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Children and young people with learning difficulties in mid-nineteenth century Britain

David S Stewart OBE D.Litt.h.c. Shepherd School, Nottingham

Help him, in his darkened walk through this sad world, or he is doomed, and my poor heart is broken.

Dickens - Barnaby Rudge

Charles Dickens, a keen advocate of education for children with learning disabilities, gives these words to Mrs Rudge, mother of a young man with learning disabilities.

But Barnaby Rudge was a fictional character - the story was first serialised in 1841. Yet what of the actual children and young people of this period? This study takes a sample of small number of young people I have been able to identify as being amongst the first children to attend the Institution for Idiot and Imbecile Children, which had opened in Bath in 1846.

I have previously discussed the history of the sisters who set up the school and more recently their co-workers. The challenge then has been to found out more about the children and their families. Few records survive. Certainly no registers or case notes.

However there are of course children recorded on the 1851 census and using this valuable initial source, the author has been able to track the subsequent lives of the young people and their families. Indeed research has revealed family pictures, wills and letters. Children came from England, Scotland and Wales and from a wide variety of backgrounds. Orphans from workhouses or children from landed families. Their subsequent lives and those of their families have been traced, revealing a range of outcomes from living on with parents and other family members, being sent to the workhouse and asylums. The research has tried to build this list of names into real children from real families. They have given real names to the anonymous initials only case studies. We are able to see what help was given in the 'darkened walk through this saddened world'.

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About the Group

If you woud like to get in touch with the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group, please contact:

Liz Tilley 
Chair of the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group
School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care
Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
MK7 6AA

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