The lone libertarian – Josiah Wedgwood and the Mental Deficiency act 1913

Josiah Wedgwood fought a one man battle against the Act that still influences thinking today. Simon Jarrett looks at the beliefs behind it.


The pseudo- science of eugenics, in vogue from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, was influential in many Western countries. But Britain was the only country in the world to enact national eugenics-based legislation, the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913.


The Act set up a system of unprecedented social and medical control for those deemed to be ‘mentally deficient’. Under the Act, the deficient would either be committed to a rural ‘colony’ where they would live out their days under medical supervision, or would be closely supervised in the community, to ensure they did not have children, become involved in crime or engage in ‘immoral’ activities. The Act was not repealed until the Mental Health Act of 1959 and has therefore always loomed large in both public and professional thinking. It remains influential in discussions about people with learning disabilities even today.


Eugenics was based on the belief that criminality, immorality, alcoholism, anti-social behaviour, physical defect and low intelligence were all linked, and stemmed from ‘defective breeding’ amongst the lower classes. Only control and restriction of lower class breeding, and the encouragement of breeding amongst the finer specimens of the middle and upper classes, could prevent Britain from spiralling into a nightmare society populated by the brute-like, deformed offspring of the immoral lower classes. While this may appear absurd today, it was believed to be ‘scientific’ and was widely accepted across the political spectrum. Both left and right wing politicians believed that the ‘respectable’ working class should be supported over the ‘disreputable’ poor.


Unanimous support

When the Act was introduced to parliament in 1913 it enjoyed almost unanimous support. For the Liberal government and the 42 Labour MPs (the party was only 13 years old at this time) it represented another step in an advancing programme of welfare reform which placed in the hands of the state that which had previously been left to charitable groups. For the Conservative opposition, eugenic anxiety trumped any concerns about state interference. All three parties were united in their belief that the degenerate population had to be ‘dealt with’ in some way.


One man opposition

It was left to one man to lead the isolated opposition to this major, and deeply transformative, piece of legislation. He was Josiah Wedgwood, a Liberal MP and self-styled ‘last of the radicals’. Wedgwood was a direct descendant of his namesake, the18th century founder of the famous pottery manufacturers in Staffordshire, that bears the Wedgwood name to this day.


Wedgwood’s opposition was based not on a specific commitment to, or even interest in, those labelled mentally deficient, but on his fierce commitment to the ideas of liberty and democratic accountability. All citizens had rights, whoever they were and whatever label was attached to them. They could not just be summarily dismissed from society or closely controlled within it simply because they did not meet with approval. He saw the Act as a tool for giving power to illiberal groups such as the Eugenics Society, and as a threat to democracy.


In parliament, as the Act was debated, Wedgwood led the opposition to it virtually single-handed. Sustaining himself with sweet drinks and chocolate, he sat through two late-night parliamentary sittings, tabled 120 amendments and made 150 speeches. He accepted that some of those deemed deficient might need specialist institutional care, but if this Act was, as the government claimed, about their protection, then why could that care not be voluntary rather than compulsory?


His opposition was doomed – such was the consensus that the Act was a good thing that one person’s objections were never going to prevail. However, he was able to highlight the controversies that the Act brought to treatment of the ‘defective’ population, and he made life extremely uncomfortable for the government, who had expected an easy passage.


Human rights, not disability rights

It was interesting that Wedgwood had no apparent experience of, or even interest in, deficiency himself. For him this was a matter of individual liberty. In our modern terminology he was not a disability activist, or advocate, but a human rights campaigner.



Mark Thompson, The problem of mental deficiency: Eugenics, democracy and social policy in Britain, c. 1870-1959, Clarendon press, Oxford, 1998

  1. V. Wedgwood, ‘Wedgwood, Josiah Clement, first Baron Wedgwood (1872–1943)’, rev. Mark Pottle, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 []