This post was written by Nazlin Bhimani of the UCL Institute of Education Newsam Library and cross-posted from the Newsam Library’s news page.

This month Sally Perry and I are focussing on the subject of inclusivity in education. There is a display of relevant content on the Curriculum Resources display shelves and in the Special Collections cabinet in the Library. For my part, I am looking at the history of schooling for children with learning difficulties that are in our History of Education and Official Publications Special Collections, particularly the education of children with mental health issues. What I didn’t realise when I started researching this topic was how disturbing my research would be when I put together my list of labels used to describe children with learning difficulties. The history of education is replete with references to mental health issues in the legislative acts and books dating from the first half of the 19thcentury to the recent past. In considering the legislation and sources used to train teachers, a number of words are used which would be considered offensive today. These terms should not be quoted outside their historical context.


The first piece of legislation that deals with the issue of provision “for the care, education and training of idiots and imbeciles” was the 1886 Idiot’s Act of Parliament. It was the first time that the UK government had differentiated between those with mental health problems (‘lunatics’) and those who had learning disabilities (‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’). In 1902, the first facility that included children with special needs, and differentiated between the ‘mentally subnormal’ and the ‘ mentally ill’,   was Mary Dendy’s Sandlebridge Colony in Great Warford, Cheshire. Dendy was a firm believer in eugenics and advocated that children with mental deficiencies should be separated from society in order that their deformities were not perpetuated through marriage into future generations. As Jane Arthur states in her 2004 book on Women and Education, 1800-1980, Dendy believed “many … who are really defective, are, at a very great expense of time and trouble, taught a certain amount of parrot-learning, and are made to appear for a time, very much like a low grade of mentally abnormal children” (p. 102).

The Eugenics Society, formed in 1907, provided an impetus for this type of thinking. There was much debate during this period about eugenics, social responsibility, ethics, religion or the ‘biosocial’ (genetic dispositions) aspect of race and several reports were published by the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded (set up in 1904) which culminated with the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. This Act ensured the institutionalisation of the “feeble-minded’ and “moral defectives” such that they were removed from the institutions established as part of the Poor Law.

John and Samuel Wormald’s Guide to the Mental Deficiency Act, 1913: containing a legal and general exposition of the Act, with suggestions to the local authorities, managers and others for the organization and administration of the work dealing with the mentally defective is also in our collection. The Wormalds, father and son, were active in the eugenics movement. John Wormald was a solicitor and for many years the Chairman of the Schools and the Special Schools, Boarding-out and Care Committees for the Mentally Defective in Leeds.   The guide was written for those who are “actively concerned about the welfare of feeble-minded or defective persons” (p. vii). He continues,

“Imprisoned in our jails, confined in our Industrial Schools and maintained in the wards of our Workhouses are a large number of people who ought not to be there at all, and who are too often only injured by their present treatment, which is both costly and ineffective….The new powers of guardianship will be welcomed by those who are familiar with after care work in connection with these children. Very often such children will never need institutional treatment if these powers be wisely exercised but they will need the guiding and protecting hand whose continued presence the Act makes possible. … They will afford scope for the noblest exercise of the religious spirit, in training, tending and cheering lives, which at present are needlessly darkened, but which are capable of a real, though it may be a limited development; and are keenly sensitive to many simple joys of which they are now deprived.”

His son Samuel, a member of the Eugenics Society, later became the notorious Executive Officer of the Mental Deficiency Meanwood Park unit in Leeds. He is remembered today for removing more than 2,000 people (children, unmarried mothers and factory workers) considered to have a disability from society because he believed that “…by being allowed to repeat their type, the feebleminded are increasing the ranks of the degenerate and wastrel classes with disastrous consequences to the entire community” – see the Digital Archives of the Meanwood Park Hospital.

The second edition of G. E. Shuttleworth’s Mentally-deficient children : their treatment and training (1916)

In parallel with the biosocial cleansing programme of the eugenicists, the psychologists were also actively attempting to understand intellectual ability and to measure it. The term ‘retarded’ was commonly employed by them to describe in scientific terms those with intellectual disabilities that had been arrested in development. In 1895 G. E. Shuttleworth (1842-1928) published his famous book Mentally-deficient children: their treatment and training. Shuttleworth was a pioneer psychologist and did much to promote an understanding of differences between what were termed ‘subnormal’ children. It was through his persistence that provision was made for children with disabilities and he himself set up “special” schools that provided education for children that were considered to have mental deficiencies.

In the preface to his book, Shuttleworth explains the various terms used to describe these ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘backward’ children suffering from ‘retarded mental development’. Shuttleworth included in the 2nd edition of his book two additional chapters that give an account of an inquiry on the educational training of children with learning disabilities by a Committee under the Education Department of which he was a member. The School Board for London adopted the recommendations for practical measures proposed by the Committee as did several other school authorities. His advice was as follows:

“The mentally-feeble child is specially incapable of comprehending abstractions: all instructions, therefore, must be presented in a concrete form, which it can not only see, but when possible grasp in the hand as well as in the mind (p. 100).”

In the early part of the 20th century, the French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911) had been commissioned by his government to find a way to measure intelligence as a way to find out which children needed additional assistance. His theories, and those of his collaborator Dr.Theodore Simon, are included in The intelligence of the feeble-mindedwhich was translated into English and published in 1916. The book provides a glimpse of Binet’s discoveries through observing children. Binet and Simon come up with the Intelligence Quotients or IQ tests to determine the mental age and ratio of a child’s intelligence. These tests were also used to gage the intelligence of the men recruited to fight in the First World War. Later in the mid-1920s, ratios for each group of ‘mental defectives’ were set out – idiots had an ‘Intelligence Quotient’ or IQ of under 20, imbeciles were those with a mental ratio of between 20 and 40 and feeble-minded were those that had a ratio of up to 60 – these were published in the British Journal of Psychology (July 1926), pp. 20-53.

Other relevant books in the Special Collections include the Feeblemindness in Children of School Age by C. Paget Lapage published in 1911. Lapage was a medical doctor at the Children’s Hospital in Manchester and lecturer in School Hygiene at Manchester University. His book is aimed at school medical officers, teachers and social workers who deal with feebleminded children, according to his introduction. In Lapage’s view, effective methods of dealing with the feebleminded were of immense importance to the national welfare of the community as “feeblemindedness is an inherited taint handed on from generation to generation, and that every feebleminded person, who is a free and unrestrained agent, may, by becoming a parent, transmit and taint and so affect tens or hundreds of future generations” (p. viii).

The Education of Mentally Defective Children: Psychological observations and practical suggestions by Alice Descoeudres (translated from French into English by Ernest F. Row) was published in 1928. In the previous year, an amendment to the Mental Deficiency ACT enabled those who had mental health problems through illness or accident to be included in the group that could be supported in specialist institutions. The book acknowledges the difficulties of working with ‘defective children’ stating that “WE have to contrive in a variety of ways to arouse their [these children’s] interest, to awaken and hold their attention, or develop their will power, to gain their confidence, and to strengthen their characters” (p. 7).

If you would like to view any of the books mentioned above, please request them from the Library Catalogue. An appointment will be made for you to study the materials in the Reading Room.