‘Happy Idiots’ at Earlswood Asylum

‘This article, which appeared in Charles Dickens’s publication All The Year Round in 1864, describes a journalist’s visit to the Earlswood Asylum, the first institution for the care of the cognitively disabled in England. It was founded by J Langdon Down (now best known as the doctor who identified Down syndrome) in 1847. The term “idiot” (or sometimes “imbecile”) was commonly used to designate a person who was seen has having a permanent cognitive disability from birth or an early age. An attempt to distinguish “idiocy” legally and medically from “lunacy” was made in the Lunacy Act of 1845, which stated that an “idiot” was legally a person “whose mind from his birth by a perpetual infirmity is so deficient as to be incapable of directing him in any matter which requires thought or judgement” while a “lunatic” was legally “sometimes of good and sound memory” and sometimes not, while any other person “of morbid condition of intellect” who did not fit either of these categories was “a person of unsound mind” (quoted in Wright Earlswood Asylum 16). The need for a third category suggests that attempts to label cognitive difference were more difficult in practice than in theory, and that idiocy was not a stable or transparent category for the Victorians…’


For Karen Bourrier’s full introduction to the text from All The Year Round go to the Nineteenth-Century Disability collection here.


One response to “‘Happy Idiots’ at Earlswood Asylum

  1. This is so fascinating! As someone with a literary blog, I love Dickens, and this article seems so interesting. Dickens has such a great perspective for this style of writing.

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