Dive Into History: Disability in England From the Middle Ages to the Modern Day

From 22 Nov-22 Dec the Library is participating in Disability History Month with a ground floor book display, reading list covering a range of disability history topics, and two blog posts. The first highlights the range of accessibility services we provide here in the Library, and today’s post carries on with our Dive Into History series by exploring disability in England from the Norman Conquest to the modern day. So pour yourself a nice hot drink, and settle in for a fascinating read!

For a long time, historians thought of the body as fundamentally stable and unchanging. In the 1960s and 70s, the emergence of social history as a vibrant new strand of study changed the discipline forever. Suddenly, academics began exploring new subjects, such as class and culture. They also began studying the history of the body, doing new research into topics like gender, sexuality, emotions, and senses, and how perceptions and interpretations of these have changed over time. Disability history is another of these exciting new fields that has attracted keen interest in recent years.

Disability in Post-Conquest Medieval England

In Post-Conquest England, disability, like today, was not uncommon and the English were therefore not unfamiliar with the disabled. Attitudes to disability, however, could still be mixed. Some believed that disabilities were inflicted upon individuals as a result of sin; that they were an outward and often explicit manifestation of some inner disfigurement. As a result, stories which saw the disabled miraculously healed through the power of divine intervention, like those in the Bible, proved popular. In 1383, one of Richard II knights was struck by lightning during a violent storm near Ely, leaving him dazed and blinded. Richard appealed to the clergy to process to the tomb of St Etheldreda, former Anglo-Saxon queen of Northumbria, and pray for the intercession of his friend. The knight received a vision in which he was brought before a judge to be condemned, but was saved by the intervention of Etheldreda and St John the Evangelist – the knight recovered his sight completely. Confusingly, it was also often simultaneously believed that those with disabilities – typically learning disabilities – were, by virtue of their perceived simplicity, purer and, therefore, closer to God.

Often disabled people mixed in fairly seamlessly with others in their communities. However, this was a society that placed a premium on the value of manual work, so life wasn’t always easy for them. Care for the needy was, by modern standards, very limited. The state – insofar as it truly existed – did very little to provide for them, so some relied on the goodwill and charity of friends, family, or of their local communities instead. Others, meanwhile, were forced into an unhappy life of vagrancy and begging. Communities tended to be extremely protective of their borders, distinguishing between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor and punitively ostracising those who fell into the latter category.

St Botolph’s Priory // St Johns Abbey

Many did successfully access aid though. Commonly, the task of providing additional assistance for the sick and the disabled fell on monasteries. Up and down the country, hundreds of these religious institutions, who were themselves funded by gifts from wealthy benefactors or rents from their tenant farmers, provided alms for the local needy, as well as more comprehensive care for those with more complex needs. One such monastery existed right here in Colchester. St Botolph’s Priory, an Augustinian religious house, was established sometime around the year 1100 and administered to the poor for hundreds of years before it was destroyed during the 1648 siege of Colchester in the period of the English Civil Wars. The priory is now a ruin, sitting just beside the town centre train station. Another, St Johns Abbey, was established around the same time and eventually turned into a manor house by a family of local gentry. The house no longer remains, but the abbey’s original gate still stands, close to the A134 Southway.

Statue of Robert the Bruce

At the same time, specialised medical hospitals were emerging for those with specific long-term conditions, like leprosy and blindness. These conditions were remarkably common and could even affect those at the top of the social ladder. It has been suggested, for example, that Robert the Bruce, thorn in the side of Edward I and his son Edward II in the early fourteenth century, had leprosy in his old age. Henry IV is also described to have suffered with a debilitating skin condition, as well as occasional fits, in his later years, for which he received the best medical care available. England’s first psychiatric institution, the Bethlehem Hospital (later known as Bedlam), was one of these new institutions.


Founded in 1247 during the reign of Henry III (who you might know as the man who commissioned the building of Westminster Abbey in the Gothic style), it originally stood close to the modern Liverpool Street train station in London and was designed to encourage donations to the Crusades and care for the needy. Though not originally built to care for the mentally ill then, records suggest that it began doing so after the fourteenth century.

The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam] at Moorfields: the entrance facade. Engraving by A. Soly

Bethlehem Hospital

Disability in Early Modern England

After failing to secure permission from the Pope Clement VII to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII spectacularly split from the Catholic Church, naming himself ‘Supreme Head’ of the new Church of England in the 1534 Act of Supremacy. Shortly after the break with Rome, Henry instituted one of the most significant and wide-ranging programmes of reform ever seen in England, dissolving huge numbers of monasteries. Walden Abbey, situated just outside Saffron Walden in Essex, was one of the counties’ premier monasteries. Like many others, Henry sold it off to a wealthy landowner, Thomas Audley, who then converted it into a grand country manor, known today as Audley End House. While the wealthy benefited from the opportunity to buy this prime real estate, and the government benefited from significant new cash income, those who relied on the charity of the monasteries – including the disabled – were left without aid.

Audley End House - Essex

Audley End House, built on the site of the original Walden Abbey, as it appears today.

Eventually, growing numbers of new hospitals and almshouses began to be constructed, often bankrolled by wealthy benefactors seeking to bolster their social status. For instance, Henry Tooley left provision in his will for the establishment of just such a place in Ipswich in 1550, designed to care for those left ‘lame by occayson of the kings warres’. Similarly, Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, the place Mary Tudor was staying when she discovered that she would be announced Queen of England, was purchased by a wealthy lawyer, Sir Robert Hitcham, in 1635 and turned into a poorhouse after his death in the following year. Up and down the country places like these offered support to those in need of aid. However, since these were essentially privately-run institutions and not managed or overseen by central government, conditions and the level of help offered varied from place to place.

Social care was still limited in this period too. In 1547 Edward VI’s government instituted the Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds and for the Relief of the Poor and Impotent Persons, which was specifically targeted at reducing the numbers of disabled beggars centring on London. The act did recommend that beggars be provided ‘cotages or other conveninet howses to live in, at the cost and charges of the said Cities’, but also stipulated that perpetrators be removed to their place of birth or the place they had lived for the previous three years. A further act in 1598 stated that a vagrant whose place of birth could not be identified should be whipped and placed in the house of correction or gaol, though it did suggest that those unable to work due to disability could be permitted leave to remain in an almshouse.

Captain Bartho. Roberts with two Ships, Viz the Royal Fortune and Ranger, takes in Sail in Whydah Road on the Coast of Guiney, January 11th. 1721/2.: a copper engraving

Pirates developed an incredibly progressive and egalitarian system of social security for members of their crew who incurred life-changing injuries in the execution of their duty.

For others life was very different though. Pirates developed an incredibly progressive and egalitarian system of social security for members of their crew who incurred life-changing injuries in the execution of their duty. The ‘articles’ – what we might call a pirate code – that governed the conduct of seamen on board a ship often set out how much a crew member could expect to be paid in the event of serious injury. One pirate named Jeremiah Huggins claimed to have received 14 gold pistoles, 7.5 ounces of gold dust, 82 pieces of eight, and 72 ounces of silver bulion ‘by reason of his being wounded among them’. Importantly, those who were left disabled in service of the ship do not appear to have been discriminated against by their fellow crew members either. Crews democratically elected their captains and there are many examples of disabled pirates winning these elections. For example, the one-armed John Fenn captained his own ship, as did John Taylor, who was ‘lame of his hands’.

Will Sommers, court jester to Henry VIII

Jesters and fools, often those with learning disabilities of physical impairments, were highly valued in the courts of the elite. They were frequently awarded a life of ostentatious luxury, being housed in the most comfortable of conditions, dressed in the finest materials, and fed the best and most exotic foods. In 1551, Will Sommers (right), a jester formerly kept by Henry VIII and widely believed to have had a learning disability, was given an allowance of 40 shillings in order to provide him with specialised personal care. At the time this was roughly the equivalent to over two months pay for a skilled labourer. A particularly renowned Tudor family portrait, painted by Hans Holbein and currently housed at Hampton Court Palace, shows Will Sommers and, allegedly, Mary’s fool, Jane Foole. The fact both are even included in this Tudor portrait demonstrates the esteem in with which they were held by the family.


The Family of Henry VIII

Tudor family portrait, by Hans Holbein

Of course, even high status aristocrats and monarchs could disabled too. For example, Lady Mary Grey, esteemed sister of Lady Jane Grey, known famously as ‘The Nine Days Queen’ after her Ill-fated spell as de-facto ruler of England in 1553, is often believed to have been a dwarf. Tests on the recently discovered skeleton of Richard III, famously depicted as an evil hunchback by Shakespeare, show that he did have a curved spine as a result of scoliosis. Perhaps most interestingly, Henry VI, who in previous years has been unsympathetically depicted as weak and feeble-minded, is now widely considered to have been seriously mentally ill. After being brought news of his army’s loss to a French force at Bordeaux in 1453, Henry had a fit and spontaneously fell into a vegetative state for over a year, leaving the nation in disarray and allowing dissent to fester that led to the Wars of the Roses. Eventually, Henry recovered, but he was never truly free of his mysterious debilitating condition.

Disability in the Eighteenth Century

With the Enlightenment in full swing, it was increasingly being argued that certain conditions, like learning disabilities or what contemporaries considered to be insanity, were not caused by God, but were a result of accident, misfortune, or of a loss of reason. This meant that attitudes toward the disabled began, in some respects, to be more empathetic: there was a growing understanding that those with disabilities needed support and, in some cases, specialised treatment. Care and the administration of treatment remained inconsistent, however. The disabled could apply for poor relief, but only if they we destitute as well as disabled. Almshouses, poorhouses, and workhouses also still offered some form of basic provision for those who, in this harsh and unforgiving society, were unable to live independently. Again though, there was very little state-funded provision for the care and support of those with disabilities; the onus fell instead on individuals who saw philanthropic works as part of their civic and Christian duty.

Original building of The Retreat, York. Instituted 1792

The Retreat, York

But there were some new developments. For example, a voluntary asylum movement emerged, which provided modest and, generally speaking, more gentle treatment and care than other similar institutions. William Tuke, a Yorkshire Quaker, Founded his York Retreat on the basis of these principles in the late eighteenth century. Another institution, known as the ‘private madhouse’, also emerged. These were often simply private houses, which provided support for members of the upper classes suffering with mental conditions. There was also a growing charity school movement, with services set up to educate young deaf and blind children.

As with earlier ages, there were people with disabilities at all levels of society, from beggars and vagrants to aristocrats. One particularly famous example is Horatio Nelson, famed Royal Navy Officer who masterminded the English Victory over Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Trafalgar. Wounded on campaign, he lost the sight in one eye at the age of 36, then most of his right arm at 40. Nelson was voted the ninth greatest Briton of all time in the BBC’s 2002 programme, 100 Greatest Britons. A more peculiar example is that of Peter ‘the Wild Boy’. While on a hunting trip in the forests outside Hanover in 1725, George I reportedly discovered a young man who had been living an isolated and feral existence in the wilderness. He crawled on all fours, was unable to speak, and and had been surviving on fauna. Peter, who is now believed to have suffered from the rare genetic condition Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, was allowed to live out his days in relative luxury in Northchurch, where his keeper was given £35 a year for his maintenance and care.

Peter ‘the Wild Boy’

Disability in the Nineteenth Century

To some extent, during the industrial revolution attitudes to the disabled slowly hardened, perhaps in part because of the new emphasis placed on the value of rigorous manual work. Many were forced to rely on the charity of their communities, or live as beggars. Others were forced into the growing number of new workhouses. Following the 1834 Poor Law Act 350 purpose-built workhouses were constructed – roughly one every 20 miles – with a further 200 added to that number before the end of the century. While in previous years workhouses had been a gateway to various means of support, these new institutions were not meant to be pleasant. Rather, they were grim, punitive places designed to stand as a brutal reminder of the value of staying in regular employment. For the able-bodied poor, such as those with learning disabilities, the harsh and unforgiving world of the workhouse might be the only option. By the end of the century 10,000 people were in workhouse accommodation. At the same time, a number of new charitable asylums were established to house with the mentally ill. At The start of the century only a few hundred people were living in these asylums, but their growth was extremely rapid: by 1900 more than 100,000 people, considered lunatics and simpletons were living in 120 county pauper asylums.

Again then, life for the disabled and the constant struggle against prejudice could be incredibly difficult. In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet explained ‘some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street’. The writer, in a remark that, by its vehemence, suggests these harsh attitudes were prevalent, warned that the boys and those like them would be ‘burned in a fire that will never be put out’. Similarly, Henry Mayhew gave a description of the disabled beggers on London’s streets in 1862, including ‘the idiotic youth … shaking every limb’ and ‘the crab-like man without legs strapped to a board [who] walks upon his hands’.

There were some more positive changes. Alienists, a new kind of medical professional, encouraged some new, more progressive, programmes of treatment for those society deemed to be mentally deficient. These often focused on moral management and offered a much more gentle antidote to the vicious techniques used in the traditional madhouse. Instead of imprisonment and physical restraint, they favoured gentle discipline, order, and therapeutic intervention.

John Conolly, M.D.

One of the chief proponents was John Conolly (left), who was appointed resident physician at the Middlesex County Asylum in 1839. In his Inquiry Concerning the Indications of Insanity, published 1830, he wrote that ‘in no case can restraint … be justified, except by probably danger to the person of the patient or to others, or to his property, or to the property of others’. Connolly later co-founded a small medical society, The Provincial Medical and Surgical Association, which eventually grew into what we now know as the British Medical Association.

There were also some limited opportunities to proper. For example, the blind Henry Fawcett became Postmaster General in 1880; he introduced the parcel post and the postal order. Similarly, James ‘deaf’ Burke rose from poverty to become a world champion prize fighter; he was instated into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1894 young disabled people, led by Dame Grace Kimmins, formed a self-help group designed to provide young disabled boys with the resources to flourish. Named the Guild of the Brave Poor Things, the organisation used a coat of arms that depicted a sword crossed with a crutch. Finally, a number of new specialised schools were set-up to provide education to deaf, blind, and epileptic children. In 1838 the London Society for Teaching the Blind to Read was formed and in 1866 the Worcester College for the Blind became the world’s first further education provider for disabled people. By the end of the century there were 43 such schools in London alone, teaching over 2,000 children.

Disability in the Twentieth Century to the Modern Day

Following 1907 more frequent examinations in schools began to highlight the extent of physical and sensory impairment in England, especially among the poorer classes who were subject to poor housing, sanitation, healthcare, diet, and low vaccination rates. Between the 1900s and 1950s an estimated half a million children had a disability. In some quarters, attitudes towards the disabled remained unforgiving. The Eugenics movement, for example, which became popular during the early part of the century espoused some horrendous views regarding those with disabilities. It rejected the idea that all humans were born equal and instead emphasised the value of genetic health, recommending, amongst other things, that those with certain conditions should consequently be sterilised and excluded from the gene pool. London hosted a Eugenics conference in 1912 and Winston Churchill himself was an honorary Vice President of the British Eugenics Society, and supported the confinement, segregation, and sterilisation of what he called the ‘feeble-minded’. In a letter to his cousin he explained that ‘the improvement of the British breed is my aim in life’. In 1930 Julian Huxley, Chairman of the Eugenics Society, wrote: ‘what are we going to do? Every defective man, woman, and child is a burden. Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return’.

At the same time ‘colonies’ were set up, typically in rural communities, for what contemporaries considered ‘the mentally deficient’ – people, for instance, we would recognise as having a learning disability. These were self-contained worlds that kept inhabitants relatively isolated from the outside world and forced them to perform various forms of labour. Colonists were often strictly segregated by age, sex, and ability. Growing fear of the spread of ‘feeble-mindedness’ meant the disabled were watched far more vigilantly than in previous years. The Central Association for Mental Welfare worked to identify ‘deficient’ individuals, paying them regular visits and keeping close tabs on their activities. There was also a drive to limit the marriage rights of individuals who fell into this category. In Rotherham in 1926, a woman deemed to be ‘defective’ and her partner, a coal miner, applied for a marriage license. The woman’s mother was opposed to the marriage and the license was rejected.

Things changed with the First and Second World Wars. For instance, with many leaving England to fight on the continent, there was a shortage of labour back home. In 1941 the Ministry of Labour recruited a 300,000 people, previously considered unemployable due to illness or disability, into the workforce – one newspaper headline rejoiced that ‘cripples can do vital war work’. There were growing numbers of people returning from service with debilitating wounds and conditions after sacrificing their bodies for their country. As a result, there were some major advances in plastic surgery and prosthetics, but there were also advances in how medical professionals rehabilitated ex-service people. Sheltered employment offered disabled soldiers opportunities to work and earn a living. For example, in 1922 the Disabled Society received a grant of £2,000 from the British Legion’s Unity Relief Fund to employ disabled former service people to produce remembrance poppies; the first poppy factory was set up in Richmond, London, in the same year.

But many disabled people campaigned tirelessly for fairer pay and better working conditions. In 1920 and 1933 blind workers subsequently demonstrated in London and disabled ex-servicemen marched for equality in 1951. A number of advancements quickly followed. Architects began designing more new buildings to a ‘universal design’ specification, which promoted better accessibility for the disabled. At Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, disabled patients bean competing against each other in a series of games, which later grew into what we now know as the Paralympic Games. Asylums were closed down as a series of scandals revealed the neglect that had been allowed to take place within their walls. The 1981 Jay Report promoted a programme of ‘care in the community’, offering more humane and inclusive support that better promoted individuals’ independence. Severalls Hospital in Colchester, which had operated since 1913, was one of those institutions that fell into decline following these changes. It finally closed in 1997 and lay derelict for a number of years. Most of it has now been demolished and replaced by a housing estate, which sits alongside Via Urbis Romanae, but some sections still remain, such as its iconic water tower. In 1995, after multiple demonstrations involving thousands of people, the Labour government passed the Disability Discrimination Act, which made it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of disability.

Disability history is, as you can see, a hugely fascinating topic and one that is now steadily beginning to attract the attention it deserves. But it’s also clear that the ever-growing disability rights movement has not been a story of continuous linear progression. That disabled people in England are now able to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as all others is testament to the tenacity and vision of those who have helped champion and normalise these advances over a long period of time. To read more about the work the Library is doing to support people with accessibility needs, read our Disability History Month blog post. If you want to read more about the history of disability, including the histories of renowned disabled figures, the disability rights movement and people pertinent to its growth, the history of social care, disability history in culture, and much more, why not read something from our wide-ranging reading list.

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