Improve your experience. We are very sorry but this website does not support Internet Explorer. We recommend using a different browser that is supported such as Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.

Intellectual Disability in England, 1750-1900


Those we identify today as people with intellectual (or learning) disabilities have always been part of society. They have been given many names over time – idiots, imbeciles, morons, cretins, mental defectives, the retarded, the mentally handicapped – to name but a few. The ever-changing litany of terms, most of them swiftly transmuting into terms of abuse or denigration, already starts to tell us something about this history.  

In this talk Dr. Simon Jarrett will cover a critical period in the history of people with intellectual disabilities – the transition from the surprisingly integrated and inclusive communities of early modern society  to new ways of thinking which deemed this group creatures of the institution.  

For most of the eighteenth century so-called idiots, even those with quite a high degree of disability, lived within their families and neighbourhoods, seen as somewhat ‘odd’ but harmless, often working, and protected by their communities. By the 1840s they had come to be seen as dangerous, harmful, and unfit to live in mainstream society. They were rapidly transferred to first workhouses, then lunatic asylums, and later idiot and imbecile asylums.  

Using evidence from criminal and civil court cases, art, novels, joke books, slang dictionaries and diaries, the talk examines how and why this momentous transition took place. We still live with its consequences today. 

Note – In this talk, Dr. Jarrett will use historical terminology found in records 1750-1900, that some people may find offensive. 


About the speaker: Simon Jarrett is the author of ‘Those they called idiots – the idea of the disabled mind from 1700 to the present day’ (Reaktion Books 2020). His latest book ‘A History of Disability in England from the medieval period to the present day’ will be published shortly by Liverpool University Press.

He is an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London and in the past worked on projects supporting people with learning disabilities and autistic people.

His current work includes advising museums on the presentation of disability history in their collections

Press enter to see more results