· culture ·

I'd been meaning to write about a Channel 4 series (now finished) called City of Vice. As usual, I'm too late in writing about it to allow you to watch it, but there was one particular puzzle in the film that I haven't quite solved, so I decided to ask the Lazy Web if anyone knows the answer.

City of Vice tells the story of the establishment of the Bow Street Runners in the 18th Century (the forerunners -- no pun intended -- of the modern Metropolitan Police) by novelist and playwright Henry Fielding, and his half-brother John. The Fieldings were Magistrates and were keen to enforce justice, without the corruption of the thief takers^1^. It was a brilliant -- if rather too realistically gruesome -- series, apparently based on records of the time.

One thing intrigued me, though; John Fielding -- who was blind -- was shown wearing a black ribbon like a headband on his brow. That seems to be a genuine detail rather than a TV embellishment, as you can see from this portrait. It was never alluded to in the series, but I had two possible explanations.

  1. It was some kind of strap to hold his wig on straight, if he had trouble keeping it straight. That doesn't sound like a good explanation to me, because I'm sure he could feel the canvas edges of the wig with his hands and tell if they were level.
  2. It was some kind of symbol of his blindness, so that others could accommodate his needs without needing to ask him if he was blind.

I like the second explanation better, but it raises a lot of questions. There isn't much point in a symbol unless it is fairly universally understood, so was this standard practice in the Georgian period? John used a cane, but it was similar to the kind any Gentleman might carry, and he didn't seem to use it feel his way around, so some other symbol might have been useful. Why did the black band above the eyes symbolise blindness, rather than any other symbol? If it wasn't widespread, and was his own idiosyncrasy, what was the point of it?

I've done a cursory search, and found that Joel Segal had noticed the same thing, but I haven't found any authoritative and definitive answers. So, are there any historians specialising in the issue of disability in the 18th Century out there?

^1^ If you had property stolen, you could contact the thief takers. If you paid them, they would 'make enquiries' and -- miraculously -- your property would be mysteriously 'found', though there would be no sign of the thieves themselves. Hmm.