Learning disability and public policy.

The previous blog outlined how mentally handicapped children in the Victorian era were removed from their families and placed within the confines of lunacy asylums, private madhouses or if they were lucky, in dedicated colonies. By the mid to late nineteenth century, the medical profession had appropriated the care of the feebleminded, possibly for research purpose, perhaps for financial gain. In doing so they created a problem for society as the numbers of children, and adults deemed to have mental impairment rose rapidly. The increase in numbers paralleled the rapid rise in British population growth, but it began to cause severe problems for the Exchequer, and for policy makers who were required to build appropriate accommodation to house these cases.

Two influential concepts ran through British culture from the mid to late nineteenth century – the ‘Degeneration Theory’ and Eugenics. 

The ‘Degeneration Theory’  was proposed by French doctor, Benedict Morel in the 1850s and  suggested that certain constitutional disorders ran through families. This lead to the belief in ‘hereditary taint’, which proposed that a mentally handicapped child resulted from impurity in the parent. Scientific papers outlining the transmission of a degenerative taint through families were printed in respectable medical journals [1]. Prominent psychiatrists such as Dr Henry Maudsley and Dr Fletcher Beach supported the theory of  degeneration which began to trickle in to popular culture [2]. The ‘hereditary taint’ of a handicapped child thus became a social  embarrassment, and great efforts were made to hide such children from polite society. The Queen’s cousins were placed in the Earlswood Asylum for idiots, a fact only recently uncovered by journalists. It is not surprising that Dr Montagu Lomax gave his son, Armine into the care of Dr Fletcher Beach at age seven, and Lomax never once referred to the boy in any of his prolific writings.

Eugenics, meaning ‘well born’ introduced the concept of pure breeding to improve a population, (and conversely, preventing unsuitable people from breeding). It was popularised in late Victorian times by Francis Galton, a distant relative of Darwin. Galton used Darwin’s theories of natural selection and ‘survival of the fittest’ as the basis for his eugenic movement. Eugenics was hugely influential in social policy around the turn of the 20th century, particularly in the USA where the eugenics movement was funded by the Carnegie, Ford and Kellogg foundations.

In the UK, ‘Hereditarism’  formed from the theory of degeneration and the eugenics movements had also begun to inform public policy.   Dr Fletcher Beach suggested segregation of idiots and imbeciles on the grounds that if breeding were prevented it would reduce the numbers of such ‘incurables’ in future generations [1]. Alfred Tredgold wrote his book ‘Mental Deficiency’ in 1908, which became a textbook for the medical profession, and had gone through eight editions by 1952. Tredgold’s book pushed the view that people with learning disabilities needed to be segregated by sex to prevent breeding. Ellen Pinsent* who founded the National Association for the Care of the Feebleminded in 1896, believed that lifelong segregation was the kindest option for the feebleminded. She was an influential eugenicist, serving on the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the feebleminded of 1908. This lead to the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 which proposed that mental defectives should be removed from prisons and Poor Law institutions and segregated by sex within  newly established colonies.

The 1913 Act mandated local government with a duty of care for the mental defectives. Its effects are well described on the website commemorating the history of the Meanwood Colony for mental defectives established in Leeds in 1919 [4]. The colony employed a man named Samual Wormald whose duty was to remove mental defectives from the street and schools of Leeds to the confines of the Meanwood Park colony to prevent them from breeding. Samuel Wormald was a member of the Eugenics Society who saw himself at the vanguard of a movement to remove anyone with a disability from society and wrote at the time: “By being allowed to repeat their type, the feebleminded are increasing the ranks of the degenerate and wastral classes with disastrous consequences to the entire community“. In the 1920s and 30s Samuel Wormald rounded up more than 2,000 people in the Leeds area, school children, factory workers and mill girls found themselves being taken to Meanwood [4]. Unfortunately, he was responsible for removing a number of profoundly deaf people who were of normal intelligence but still lost their liberty.

 Custodial policies resulted in severe overcrowding of the imbecile asylums and colonies. Concerns were also raised over the drain on the public purse as Britain teetered on the brink of  the Depression between the two World Wars.  Compulsory sterilisation of imbeciles was suggested on purely economic grounds by the Eugenics Society in their 1926 Manifesto [3]. Debate raged in the medical journals of the time over custodial segregation vs sterilisation[3].  In 1926, the argument spilled over into the popular press when eugenicist, Harold Cox wrote an article in the Spectator suggesting that lifelong segregation of mental defectives was  an act of ‘callous cruelty’. Cox believed that mental defectives should be released from captivity but only after sterilisation to prevent their ‘terrible taint’ from being passed on [3]. The USA followed this course of action, offering those with intellectual disability the stark choice between sterilisation or lifelong segregation in single-sex colonies. Cox’s controversial beliefs engendered a six month public debate through the correspondence columns of the Spectator. However, at the end of the day, Britain was not ready for such drastic measures, perhaps because of religious opposition. 

The 1913 Mental Deficiency Act with single sex segregation of people with learning disabilities remained in place until it was repealed by the 1959 Mental Health Act. The eugenics movement never fully recovered from its association with the Nazis whose selected breeding to perpetuate the Aryan race and murder of those with learning difficulties took social Darwinism to extremes. 

For an excellent balanced overview of eugenics, BBC radio series ‘Bad Blood: The Story of Eugenics‘, is available on BBC Sounds: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/brand/m001fd39

Post script:

*Ellen Pinsent (1866-1949) was married to Hume Pinsent, a prominent Birmingham solicitor. Ellen was made a dame in 1938 for her work in the care of mentally impaired children. Prior to the First World War, the Pinsent family lived at Lordswood House, in the Birmingham suburb of Harbourne. By strange coincidence, Lordswood House was built by Montagu Lomax’s father, the reverend Thomas Smith, and Lomax lived here until he was 9 years old.

Sale of Lordswood House. Birmingham Daily Post. 18/12/1869


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., A Lecture on the Influence of Hereditary Predisposition in the Production of Imbecility. Br Med J, 1887. 1(1378): p. 1147-8.

3. Crook, P., Darwin’s Coat Tails: Essays on Social Darwinism. 2007: Peter Lang.

4. http://www.meanwoodpark.co.uk

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