A source of affection then shame

The first children placed in Normansfield Hospital were were loved and cherished by their parents. Later, ‘imbecile’ children were hidden away there by middle-class families who felt deep shame. Susanna Shapland sums up research on these children by historian Deborah Cohen

At first glance, Lucy Gardner and Elizabeth Scott-Sanderson had a striking amount in common. Both were placed in the Normansfield Training Institution with a diagnosis of ‘imbeciles from birth’ by their relatively wealthy families at a painfully young age.

However, here the similarities end. The 40 years that separated their arrivals saw a sea change in how learning disabled children were viewed by their families and society from being cherished individuals at the centre of family life to a source of shame that had to be permanently buried in institutions.

Victorian optimism

Unlike illegitimate children, learning disabled children were not viewed by Victorians as a source of moral opprobrium. Instead, they were welcomed as an opportunity to do God’s work through providing treatment and care. That they could be treated was a certainty John Langdon-Down shared so, when he founded Normansfield just outside London in 1868, its emphasis was on training. Its occupants were schooled in not just speech and writing skills but also Latin and mathematics. After a few years, they returned to their loving families as ‘relieved’ or ‘recovered’, and the newspapers reported unusually high (possibly exaggerated) success rates.

In its early days, children living in Normansfield learned Latin and mathematics; the institution had its own theatre

Lucy was born in 1878, and arrived at Normansfield when she was 5 years old. Typically for that time, she arrived with a quantity of fashionable clothing, frequently replenished by her doting parents who also sent cakes and presents at birthdays – but only if they were unable to visit in person or arrange for a trip home. At home, the children were the centre of family life, and were seen running errands, helping in their fathers’ businesses or attending church. In between visits, Mary Langdon-Down answered an endless barrage of letters from parents who wanted to know every detail of their child’s daily routine. Lucy spent four years at Normansfield, and returned home to her delighted family apparently ‘much improved’.

Edwardian pessimism

By 1900, pessimism had set in. Eugenics theory warned against allowing those afflicted by ‘mental disease’ to produce children who would be similarly disabled. On this basis, amid a growing panic at the increased visibility of the learning disabled in surveys and censuses, the Eugenics Society argued for the sterilisation of the ‘mentally unfit’. One strident advocate of this was Reginald Langdon-Down, who had inherited the running of Normansfield in 1900 from his father. The parent of a learning-disabled child himself, he had a brusque nature that discouraged parents from writing, visiting or, indeed, hoping for improvement in their children.

Attitudes of parents were also changing. A growing sense of shame drove them to exclude their learning-disabled children from social events and polite conversation, pushing them into the shadows.


The abandonment of children and their systematic erasure from society reached its peak in the interwar years. Hereditarian theory had evolved from basic worries about ‘imbeciles’ begetting imbeciles to the belief that the ‘normal’ could be carriers of ‘mental deficiency’. Having a learning-disabled relative became evidence of a taint in the bloodline.

One poet’s fiancee imposed conditions on their marriage after he confessed to the existence of his ‘mongol’ brother. Pharmaceutical giant Henry Wellcome similarly tried to conceal his ‘slow learner’ son to protect both his reputation as a man of genius and his business.

Elizabeth was born in 1920 and institutionalised aged one. A growing desire for secrecy, fed by the stigma of having a learning disabled child, meant institutionalisation was happening earlier and earlier, and would likely be for life. Some couples did not even bring their babies home from hospital, and sent them away and tried to live the rest of their lives as if their children had never existed.

There was little hope that Elizabeth would ever return home, and her parents expressed none. Their visits were sporadic then stopped, as they ceded all responsibility for their daughter to the institution; this was typical. The Langdon-Downs had to buy their patients clothes and Christmas presents, while families wrote their abandoned children out of obituaries and expunged them from conversation.

The cost

With this shift to secrecy, places such as Normansfield became long-stay institutions where children were housed but little else. The lack of intervention or interest from embarrassed families meant there was no one to witness the increasing degradation of these places or intercede to demand those living there were treated well.

When Normansfield was sold to the NHS in 1951, it was crumbling, short staffed and packed with long-term, forgotten patients. A government inquiry after a strike by its nursing staff in 1976 revealed Dickensian levels of squalor and neglect – the true cost of decades of secrecy and shame.

Bibliography Cohen D (2013) Children who disappeared. In: Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day. London: Viking