This pamphlet The Happy Mute; or The Dumb Child’s Appeal was written by Charlotte Elizabeth [Tonna] about her deaf pupil, John Britt. It was first published in Dublin in 1833 and was reprinted as the second edition, revised, in London in the same year so as to achieve wider circulation. Richard Goulden donated the pamphlet to the Museum in 2019.
Who is Charlotte Elizabeth?
Charlotte Elizabeth Browne was born in Norwich in October 1790. Her father was the rector of St. Giles’ Church in Norwich and a Minor Canon of Norwich Cathedral. She was severely ill at the age of eight and was heavily dosed with mercury, which, it was claimed, made her deaf. Because of her deafness she resorted to reading and writing a lot. From her letters it was clear that she used speech but relied on fingerspelling to know what was being said. She married Captain George Phelan at the age of seventeen and moved to Ireland but the marriage was not a happy one and she left him in 1824.
She is known for her writings and she became interested in deaf children’s education after meeting Dr. Charles Edward Herbert Orpen of Dublin, who was the first headmaster of Claremont Institution, which opened in 1816. Charlotte, as a teacher, had set up a little school for the deaf and dumb in Kilkenny. She never had more than four boys and taught by fingerspelling, signing 34 and writing. One of her deaf pupils in 1823 was John Britt. Her school came to an end when she and John Britt moved to live in England with her brother. Her fondness for John led her to write on his life, education and death on 3rd February 1831. The pamphlet was published in 1833.
After her husband, Captain Phelan’s death in 1837 she was now free to marry so she married Lewis Hippolytus Joseph Tonna in 1841. Her new husband was 21 years younger than her. In 1844 she developed cancer so she moved from her husband’s London residence to Ramsgate where her husband cared for her. She died on 12th July 1846 and was buried in Ramsgate Cemetery.
Four thousand copies of the first edition were sold in Ireland and a profit of £68. 8s. 0d was made, and the profit was donated to the Juvenile Association for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb based in Upper Sackville Street, Dublin.
The BDHS now has the second edition, revised, London, 1833, of this pamphlet. One copy with the Dublin imprint is known and is held by Trinity College, Dublin. Two copies with the London imprint are held at Birmingham University and Liverpool University. The RNID/UCL Library has the eighth edition of this pamphlet printed in 1841. The BDHS second edition has a folding plate showing “The two handed, or English manual alphabet for the Deaf and Dumb. As used in the Schools of Great Britain and in that of the Irish National Deaf and Dumb Institute, at Claremont near Dublin.” This plate was engraved on stone by John Johnston, deaf and dumb, who was a pupil at Claremont, in the lithographical establishment of his master, [J. W.] Allen, in Trinity Street, Dublin, from a drawing by Mr. Joseph Humphreys, the headmaster of the Claremont Institute.
This donated book has an intriguing MS. Inscription: To Miss Maria Donkin from her father’s friend, Timothy Bramah, Octr. 23d. 1833. Timothy Bramah (1784-1838) was the eldest son of Joseph Bramah (1748-1814) who made his name as an inventor and locksmith. Joseph’s most important invention was the hydraulic press. In 1808 Joseph purchased from his friend Bryan Donkin (1768- 1855) the patent for steel pens. This Bryan Donkin was also an inventor and engineering consultant: he had three sons, John, Bryan and Thomas. While it is uncertain which of the three sons was the father of Maria Donkin, her father certainly enjoyed the friendship of Timothy Bramah, who by then in 1830 had left his father’s firm, Joseph Bramah and Sons, in retirement.
The Deaf Museum also has another edition written by Charlotte Elizabeth [Tonna] but titled differently as Memoir of John Britt and this book was published by the American Sunday-School Union in Philadelphia, America, in 1850. The start of the story is different in each book. Doreen Woodford donated this version in 2011.