Early audio description – St Dunstan’s 1917

We have recently been alerted to another early example of audio description, this time at St. Dunstan’s Home for the Blind in Brighton, East Sussex in the UK.

According to the National Institute for the Blind’s journal, The Beacon, in January 1917 Lady Eleanor Waterlow provided vision impaired St. Dunstan’s inhabitants with live audio description for a film titled “With Captain Scott in the Antarctic.”

Screenshot of 1917 article titled 'Blind Soldiers "See" A Cinema Show

Perhaps Britain’s first audio describer of cinema, Lady Waterlow had a “happy way of creating mental pictures by flashes of suggestive description interjected at appropriate moments.”

This article is significant because:

Anecdotal accounts of one-to-one description by relatives and friends abound, but this is the first known record of a description delivered to an audience of blind listeners. What prompted Eleanor to do it and whether she continued her experiments in ‘visualisation’ needs further investigation.

Mary Plackett (2014). Publications Editor of the Audio Description Association.

Full text of the original 1917 article (cited in the Audio Description Association Newsletter, Issue 9, Winter 2014) is as follows:


Lady Earnest Waterlow has marked a further stage in the work she has undertaken of helping the blind soldiers of St Dunstan’s to visualise entertainments that appeal only to sight. Experiments at theatrical performances had already met with success, through the quickness of the patients in recognising the voices and even the footsteps of the players. A cinematographic show would seem less promising material, yet the sightless men who were taken to Mr. H. G. Ponting’s cinematographic lecture, “With Captain Scott in the Antarctic,” at the Philharmonic Hall on Saturday, declared it to be the most interesting of all. It was not only that the adventurous and tragic story enchained their attention, but they carried away a series of lively impressions of the scenes and incidents represented on the screen. This was brought about by Lady Waterlow’s happy way of creating mental pictures by flashes of suggestive description interjected at appropriate moments. When the lecturer referred to the wonders of the Antarctic – the Great Ice Barrier, the glow of the midnight sun, the absorbing animal life, and the heroic personnel of the fated expedition – the listeners were not left in any doubt as to the appearences recorded, for Lady Waterlow was ready with the vivid words that tersely emphasised what was salient and characteristic, and stimulated the imagination to fill up the picture.

The Beacon, January 1917.

Many thanks to Mary Plackett for contacting us and sharing this information.