The Royal National College for the Blind was established in 1872 in Crystal Palace and, after time in the capital and 37 years at a base in Shrewsbury, it moved to the former teacher training college site in Hereford in 1978. Over the last 25 years the college has become fully integrated into the city and is now an important part of life in Herefordshire.

THE leading college in the UK for educating and training people who are blind or partially sighted is right on our doorstep. But how many people are really aware of the pioneering work that The Royal National College for the Blind does in enhancing the independence and employability of people with sight loss.

Each year visually impaired students from all over the world make their way to Hereford to benefit from the college's 130 years' expertise.

As RNC celebrates its 25th year in Hereford it is time to reflect on how it progressed from two small houses in Crystal Palace, London to a 25-acre campus in the city of Hereford.

RNC was established in March, 1872 by Dr Thomas Rhodes Armitage and Mr Francis Campbell (knighted in 1909 for his services to the blind).

Thomas Armitage was a Victorian philanthropist and Francis Campbell born in 1832 in Tennessee, was a man of dynamic personality and equally strong beliefs who, after graduating from the University of Tennessee, had considerable success as director of music at both the Wisconsin School for the Blind and The Perkins Institution for the Blind, Boston.

The two men, both blind, were committed in their belief that if young people who were blind or partially sighted were able to access an education of similar content to their sighted peers, they could have equally successful careers and futures.

Over the past 130 years this belief has been confirmed by the many RNC students who have progressed from RNC to successful lives and careers.

With only two students, The Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind (now RNC) was officially opened on March 1, 1872. Thomas Armitage took the position of chairman and Francis Campbell became the first principal.

In the early days the atmosphere was excitingly experimental and full of life. The curriculum was advanced for its time, with some emphasis placed on physical activities such as swimming, cycling and roller-skating. An early report even mentions a morning of tobogganing after a heavy fall of snow!

At the outbreak and for the duration of the Second World War, a mansion known as Great Maythem in the village of Rolvendon in Kent was leased.

These were difficult and changing times for the college and, with the imminent threat of invasion, it was decided to seek another home. The Royal London Society for the Blind took staff and students and gave the college a temporary home near Aylesbury.

At the end of the war RNC was unable to return to its London premises and the college moved to Shrewsbury where it stayed for 37 years.

In 1978 RNC moved to its current site in Hereford where the city and people provided a warm welcome.

Lance Marshall, principal at that time, in his first annual report from Hereford re-stated the aims of the college which reflected the aspirations of the founders: "Our aim is to prepare people for open employment or for higher education which will, in turn, lead to open employment".

Gold medals

In 2003, RNC students continue to excel in sporting activities with gold medals being won at a national level in athletics, judo and acoustic shooting. Some students have competed for their countries at international level in football, cricket and goalball. RNC is also now regarded as the home of British Blind Football with a number of current and ex-students in the England squad, which is managed by Tony Larkin, head of sport at the college. Tony has taken the team to four European Championships and three World Championships and they have recently qualified for the paralympic games to be held in Greece in 2004.

Elsewhere in the college, success was experienced under the Young Enterprise initiative with the RNC team 'Horizon', for the second year in a row, overcoming stiff competition to win the Herefordshire Finals. Sell-out dance performances at The Courtyard Theatre in May left many audience members "moved and uplifted" by the evening's entertainment. And once more, a high number of students have either progressed to higher education, with each being accepted at his/her first choice, or into employment or self-employment.

Today, the college provides programmes for more than 200 students (the majority of which are residential) from the UK and abroad.

If the founders were to visit today they would be pleased to find that the college and its students are successfully integrated into local post-16 provision, the city and community activities.

RNC now has a wide range of programmes and career opportunities, including sound engineering, music technology, sport and complementary therapies, performing arts and teacher training, which reflect the aspirations of the innovative pioneering founders, as does the college mission statement: "To enable people who are blind or partially sighted to achieve their full potential".