Learning Disability in Victorian England

The care of a child with learning difficulties 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 intellectually 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 with similar training schemes 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’ in Surrey 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 intellectually 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. George Shuttleworth, who worked closely with Fletcher Beach, wrote ‘Mentally Deficient Children’ in 1895, which became a standard text on the subject, running to five editions.

Placing children with learning disabilities in the care of specialists from an early age may seem harsh to modern eyes but it was considered to be the best option to give such a child the best chance in life. Those with mild disabilities could be trained for career in gardening for the boys and domestic service for the girls, and self-care could be taught and encouraged within an institutional setting. Wright noticed that parents often wrote to thank their children’s doctors for improving their child’s behaviour [1]. There was much competition to obtain places at training institutions such as the Earlswood Asylum who held elections for training places twice per year. Potential candidates could pay part of their care fees, or if that were not possible they could appeal to be elected to a place supported by the Earlswood charity. They had to apply to the subscribers of the charity to make their case and win votes. The places were allocated to those who won the most votes, usually less than half of the number who applied. Places were allocated for five years but patients could apply to be re-elected at the end of that term. Private patients who paid in full for their places could be admitted at any time whenever a bed became free.

Whilst committing a young child with learning difficulties to institutionalised care can be understood in terms of wanting the best outcome for a child, there is no doubt that hiding a child from society also played a part. There was a strong fear of ‘hereditary taint’ at large in the late Victorian/early Edwardian society. This dated partly to the work of the asylum doctors in the 1840s who were obsessed with the idea that mental illness had a hereditary causation and collected data to try to prove it [3]. These doctors were building on folklore which warned against marrying into families with a strong history of madness. By the early 20th century, hereditary taint was a mainstream concern.

Montagu Lomax’s middle son Armine, was committed to the care of Dr Fletcher Beach from a very early age, perhaps 7 years old. He later moved to the Earlswood Asylum as a private patient and died there of asylum dysentery (typhoid) aged 18. Lomax never referred to his son in any of his writings or speeches. We will never know whether he was frightened of being associated with the curse of hereditary taint, or whether he wanted to ensure that his two surviving children would make good marriages without having to worry about having a brother with learning disabilities.


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.

3) Porter, T. M. (2018). Genetics in the madhouse: The unknown history of human heredity. Princeton University Press.

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