The problem of the ‘idiot’ child

The care of a mentally handicapped child has posed a problem to society for centuries. Prior to the 18th century, many of these children would have been looked after at home, perhaps by an older sibling. The more affluent might have employed a maid servant whose duties would have included care of a handicapped child. When the Industrial Revolution in Britain resulted in migration to the cities for work, a non-productive child became a drain on the families resources. Whilst there was a system of ‘boarding out’ where some parishes paid families to look after ‘idiot children’, this all but vanished with the introduction of the new Poor Laws of 1834. Idiot children who could not be cared for by their families were then required to be admitted to the workhouses as ‘pauper lunatics’. Workhouses soon began to fill up with the elderly, the chronic sick and the mentally disabled such that parishes had difficulty in obtaining places for their temporary paupers. The solution provided by the 1845 Lunatics Act was harsh – the Act decreed that all insane persons should be admitted to the County Asylums, and idiots were defined as a subgroup of the insane. Unfortunately, this just shifted the problem to the Asylums and they too began to fill up with ‘harmless and incurable idiots’ [1]. Families became reluctant to send their idiot children away from their own parish to a County Asylum, and kept them at home often resulting in significant hardship for the family. Some idiot children were retained in the parish workhouse, some from wealthier families were sent to private madhouses. By 1850, it was evident that there were more handicapped children in the community and the workhouses than in the County Asylums [1].

The plight of the handicapped child captured the attention of the Victorian philanthropists in the 1840s. Some attempt had been made to set up training schemes for the ‘educable idiot’ in France, and Dr John Connolly had also experimented at the Hanwell asylum. The philanthropist movement picked up and ran with the idea of schools for the mentally handicapped, setting up Asylums as ‘training establishments’. The Earlswood Asylum for Idiots came about through the efforts of Dr Connolly and the reverend Andrew Reid. It opened in 1847 and accepted private cases from wealthy families which helped to finance the care and education of pauper children. There was a general feeling that handicapped children would benefit from being with their own kind and that they would not have to endure mockery and bullying common in the wider community. Some of the milder cases of idiocy  were trained for domestic service or manual trades such as gardening. 

With the rise of the therapeutic Asylums in the mid to late nineteenth century, a small group of doctors began to specialise in idiocy. Dr Fletcher Beach was one of the early pioneers and highly influential in the field of idiocy. He believed that idiot children fared much better within training establishments away from their families, and should be admitted at the youngest age possible [2]. He may have had his own agenda, since it is clear from the records that he was a talented business man who wasn’t averse to bending the rules on advertising his own private establishment for the feeble minded. However there is no doubt that he and his colleagues made great strides in the classification and treatment of the idiot child. 

Bibliography

1. Wright, D., Mental disability in Victorian England : the Earlswood Asylum, 1847-1901. Oxford historical monographs. 2001, Oxford ; New York: Clarendon Press. vii, 244 p.

2. Beach, F., The Treatment And Education Of Mentally Feeble Children. 1895, London: J.A.Churchill.

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