In this video the remarkable life and achievements of Tilly Aston are discussed by relatives, historians and those whose lives have benefited from Tilly's achievements.
Tilly Aston was born with vision impairment in Carisbrook at the end of the 19th century, a time when blind people had very little support or access to education and other opportunities. By the time Tilly was seven she had completely lost her sight. She was the daughter of a bootmaker, who died when she was 11, and so poverty was added to her difficulties. A chance meeting with a blind itinerant missionary meant that she learnt Braille, and a little later, a visit to Carisbrook by the Victorian Asylum and School for the Blind choir, whose principle who insisted she enrol in the school, changed her life.
However it was not chance but fortitude and will that singled out Tilly. Her achievements are formidable. In 1894 she founded the Victorian Association of Braille Writers, which became the Victorian Braille Library. In 1895, she co-founded the Association for the Advancement of the Blind, which in became Vision Australia. As well as being the first woman who was blind to be admitted to an Australian university and Australia's first blind teacher, Tilly was a distinguished and critically acclaimed writer, producing seven books of verse. Tilly received a Commonwealth grant for her writing in 1935, and the King’s Medal for Distinguished Citizenry twice.
Susan Censi: She's an underrated hero. She's almost forgotten,slipped through the cracks of history. She is the equivalent of America's Helen Keller.
Rueben Ryan: Before Tilly Aston's time, a blind person had no way to be educated and no way to be employed.
They were just beggars on the street if they weren't kept at home.
Betty Osborn: To think she was a little girl here in Carisbrook and blind just before seven, oh, it's mind-boggling, really, her achievements.
Susan: In that era, blind people were locked away so, you know, Tilly Aston fought against that.
She said, 'No, I'm going to get out there and do something with my life.'
And of course she was the first person to matriculate, the first blind person.
Betty: She was very determined from when she was a child to do something in life that was worthwhile.
Dorothy Hamilton: I think just how fortunate I am I was born when I was and not before Tilly. Because if I was, what would I have done? Nothing like what I am doing and have done because the opportunities just weren't there.
Rueben: She wasn't prepared to accept the status quo. She didn't like things as they were and she set about changing them.
Susan: She was the first blind person to teach other blind people.
Graeme Turner: In 1913, an opportunity came up to teach at the RVIB School for the Blind.
Betty: Where she really wasn't fully accepted which is amazing.
They said, 'But we don't want a blind teacher.'
Susan: And they fought her on that and she fought back and said, 'No, I understand them. You don't.' So she succeeded.
Betty: And she held that job until health intervened.
She held that job for 12 years which was an incredible performance and after that, she was actually made a Life Governor of the Royal Victorian Institute.
Graeme: Since her time of struggle and battle for acceptance at the school, it's now very much an established tradition that many staff with vision impairment are employed and accepted and distinguish themselves in the organisation.
Roselyn Barkla: She did go to university for a while but wasn't able to achieve that but that made her more determined to make it more achievable for other people.
Graeme: We've got to remember at this time that braille was in its infancy. It'd only been around a few decades so textbooks at universities were in very short supply.
Tilly wasn't able to complete her arts degree because of that paucity, that scarcity of braille books.
Dorothy: And I think that that's the sort of thing that got her really moving and she then established the Braille Library in Commercial Road,Prahran. And therefore enabled those of us who eventually went to university to have that facility of being able to obtain our textbooks in braille.
Roselyn: And within about a decade, a blind lady did achieve her university degree.
Dorothy: I use braille music every day of my life and would not be able to be where I am today and having taught for many years in a school and privately as well as doing my transcription. So I just personally have so much to thank her for.Blazing the trail, that's what she did.
Betty: Her enduring legacy was the Association for the Advancement of the Blind which she and several others began in 1895.
Susan: Yeah, that's become Vision Australia. And that's huge.
Graeme: Tilly was concerned about the lack of support for adult blinds who were shut away in their own homes. They were incredibly isolated, they had no social functions and very few friends.
Betty: She said in her memoirs they were virtual prisoners. That's what it was like. If you were blind, there was nowhere for you to go.
And so this prompted her to think, 'What can I do so that people can get outside and see what the world is like?'
Graeme: And her initial idea was to establish a literary and debating society and in the course of the meeting, this evolved into a society which would advocate for benefits of blind people.
Susan: Tilly Aston campaigned for free postage and concession travel. And she campaigned very hard for this and the reason why is because if you were blind in that era, you had to pay enormous amount, just to go from state to state - the equivalent of $400.And that was even with a carer with you.
Graeme: She identified needs for visitation of some of these socially isolated people and this sowed the seeds of later social welfare services.
Susan: She brought and she fought for the vote for blind people. That was incredible, you know. She wasn't going to take no for an answer.
She said, 'We must have the vote. Just because we can't sign our signature doesn't mean we shouldn't vote.'
Graeme: On top of that, one of her key contributions is as a writer.
Susan: She went on to publish a total of nine books.
She was so popular in England that prominent English author and critique, Douglas Sladen, wrote: 'The most brilliant blind woman in the world who, in the seven years of childhood during which sight was vouched to her, learned of mankind what others learned in a lifetime.'
Rueben: You have to be inspired by it because... ..she wasn't daunted by the problem she faced. She set about solving it to the best of her ability and she did.
Doreen: I think of how much she achieved and how hard it must have been for her to do it, what a strong will and what good back-up she must have had that, really, some of us now with all the help at our disposal... ..don't achieve nearly as much.
Roselyn: I never actually met Tilly but my sister did meet her. My sister was only little at the time and Tilly answered the door and my sister was standing by, behind my mother's skirts and Tilly said to my mother, 'Who have you got with you, Lily?' And my sister never quite understood how a blind lady could know that she was actually in the room.
Doreen Tilly was at the golden wedding of Uncle Jack and Aunty Sophie.
Although I was small at that time, I can vividly remember watching this lady and thinking, 'She doesn't sound like anyone that can't see.' And then she was, 'Oh, Ethel! You are looking well.' And 'looking well' meant that those gentle hands sort of went over the face to... ..catch up, and then, 'Oh, is this Jacky? Oh, my, how he's grown!' And it was fascinating to watch and fascinating to listen.
Tilly Aston: Achievement was another aim with me from the beginning and whatever effects my life attainments may have upon others, there has been a fair amount of personal satisfaction in my victories over circumstance.
Betty: She is an amazing woman when you think in her day so few women were able to achieve anything.
She was blind and poor and lived in the country.
I think it was an amazing thing that she did.
Woman: Tilly Aston was born in Carisbrook, Victoria, in 1873, with vision impairment.
She became blind by the age of seven.
Some of her key achievements are as follows - in 1894, she established the Braille Writers of Victoria, later to become Vision Australia.
In 1901, her first book, Maiden Verses, was published.
In 1902, two issues Tilly fought for were successful.
One was voting rights for the vision-impaired, the other free postage for Braille material.
And in 1934, Tilly received the Jubilee Medal from King George V.
Maryborough-Midlands Historical Society and Vision Australia