Wish you were here…?

England’s first major ‘idiot’ asylum attracted erudite visitors, whose glowing travelogue-style reports unwittingly served to push people out of mainstream society. Susanna Shapland reports

Royal Earlswood Hospital

Earlswood Asylum was England’s first large “idiot” asylum, and the world’s first institution purpose built for the care of such patients. Granted a royal charter by Queen Victoria, it was established in 1854 near Redhill in Surrey, easily reachable by train on the London-Brighton line.

Its prestige and accessibility meant that, throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Earlswood attracted a stream of erudite visitors: clergymen, journalists, lawyers and even Charles Dickens. They wrote travelogue-style accounts of their visits intended for publication as pamphlets or columns in newspapers and magazines.

The target audience was middle-class readers with an interest in Christian philanthropy and, ideally, money to back their beliefs and support the charity-funded asylum.

These travelogues helped to shape popular ideas of idiocy and, in turn, had an impact on public policy.

By writing up their encounters as travelogues, these (exclusively male) visitors portrayed themselves as brave explorers, venturing into unknown lands and reporting back on the inhabitants and their customs, declaring it safe for those who followed.

The argument for asylums was made so persuasively that the idea of leaving ‘idiots’ at liberty became widely regarded as both cruel and dangerous

Riding in on the railway – that great symbol of scientific progress – their journeys emphasised the separateness of the land of the asylum, the “land of idiocy”.

This land was itself an undiscovered territory. Previously, individuals with learning disabilities had lived within their communities. Now, for the first time, they were gathered together en masse.

Fears and expectations

A common trope of these travelogues was a description of the fear of what the adventurer might encounter – fears that were, perhaps, echoed by the reader.

Many wrote of presuming they would encounter filth, squalor and chaos. Instead, they were all were delighted to report, everything was orderly, coherent and productive.

Indeed, visitors described something of a Utopian society, where everyone had their place in the class hierarchy, and was happy and productive as a result.

The patients at Earlswood were described as a “family”, complete with eccentric individual members. Some were recurring characters in reports, such as the “historical cook” and the “excellent draughtsman” (skilled model-maker James Henry Pullen). Nonetheless, all were united by their “idiocy”.

Most importantly, visitors reported that all these family members were grateful, and that gratitude was directed at the heroes of the accounts – the asylum staff.

Chief among these was John Langdon Down, medical superintendent from 1855 to 1868 and best known for his description of Down syndrome.

He acted both as family patriarch and as the brave pioneer bringing “light” to the “darkness” of his wretched dependants. In this way, he reflected contemporary ideals of empire, with his Christian benevolence enlightening his colony of pliant, grateful natives.

By expressing their surprise and delight at the contented, orderly community they had discovered, these writers sought to humanise the idiots of Earlswood.

In so doing, however, they created a terrifying alternative: the unkempt, gibbering idiot who was not in the safety of the perfect, disciplined, Christian society of the asylum but at large in the community.

The argument for housing idiots in asylums was made so persuasively that the idea of leaving them at liberty became widely regarded as both cruel and dangerous.

By the end of the 1860s, very few asylum travelogues appeared – but they had unwittingly done their job. Idiots were seen as a class apart, one to be kept separate from society if at all possible.

Any thoughts of training people for a life outside were abandoned, as asylums became long-stay institutions. This marginalisation was brutally exacerbated by the rise in degeneration theory.

The perfect, happy family described by mid-19th-century travellers was lost forever – if it had ever existed at all.

Source: McDonagh P, Visiting Earlswood: the asylum travelogue and the shaping of “idiocy”. In: McDonagh P, Goodey CF, Stainton T, eds. Intellectual Disability: a Conceptual History. Manchester: Manchester University Press; 2018: 211-237