Most people reading this will have heard of Edward Capern the Victorian postman-poet of North Devon but how many have heard of his contemporary Robert Dummett the blind postman of Braunton? Dummett was born in Braunton about 1802 and lost his sight in early childhood. Facing up to harsh reality, however, he chose to ignore his disability as far as possible and became determined to earn his own living and not rely on others.
His extraordinary choice of career began almost accidentally. As a young boy he began “goods errands” and became noted for his total trustworthiness by “the respectable people of Braunton”. They apparently had “perfect confidence in his correctness” while “his character afforded full assurance of his sobriety and fidelity”. From running errands he progressed to taking and fetching letters and parcels to and from Barnstaple. This was pre-1840 in the days before the postal system as we know it today was set up and when the only local “posting point” was Barnstaple.
When Rowland Hill introduced his `Penny Post' in 1840 Robert Dummett was the obvious choice as postman for Braunton. He became a celebrated character in the locality being noted for “his upright and rather tall person” as he “made his way with measured pace, keeping close by the wall as he came along the street, and tapping the ground with his walking stick”. Before setting off each day his wife told him where each piece of mail was addressed to and “the nicety of his sense of touch, enabled him to deliver his various freight” correctly in every case.
Dummett was thought of so highly by the people of Braunton that when a post-office was eventually established in the village he was seriously put forward as a contender for the job of postmaster but “the unsuitability of making a blind man a postmaster was too obvious for the department to overcome.”
In 1839 he and his wife had begun a small grocery and drapery shop in Braunton adding a malting business to it in 1849. At first things went well but in 1861 he was declared bankrupt to the tune of £2,286-odd. He had run up his largest debts to his wholesaler, a Pascal Widlake, of Barnstaple, and when his cheques were returned his creditors came clamouring for their money. He was forced to sell both his drapery and malting business along with the buildings to help satisfy these creditors. In addition Dummett owned the adjoining farm house, barn and stable, eight acres of Braunton Marsh and 12 acres of arable land in the Great Field. These raised £447 altogether and helped increase the dividend paid to the creditors to 4s 6d (23p) in the pound.
This was a major set-back and Dummett never seemed to recover his drive and self-confidence. Luckily the inhabitants of Braunton still respected their blind postman and they managed to obtain an annual income for him from “Day's Charity for the Blind” which helped him greatly in his last years.
His obituary closed by noting that he was “a shrewd and intelligent man, and was held in general esteem.” He died after a long illness, aged 70, on May 23 1872, and was buried in Braunton.
Source: North Devon Journal, May 30, 1872, 5e-f
This article was published in North Devon History, by Peter Christie, Edward Gaskell Publishing, 1995, ISBN 1-898546-08-8. Previously published in North Devon Journal, January 22, 1987.