People, places, spaces and meaning

On 28 November 2014 I will be presenting a paper at my old university, Hertfordshire, on my research into Caterham Asylum, the first state imbecile institution (along with it’s sister asylum Leavesden.)

Below is the abstract:

Alongside the nineteenth century chimneys and workshops of industry, Victorian asylum buildings provide us with a stark visual reminder of a sometimes difficult past. Originally situated on the outskirts of towns, these infamous edifices, through the processes of historical and popular inquiry, and the spread of our cities, have become more visually, physically and emotionally prominent. 

Originally viewed as isolated and punitive institutions, where the insane were sent to be shut away from society, more recent scholarship has shown them to be dynamic sites, with permeable walls, and varied populations. Yet despite nearly forty years of dedicated historical inquiry, the common perception is that Victorian asylums were the province of the mentally ill. Furthermore, there has been little scholarship that explores the asylum population as a whole, preferring to discuss staff and patients as separate entities.

Caterham Asylum opened in 1870,  built to provide long-term accommodation for the harmless chronic pauper insane. The asylum’s  design, character and remit was shaped by contemporary understandings of idiocy, the role and purpose of institutions, and the interactions between those who worked and lived within its walls.

My paper will focus on the design, building and perception of the first state imbecile asylum, provide an insight into the institutional experience of its staff and patients, and illustrate how an alternative reading of the asylum landscape can provide new avenues for discussing nineteenth century welfare, psychiatry, and institutions.


Idiocy: Making the private public.

Idiot: noun
a. A person without learning; an ignorant, uneducated person; a simple or ordinary person. Now archaic and rare.
b.  (a) A person without professional training or skill ;  (b) a private (as opposed to a public) person, an inward-looking person (now rare).
c. Chiefly Law and Psychiatry. A person so profoundly disabled in mental function or intellect as to be incapable of ordinary acts of reasoning or rational conduct; spec. a person permanently so affected, as distinguished from one with a temporary severe mental illness. By the older legal authorities in England an idiot was defined as a person congenitally deficient in reasoning powers, and this remained for a long time the common implication of the term.[1]

The definitions above neatly illustrate how the term idiocy has taken on various social, legal and medical meanings. As suggested in the second explanation, in ancient Greece the word was used to refer to one who was ‘private’, those who did not engage in matters of society, democracy or debate.

The privacy aspect of idiocy remains a feature of the socio-medical term idiocy, which to some degree has evolved into a form of isolation. In recent years, whilst research into mental illness, asylums and the development of psychiatry has blossomed, across this wider history idiocy has been overlooked, at best a footnote, at worst utterly ignored.

Yet throughout history idiots were not hidden or unknown, nor where they private or isolated individuals. They were visible members of society, sometimes referred to as village idiots, holy fools, or saintly solitaires. Perhaps the most renowned and visible ‘idiots’ in history are William Somer and ‘Jane the Fool’, members of Henry VIII’s court. They can be found in a royal family portrait displayed at Hampton Court Palace, alongside Henry himself, Jane Seymour, and his children Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, illustrating both their high status, significance and importance to the king, and the wider visibility of idiocy.  Idiocy was present across all spheres of life, appearing in art, literature, folk and popular song, and, as illustrated in the Henry the VIII painting, families.


It was at the end of the eighteenth century that the psychiatric profession turned its attention to idiocy, differentiating it from insanity, and attempting to create a specific classification schema and definition for the term and associated conditions. Yet almost as an echo of the Greek meaning of the term idiocy, in terms of scholarly research and the focus of the academy,  it has become a secluded and isolated term, frequently discussed in terms of segregation and seclusion, rather than as a feature of life, which has led to a number of misconceptions, misrepresentations and misapplications.

So, hence the title of this blog entry Idiocy: Making the private public.

My research is on the social and cultural history of idiocy in the long nineteenth century, going beyond the ‘great men’ such as John Langdon Down and Henry Maudsley, and focusing on the popular meanings and perceptions of the terms idiocy and imbecility. I use Caterham Imbecile Asylum, the first state asylum for idiots, imbeciles and the weakminded, concentrating on the experience of those identified as idiots and imbeciles, in order to explore the various socio-medical perceptions of idiocy, the development of both the language and classifications surrounding idiocy, and the changing attitudes of both staff and families.

My research touches on the history of learning disability, asylum history and the development of nineteenth century welfare and medical services. With that in mind I am looking forward to uncovering elements of idiocy, imbecility, and disability in the various archives and collections of the Language of Access partner groups, learning how to grapple with language, use language and disseminate my findings to a (hopefully) wide range of audiences.