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He is so silly he would rather have a half pence than a shilling: Discovering the history of learning disability

Simon Jarrett explores the fascinating and little-known world of the history of people with learning disabilities, known variously over time as idiots, imbeciles, defectives and the mentally handicapped. Using court records, government files, parish records, prints, art and even jokes we can unearth a rich vein of often surprising information, reaching back to medieval times. Simon Jarrett is a Wellcome Trust doctoral researcher at Birkbeck, University of London, working on ‘idiocy’ in the eighteenth century. He is the author of Disability in time and place, an English Heritage web resource, and is writing a book on the same subject.

You can see Hogarth’s Marriage à-la-mode series on Wikipedia and photographs of Cell Barnes Hospital on the Out of Sight, Out of Mind? website

This talk formed part of The National Archives’ Diversity Week 2014.


So, to kick off, who are we talking about when we talk about people with learning disabilities? We are referring to people who have been described by a bewildering and ever-changing array of terms over time. And these terms have included ‘idiots’, ‘imbeciles’, ‘simpletons’, ‘fools’, ‘innocents’, ‘natural fools’, ‘naturals’, ‘mental defectives’, ‘moral imbeciles’, ‘cretins’, the ‘mentally handicapped’, the ‘retarded’, ‘morons’, the ‘intellectually disabled’, and even the ‘otherly abled’.

Today the accepted term is ‘learning disabilities’, and broadly we mean a group who are characterised as having some sort of mental deficit, which they have from birth, which can affect their understanding and lead to problems in carrying out the functions of daily life. It’s different to mental illness which broadly affects people who have previously seen as ‘normal’ and who might recover from their illness.

And this distinction between the lifelong idiot from birth and the lunatic who has developed lunacy and may have lucid intervals has been in place legally since the 13th century. And here is that distinction in a guide to drawing caricatures from 1801 which shows amongst the caricatures the ‘drivelling idiot’ who is next to ‘frenzy’ which is a form of mental illness. It also has ‘stupidity’, and it also has ‘simplicity’.

Obviously when doing a talk like this I do have to refer to historical terms such as ‘idiot’ or ‘moron’. And idiot was the word largely in use right through to the end of the 19th century. And these, to modern ears, are highly offensive. But in their day they were common and often respectable terms. So no offence is meant, of course, when I’m using these, but one can only talk about these subjects by using these words. So I do hope that no offence is taken.

Why all the changes in the language? Firstly, so many of the words, despite their respectable and often medical origins have become terms of abuse – ‘cretin’, ‘moron’, ‘retard’, ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’ – demonstrating the marginal position that people with learning disabilities often occupy in society. Secondly, the language has softened or harshened at different times, depending on whether society is going through a benign or a hostile phase in the way it sees people with learning disabilities.

In the medieval period there were benign terms such as ‘naturals’ and ‘innocents’. But in the 19th and early 20th century we have ‘mental defectives’ and ‘moral imbeciles’ which were used to denote a threat to the health of society. Also, over time, different experts, be they psychiatrists or whoever, invent new language in order to stake their claim to treat and to manage this group. So language in this area can be something of a minefield, but it’s also very revealing.

We do also have to be careful not to assume that the language we use today describes the same group of people as were described by the terms of the past. In the medieval period, when the majority of the population was illiterate, the word ‘idiot’ was used in its original Greek sense which meant a private person, which means to say someone who had no place or status in society and was unable to engage in public discourse. For the medieval elite the whole of the labouring poor class was seen as an idiot class.

We sometimes talk of learning disability history as a hidden history. And I’m not sure that that’s accurate. I think it’s a history that is often staring us in the face. However, we do not always see it. Take, for example, this well-known Hogarth painting from 1745 from his classic morality tale series, Marriage à-la-mode, which charts the disastrous marriage between the rich young lady and the dastardly Count Squanderfield, the broke aristocrat.

Their fortune is of course squandered, by him on whores and gambling, by her on dancing teachers, lovers, and fashion. And in this final scene here the lady has died, having committed suicide by taking an overdose of the opiate laudanum. She’s grief stricken because she’s just heard the news of the execution of her lover.

As she dies her father, the merchant, carefully removes the gold ring from her finger before it stiffens. So far, so Hogarth, an everyday tale of 18th century London. But there are two characters in this painting who are of particular interest to us today. Look closely at the child being held up to the mother for a final kiss. On his leg he has a calliper, and on his left cheek is a black spot, a sign of syphilis which he has inherited from his father.

The message is that this child has been brought into the world, riddled with disease and mental and physical disabilities. This reflects an originally medieval view that disability can have moral causes arising from sin and the view, still heard today, that parental behaviour can be responsible for the birth of a learning disabled child.

And now let’s look at this character, the ‘idiot servant’, who is being berated by the apothecary or chemist for having dim-wittedly bought the drugs for the lady with which she poisoned herself. This all tells us several things. Firstly, it was commonplace at this time to employ idiots as servants. Hogarth portrayed what was familiar to his 18th century audience, and no one would have been surprised to see this.

Secondly, in a broader sense, idiots were seen as employable at the time, before the later age of asylums when many people with learning disabilities were removed from everyday life and the world of work. But there is something else. The enraged apothecary in his fury is slapping the servant’s face. To do this in the 18th century was a gross taboo, an infringement of normal behaviour between humans.

There was a level of violence in everyday life in the 18th century way above what we would regard as acceptable today. And blows, kicks and shoves were part of everyday work and street life. But we know from, for example, naval court martials that striking another person in the face was unacceptable and a denial of the other person’s human status. Even senior officers in the navy who had struck an ordinary seaman in the face would be harshly punished.

Hogarth’s audience would have understood this immediately when they viewed this painting. And thus, in this small detail, we have a fascinating insight into the possible status of the idiot in 18th century society. And it was a very ambivalent one. They were people who lived in their communities, not separated from the rest, and who were seen as people who could work and participate in everyday life. The idiot servant is dressed in proper, very fine servant livery, just the same as the other servants in the household. And yet there is a clear message from Hogarth that he still occupies some sort of outsider status.

His idiocy meant that he could not think through the implications of what was happening when his mistress sent him out to buy laudanum. And the assault on his face questions his status as an equal human. This sort of ambivalence has been a common theme of how the person with a learning disability has been perceived throughout history, and it persists today.

So let’s now start with the medieval period. In the Middle Ages our best source is legal records which derive from the 13th century King’s Prerogativa, a document giving the right to the king to administer the estates and the income, not only of children whose parents had died before they were old enough to inherit – wards of court – but also the assets of idiots and lunatics.

It stated the following: ‘The king shall have custody of the lands of natural fools, taking the profits of them, and shall find them their necessaries. And after the death of such idiots he shall render the same to the right heirs so that the heirs of such idiots shall not be disinherited.’ In other words, if someone was deemed to be an idiot, then the king could take over their land and all their income for their entire lifetime.

The King would have to appoint a guardian and meet the idiot’s living costs until they died. But the estates would only go back to the rightful heirs after the idiot’s death. In the case of lunatics the King took custody of the land but passed responsibility for the lunatic back to their family who could also benefit from the profits of the estate.

So in the Middle Ages there was this clear distinction between a lifelong idiot and a temporarily afflicted lunatic. Now naturally this rule about assets applied only to those who had any sort of income or estate to worry about. And so we know little about the understanding of idiocy among the labouring poor who had no assets. But some cases of people with quite small holdings have survived.

If the Crown learned of a potential idiot, there was a hearing as to whether they were idiotic or not. The historian Richard Neugebauer has highlighted one such case of a Cambridgeshire woman called Emma de Beston in Ely in 1383:

‘The said Emma, being caused to appear before them, was asked whence she came and said that she did not know. Being asked in what town she was, she said that she was in Ely. Being asked how many days there were in the week, she said seven but could not name them. Being asked how many husbands she had had in her lifetime, she said three, giving the name of one only and not knowing the names of the others.’

I’m sure we’ve all had a similar problem.

‘Being asked if she ever had issue with them’ – that meaning children – ‘she said that she had a husband with a son but she did not know his name. Being asked how many shillings there were in 40 pence, she said she did not know. Being asked whether she would rather have 20 silver groats than 40, she said they were of the same value. They examined her in all other ways which they thought best and found she was not of sound mind, having neither sense, nor memory, nor sufficient intelligence to manage herself, her lands or her goods. As appeared by inspection she had the face and countenance of an idiot.’

From this we can see what was regarded in this period as important or essential in being able to manage your own life: an understanding of family and social relationships, an understanding of your own identity in terms of your personal history, and an understanding of how money works, in other words the commerce of everyday life.

Emma de Beston failed on the last two, and it’s easy to see why these things were seen as important. If you had any sort of assets, not being able to attach a value to them or manage them, and not being able to understand who was related to you, left you vulnerable to exploitation. However, we should be careful not to rush to make exact parallels between idiocy in this period and learning disability today.

It’s important to remember that the vast majority of the population was illiterate and would probably have failed the money test. Most were rural labourers with little legal or social status. And in this sense large proportions of the population were seen by the elite as idiots. This idea has persisted to this day in the notion of the country bumpkin, the naive and guileless rural person who is easy prey to exploitation in the sophisticated city.

It was perhaps best summed up by the 19th century French psychologist, Alfred Binet, who said that the rural labourer is feeble minded in Paris but normal at home. One is reminded of the abbreviation allegedly used by doctors here in the east of England, NFN, ‘normal for Norfolk’.

Moving to the 16th and 17th centuries we find some evidence from parish records relating to idiots receiving poor relief. A study of records in London parishes shows the same clear distinction between idiots and lunatics being used by Poor Law administrators. But the evidence suggests that very few idiots received parish relief, the view being that if people could be looked after by their families or could work to support themselves, they should do so.

Qualification for relief tended to come if the idiocy was combined with some other circumstance such as the death of a parent or their sickness. So thus a mother in the parish of St Botolph’s who had a foolish girl for a daughter started to receive six pence a fortnight when she herself became aged and lame.

When family support did break down, institutionalisation was never seen as an option. Instead a small number of people would live in the houses of nurses or keepers who were local people paid to support them but not qualified professionals as we know nurses today. One such local nurse took into her home a sick woman, a blind woman, and an idiot. And some idiots even worked and paid towards their relief while in someone’s care.

So the idiot, as they were known at this time, was perceived as someone who should remain in their community, who could and should work, and for whom institutionalisation or medical intervention were not considered. Poverty and destitution combined with idiocy were the qualifying factors for official intervention rather than the idiocy in its own right.

At the other end of the social scale the historian Suzannah Lipscomb has uncovered fascinating evidence that some fools in the court of Tudor monarchs were not professional actor fools but actually had some sort of intellectual deficit. For example, Henry VII’s well-known fool, Will Somer, much loved by Henry and his family, although he was well paid, well fed and well clothed in return for his work in Henry’s court, did not lead the same life as other courtiers.

Court records show that he had a keeper like the poorer idiots in the London parishes. A payment of 40 shillings was made to William Seyton ‘whom his majesty hath appointed to keep William Somer’. Somer needed someone to look after and care for him and was seen as unable to care for himself. Henry’s previous fool, Sexton, who was known by the nickname Patch, which means fool, was also considered a natural who needed help and support in his life.

He had been given to Henry VIII, along with Hampton Court Palace, by Cardinal Thomas Wolesey who was desperately trying to win back Henry’s favour as his star faded. It was recorded that it took six tall yeoman to transport the clearly distressed Sexton to the court. A succession of keepers were paid to look after him and given funds for his needs such as food, laundry, shoes and ale. Clothing was provided for him rather than purchased by him with his own money. But he did not wear the harlequins, motley and cap with bells which is familiar to us from images of court jesters of the period. But he wore the high quality cloth and silks of a favoured retainer.

Another prominent natural fool was Jane the Fool who appears to have been the woman fool of Ann Boleyn and later Katherine Parr, Henry’s sixth queen. Court records show that Jane was expensively clothed at the court’s expense, and payments were made for the shaving of Jane the Fool’s head.

Paintings show the prominent positions occupied by these natural fools, and this 1545 painting shows Henry with his ideal family, his long-dead favourite wife Jane Seymour, his son Edward, and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. And Will Somer and Jane the Fool appear flanking the family on either side of the painting.

Another intimate family portrait shows Somer between Henry and his three children. These glimpses show natural fools in the Tudor court occupying valued and significant roles in the lives of the Tudor elite. Their perceived lack of guile, their directness, and their humour were recognised as assets and were woven into the fabric of court life. They were perceived as closer to God and to the truth than other people.

If we move into the 18th century, criminal trials are a rich source of evidence for the lives led by idiots at the time. A number of trials at the Old Bailey criminal court featured people characterised as idiots mostly on trial for small scale theft offences, although these could carry the death penalty at the time. From these we can learn about the types of lives people seen as idiots lived and how they were seen by others.

Those on trial were mostly living in their family homes or lodgings and were well known in their communities. Hardly any were living in institutional settings. I found just three who lived in workhouses. Some were married, and family ties were generally strong, with family members often testifying on their behalf. Neighbourhood and workplace networks were also strong, and most idiots in the trials worked.

The women were predominantly servants, including one whose mistress pledged to re-employ her if she was cleared of theft of some ribbon. Remember Hogarth’s depiction of the idiot servant in Marriage à-la-mode. Others were casual cleaners or washerwomen working in what’s been called the Economy of Makeshift where the poorest Londoners tried to survive. Some operated in this marginal economy, picking over the scraps of the London streets to earn pennies.

A woman called Anne Terry, described as a very silly foolish girl, not capable of taking care of herself, worked closing upper leathers for shoes. This meant that she was part of an organised group of pauper women known as translators who lived in cellars in Monmouth Street in Paddington, taking old shoes that had been begged and giving them new soles.

Others were in more stable occupations. Peter Cuniford, who was described as an idiot since his head was torn to pieces by a dog when he was about two or three, had worked as a labourer in a building company for 12 years and was viewed by his workmates as a hardworking, honest fellow.

Some were in skilled occupations such as bricklaying, carpentry and paper-hanging, while one man even ran his own business, a public house in Essex, but it was said in court that as he was a silly, innocent sort of a fellow, the management of the business lay altogether upon the wife.

In these close-knit networks of family, neighbours, workplace and community, neighbourhood nicknames were common. In the trials we encounter Foolish Tom Gloyd, Silly Bill Saunders, Foolish Nan and Foolish Johnny. Witnesses often knew idiots as part of their community and saw them as belonging to it. They would make statements such as: ‘She always behaved like a foolish person, but she is harmless in her way.’ Silly Bill Saunders was a person ‘who my mistress always had a good opinion of’, while Foolish Nan was ‘someone I never heard anything amiss of in my life. I trusted her with scores of pounds.’

There is some evidence of cruelty and bullying. ‘I’ve seen them black his face and carry him about in a basket and then throw him into a kennel’ – a kennel being a gutter. ‘He is a poor, silly fellow, laughed and jeered at by the rest. People used to push him about and ill-use him.’ However, whenever there was violence and bullying, there was also a community response which stood up for them. The idiot’s place in the community was challenged in this period, but it survived even when under attack from those who saw them as an object of contempt or violence.

Looking at the language, witnesses used a mass of words to describe people they saw as having these problems of understanding and vulnerability. This was before the medical profession had taken any sort of interest in idiocy and who then invented a new vocabulary to describe it. As well as ‘idiots’ witnesses used words such as ‘half natural’, ‘half-witted’, ‘of a weak understanding’, ‘next of kin to an idiot’, ‘not so sharp as others’, ‘half a fool’, ‘a stupid, dull sort of a lad’, ‘a little soft’, ‘not right in his head’, ‘not very clever’, and ‘a good deal weaker in his intellects’.

And one can sense people trying to describe as best they could a person’s capacity. Often they resorted to examples to do this, and they used phrases such as ‘he might be easily drawn in’, ‘he would rather have a halfpenny than a shilling’, and ‘if anyone gave him a piece of bread, he would sing and dance for an hour together’.

What we learn from these trials is that ordinary members of the public had a strong understanding of the vulnerability of people who lacked certain aspects of understanding. Some used this knowledge to exploit and bully, while others sought to support and, when necessary, protect them. Either way, these idiots were very much a part of the working and social life of 18th century London. And as a footnote it’s worth pointing out that the majority of those who appeared before the court were either acquitted or treated leniently. Only a very few were hung, and those for more serious offences such as murder or violent assault. No one was ever sent to an institution.

Slang is a rich source of information from this time. 18th century London was very rich in terms denoting gullibility and low intelligence. Slang dictionaries had over 160 terms to denote the vulnerable idiot, and most of them were derisory such as ‘beetle head’, ‘block stock’, ‘bottle head’, ‘clod pate’, ‘dog booby’, empty skulled’, ‘looby’, ‘nincompoop’ – which survives to this day – ‘shallow pate’, and ‘woolly crown’.

As most slang came from the criminal fraternity they clearly had a highly developed sense of who was vulnerable as this gave them the opportunity not only to identify possibly victims but also possible accessories in crime who they could exploit.

We even have some records of 18th century graffiti collected by a gentleman called Hurlothrumbo who invited readers from around the country to send in examples that they had found in bog houses which were public conveniences which he then compiled in his Bog-House Miscellany. In one example, and apologies if you’re of a sensitive disposition, the constipation caused by drinking too much claret is compared to the pain of a blockhead trying to produce a thought:

‘Like claret drinkers’ stools, a blockhead’s brain hardly conceives what it brings forth with pain.’

And there were of course jokes. Jokes are always a good indicator of cultural attitudes, so here are just two examples, and you’ll be pleased there are just two examples because I can promise you jokes, but I can’t promise you good jokes.

This one is from the late 17th century: ‘A fellow in a cookshop in France filled his belly only with standing by whilst the meal was dished up, and the cook wanted to be paid for a meal. So it was left to the decision of the next customer, which happened to be an idiot, who said that the man’s money should be put between two dishes, ringing it for a time, and the cook should be content with the jingling of the money as the man was satisfied with the smell of the meat.’

So the joke is that the man only smells the meat, and the idiot says that the cook should only hear the sound of the money. It probably wouldn’t make Live at the Apollo. However, what is interesting is that this joke carries on the same belief that there was in the court of Henry VIII. The fool, because he is simple and innocent and has no guile, speaks the truth and has a way of looking at everyday situations that the rest of us with our preformed opinions and sophistication cannot see. It’s the old idea of the innocent fool who has not been corrupted by the wicked world. The joke does also show a French cook being outwitted by an idiot, which would have gone down very well at the time.

Here’s another one from Mark Lemon’s Jest Book published in 1865 but recycling mostly old 18th century jokes, as Lemon himself acknowledged in his introduction: ‘The compiler of this jest book wants to make known that it’s composed mainly of old jokes.’

‘A natural, lying on his deathbed, was reassured by his fellows who were surrounding him. “Six strong fellows will carry you down to the graveyard.” “Why? There is no need,” replied he, “for I can walk there myself.”‘

This joke reveals another way in which the person with a learning disability has been understood as a person: who doesn’t really understand things; who doesn’t understand abstractions; doesn’t understand that he’s dying; and that it’s others who will take him to the graveyard in a coffin. So jokes can tell us a lot.

Fiction can also be a useful source for understanding the perception of idiots and people with learning disabilities in history. It’s interesting to compare, for example, John Cleland’s pornographic 18th century novel Fanny Hill with Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge a century later. Fanny Hill is the story of the prostitute-courtesan, Fanny. Amongst the many men that she encounters are Will who is a country born, easy fool – it’s the country bumpkin again – and good-natured Dick, a perfect idiot.

Easy fool Will is a typical country bumpkin in London, while good-natured Dick is a young flower seller working for his mother who has very little understanding at all. Both of them are physically well-endowed to compensate for their mental shortcomings. And their sexual encounters with Fanny and her friends are described with humour and a sense of fun.

The idea that people’s deficits in one area were compensated for by exceptional endowment in another was widely held in the 18th century. And we still have it today when people speak of blind people having acute hearing. And Fanny quotes a contemporary saying: ‘A fool’s bauble is a lady’s plaything.’ Bauble, in 18th century slang, meant testicle.

You might not expect to find this 18th century open mindedness to the idea that it may be OK for a person seen as an idiot to be sexually active in the work of Charles Dickens, and you don’t. In his 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge we encounter in the hero Barnaby a very different and very 19th century idiot. Barnaby is a simple child of nature, but he is also a disturbing, strange creature, capable of awesome, frightening violence.

We can sense here a shift in attitude from the generally open-minded easy-going attitude of the 18th century to a rather more troubled outlook in the 19th when the idiot began to be seen as someone to be looked after, pitied, sometimes feared, but very different and separate from everyone else. You’ll find idiot or simple characters in a surprising number of novels and short stories, particularly in the 19th century, including George Elliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Bronte, and other Dickens novels such as Nicholas Nickelby, Little Dorrit, and David Copperfield.

A fascinating sideshow throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries was the phenomenon of wild boys and girls – children discovered living wild in European forests without language or civilised behaviour. They caused a sensation in intellectual circles and amongst the public because they promised an answer to the question that was raging in Enlightenment society at the time. What makes us human and differentiates us from beasts? Are we born civilised or do we become so? It is the nature versus nurture argument that still rages and also the question of whether language is instinctive or learned.

The regular emergence from forests of these strange, bestial, silent children – Peter the wild boy of Hanover, Marie-Angélique Le Blanc the wild girl of Champagne, and Victor the wild boy of Aveyron – had men and women of learning in 18th century Europe rubbing their hands with glee. Could we at last solve the mystery of how human being learn language and so become human? What was the borderline between humans and animals?

It’s now almost certain that these children were seen by their poor, rural families as idiots and, unable to cope with them, they abandoned them in forests where somehow they managed to survive. In 1726 Peter the wild boy was brought to the court of George I at St James. He’d been found, aged about 12, in the forests of Hanover, naked and unable to speak. His behaviour caused a sensation in court. He was an inveterate pickpocket and was rumoured to have taken the Lord Chamberlain’s staff and put on his hat before the King.

He fascinated society, and Daniel Defoe, among others, wrote about him and speculated on his human status. He was adopted by the royal household but within a year interest waned. He lived until his death, in his seventies, with two families in Hertfordshire, and he’s buried in North Church where his grave survives. The only words he ever learned to say were Peter and King George.

Five years later a girl was sighted stealing apples in an orchard in the Champagne region of France. In bare feet she was clothed in rags and skins, filthy, and carrying a club. The villagers set a bulldog on her which she killed with one blow and then scaled the tree, swinging from branch to branch back into the forest.

She was eventually tempted down with a pail of water and an eel. She went on to live for a time under the care of nuns. And after first being named the Shepherd’s Beast, she came to be called Marie-Angélique Le Blanc, the references to Mary, angels and whiteness in her name referring to her purity as a female natural child.

In 1800 Victor of Aveyron was discovered in woods in France. The story caught the interest of the public and he was taken to Paris, attracting huge crowds on his arrival. He was brought before a panel of doctors, but the famous physician Pinel, of the Bicêtre Asylum, dampened everybody’s hopes that this boy would resolve age-old controversies over man’s original character and announced that the child was most likely an idiot.

He was, however, put into the hands of the innovative educationalist Jean Itard who he lived with and who attempted to train him to speak, to learn everyday tasks, and become civilised. But by 1806 Itard had become very disillusioned about his methods, and Victor was taken to an institution where he lived until his death.

However, the French physician Édouard Séguin then announced that Itard’s methods had not been a failure at all but that he had simply not acknowledged that Victor was in fact an idiot. Séguin announced the concept of the trainable idiot. Based on Itard’s methods there was no reason why the idiot population, housed in calm, orderly, isolated institutions, could not be trained to carry out the everyday tasks of ordinary life and learn simple manual job skills and be returned to the community as contributing members.

Thus was born the idea of the idiot asylum, developed first at the Bicêtre and then in the United States, where Séguin later lived and where a network of state idiot institutions was established in the second half of the 19th century, and in Britain. It all began here with the establishment of a small group of voluntary hospitals, mainly for the mentally ill, in the final years of the 18th century, whose apparent success led to pressure for public funding to build more. And from 1808 local counties were allowed to build and run asylums for impoverished lunatics.

There was a clear change in mindset during the 19th century that separation of the vulnerable, the dangerous and the different through institutional systems such as asylums, prisons and workhouses was more desirable than the lightly regulated parish communities that had predominated until then. There was a growing belief in the separation of the abnormal from the normal.

By 1845 it was compulsory for every county to make asylum treatment available, and the asylum movement really took off. These were in fact Britain’s first state hospitals. Idiots were included amongst the lunatic population, probably about 1,000 out of 15,000 patients by 1850, while larger numbers – as many as 10,000 – were in workhouses, some of which even built special idiot wards.

It’s no surprise that in this process of mass institutionalisation idiocy came to the fore as a group needing its own special institutions. Idiots in lunatic asylums were causing concern as they did not recover and leave as lunatics were supposed to do but instead stayed there for life.

Workhouses were struggling to care for their growing idiot population, and in 1845 John Connelly, the medical superintendent of the Middlesex Asylum at Hanwell, St Bernard’s, having visited the Bicêtre in Paris to study Séguin’s methods, joined forces with a group of wealthy charitable donors and, after experiments with small institutions in Highgate and Colchester, established in 1855 the 500-bed Earlswood Idiot Asylum in Surrey, the world’s first purpose-built asylum for idiot children run entirely on charitable subscriptions.

Several charitable idiot asylums then opened across the country, covering the eastern, western and northern counties and the Midlands. By the 1870s the person with a learning disability who until recently had been seen as someone who lived, worked, and eventually died in their community has become someone who needed medical supervision in a specialist institution.

The influence of a young doctor called John Langdon Down was key in this process. Down was appointed as the superintendent of the Earlswood Asylum in 1858 on Connelly’s recommendation. He had no experience of idiocy, but Earlswood was an opportunity for him to establish his reputation. He ran a humane, progressive regime, both at Earlswood and at the later private asylum that he ran from the late 1860s, Normansfield in Hampton.

At Normansfield he built an exact replica of a West End theatre which still stands and is used as a theatre today. At both institutions he encouraged trips out including rail trips to the seaside courtesy of the London and Brighton railway where up to 300 idiots marched in formation along the seafront accompanied by an asylum band which comprised patients as well as staff. The male idiots were allowed to bathe in the sea.

He held open days and entertainments attended by as many as 800 people. He did not allow physical restraint or punishment, and encouraged visitors. Patients were taught carpentry, brush-making, printing, and farm work. If you were going to be in an asylum, then one of Down’s was probably the best place to be.

After he died Earlswood was later the hospital where the Bowes-Lyon sisters, nieces of the Queen Mother, were hidden away for many decades by the royal family. In the 1970s Normansfield, by now an NHS hospital, was at the centre of an abuse scandal, as were many mental handicap hospitals as they’ve become known. Both are now luxury housing developments.

One of the ways in which Down made a name for himself was to look outside the medical field, placing himself and the idiots he was responsible for at the heart of the great public debates of the day. In 1859 Charles Darwin had published the Origin of Species which argued that man and the earth had not been created in seven days by God but had evolved over millions of years. More sensationally, it implied that men and monkeys had common ancestry.

There was a furious national debate. In 1860 at a public meeting, Bishop Wilberforce asked one of Darwin’s supporters whether he was descended from a monkey on his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side. Down, who followed this debate intently and was a member of the newly founded Anthropological Society, announced that he would use the first ever large assembly of idiots to embark on a classification system.

In 1867 he published The Ethnic Classification of Idiocy which took idiocy to the heart of the debate on the origins of mankind. He declared that he had identified amongst the idiot population of Earlswood the five races of the world. These were Mongolians, Ethiopics or Africans, Caucasians, Malays and Aztecs or Native Americans – idiots. He invited social scientists to come to Surrey to study these five great races of mankind all under one roof.

His theory was that these ethnically different idiots’ offspring were born to European parents because of some influence – he speculated that in the case of mongolism it might be tuberculosis in the mother – which caused primitive racial types to emerge in a more advanced population. So while in medical history Down is predominantly noted for his discovery of what he called mongoloid imbecility, known today as Down’s syndrome, this was in fact part of his wider ethnic classification.

Despite the strange and, to modern ears, shocking sound of his racial language, this actually put down on the liberal side of the Victorian debate, supporting Darwin’s theory of one origin for all of mankind and in opposition to the radical racist view of the time which argued that different races of mankind had different origins and were divided into permanently superior and inferior races. Down hoped that his article would furnish some arguments in favour of the unity of mankind.

So this was how Down became known for his discovery of mongoloid imbecility or mongolism. The name was officially changed to Down’s syndrome in the early 1960s, partly at the request of the Mongolian government. Down was correct to identify a separate condition which is now known to have a chromosomal cause. However, in fact there are no real resemblances between the Down’s syndrome person and the characteristic appearance of a Mongolian person, and the context of Down’s discovery with its Aztec, Malay, Ethiopic and Caucasian imbeciles has been quietly forgotten.

Things now entered a very different phase. The term eugenics was coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, in 1883 – a form of social science which was based on genetic inheritance and which tried to promote good breeding between intelligent, healthy and well-formed people and to prevent bad breeding between unintelligent, unhealthy, and deformed or disabled people, invariably from the lower classes.

The fear of the country being overwhelmed by the feeble minded became deeply rooted in late Victorian and Edwardian thoughts. The more these people bred, the more feeble minded their offspring would become. And feeble mindedness also became associated with criminality, alcoholism and disease. So the learning disabled person was going through another transformation, this time from an innocent, pitiful, harmless person who needed care and training, to a dangerous threat to the future of the race and the well-being of society – a mental defective.

Eugenics was embraced by both left and right, including apparently progressive figures such as Beatrice and Sydney Webb and the birth control pioneer Marie Stopes. In 1930 the public intellectual Julian Huxley said: ‘What are we going to do? Every defective man, woman and child is a burden. Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe but produces little or nothing in return.’

Strengthening the human race and building human and social perfection by eliminating physical and mental defects was very much part of the currency of early 20th century thought. Driven by eugenicists in 1913 a Mental Deficiency Act was passed by parliament. This set up a board of control and specified that mental defectives, children, and adults should either be closely supervised in the community or maintained in a new type of institution, the mental deficiency colony, providing permanent settlement for children and adults in a rural environment.

This is Cell Barnes Hospital just outside St Albans in Hertfordshire. The idea was that defectives should be kept strictly controlled, segregated, and, if possible, be sterilised to prevent them from reproducing. People were graded as idiots, the most disabled, and imbeciles, the medium grade. And then there were two types of the feeble minded: those who were mildly disabled yet able to help themselves, but also the so-called moral imbeciles thought to represent a grave danger because they could not distinguish right from wrong.

Colonies were established across the country, small self-contained worlds accommodating up to 1,500 people in detached villas of 60 patients sleeping in multiple rows in large dormitories. A central administrative block always formed a barrier between male and female villas. A separation of the sexes was deemed essential. There would also be a special villa for difficult cases whose behaviours were regarded as needing control. Villas for idiots and difficult cases would be kept as far from the hospital approaches as possible to avoid offence to visitors. The better class of working patients were allowed to live furthest from the centre with their own facilities.

In each colony there was a school, workshops for the adults, kitchens, bakery, laundry, recreation hall, playing fields, and of course a small mortuary. No one need ever leave. Many colonies had their own farms with market gardens, stables, poultry, pigs, herds of cows and greenhouses, and they employed farm bailiffs, firemen, engineers and gatekeepers, as well as nurses.

Most patients worked unpaid in the laundries and workshops on the farm. The more severely disabled idiots stayed in their villas but with verandas so that they could sit in fresh air whatever the weather. The children progressed from school to workshop and eventually to mortuary. These colonies would live on, renamed as mental handicap hospitals, until the 1990s.

As a side note, ironically the First World War delayed plans to build the colonies and set up the community control systems, and many mental defectives went into work. I found in a file here a letter written in November 1917 by the chairman of the Central Association for the Care of the Mentally Defective in which he considered the future piece. ‘There are,’ he wrote, ‘large numbers of low grade, even imbecile defectives who are now in remunerative work, who will assuredly leave their work when there is any displacement of labour. And we are anxious to make plans for their protection.’

Clearly the country’s need for manpower with so many fighting on the front had changed the perception of the mentally deficient from people incapable of work to useful members of the workforce. However, this was about to change again as soldiers returned from the front expecting employment. The colonies were built, the mental defectives were put in them, and many thousands of people disappeared from public view.

The Second World War was a turning point as the fatal collision of eugenics and Nazism resulted in the killing, from 1939, of around 70,000 people with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or mental illness by the Nazi regime. They were at first killed by gassing in a network of special hospitals around Germany as the regime experimented with mass human killing techniques.

Pictured here are some of the buses, known euphemistically as community transports, which were used to transport patients to these killing sights. Some of these gas chambers were dismantled and shipped to Poland where they were reassembled and used in the Holocaust against the Jewish people.

The gassing programme in Germany was stopped after protests from families and as local communities became aware and began to talk about them. One of the lessons that the Nazis learned from this – from what was known as the T4 programme – was that they should carry out their mass human extermination programmes in other countries. However, many asylum patients – children and adults – were then simply allowed to starve, die from untreated diseases, or were injected with fatal doses of drugs. There is horrific newsreel footage of skeletal figures lying in wards as territories were liberated by Allied troops.

Nazism certainly diminished the appetite for eugenic ideas, but asylums continued into the 1980s, now known as mental handicap hospitals. A combination of factors finally brought about the end of the asylum era. First a series of hospital abuse scandals, most notably at Ely in Cardiff, St Lawrence’s in Caterham, and Borocourt near Reading.

A 1981 television documentary, Silent Minority, caused a public scandal. Filmed inside these last two hospitals, it showed in one case a young man tied to a post for several hours a day in the middle of a ward and in another a group of patients left outside with no protection in baking sun in a penned off area trying to dig an escape tunnel.

There was also the formation of a strong parental pressure group, the National Association of Parents of Backward Children in 1948, later to become Mencap. The actor Brian Rix, prominent in Mencap from early on, has spoken of the birth of his daughter Shelley, who has Down’s syndrome, in 1951. He was asked by doctors if he was a drinker or had venereal disease. Remember the medieval idea of parental sin and Hogarth’s painting. The advice was to put her away, forget her, start again.

He visited St Lawrence’s Hospital and saw three or four thousand people shambling around the grounds with nothing to do. It was appalling. As the civil rights movement grew, amongst other oppressed groups people with disabilities became involved also. The 1980s saw the growth of the People First movement of people with learning disabilities. There was immense pressure for the hospital system to end and for people with learning disabilities to be able to live in their communities. Public pressure grew, and time was ticking on the mental handicap hospital.

The 1981 Care in the Community green paper signalled the end of the asylum, with Margaret Thatcher their unlikely liberator. Tens of thousands of people moved from hospitals back to the community, and a new era of supported living in communities began, which brings our history of learning disability to the present day, an era which focuses on rights and integration, one of the many oscillations that have happened throughout learning disability history.

We have some marvellous oral history work that’s being done with people who lived in the hospitals and moved back to the community in these more recent years. And when future historians look back on these accounts, who knows what they’ll make of learning disability history today. We can be sure that they will judge us differently than we judge ourselves. Thank you.


Transcribed by Mary Pearson as part of a volunteer project, December 2014