pristine example of an important architectural period, so perhaps I can be persuaded to forgive the poor positioning. Oh, and before I forget…Happy birthday St Dunstan’s!