Feature: Mental Illness and Childhood Migration: The Bright or Dark Side of Victorian Philanthropy?

Steven J. Taylor is a PhD researcher in the Centre for Medical Humanities at the University of Leicester.  He discusses the challenges of locating —and interpreting— mental illness in charity archives and of assessing the ethics of philanthropic emigration schemes.   

My current research interests sit at the intersection of three important historical topics: childhood, insanity, and philanthropy.  Recently I have attempted to weave these broad themes together in my investigation of a charity that operated from the north west of England during the late nineteenth century.  I am particularly interested in young charity emigrants who had mental illnesses. These youngsters were few in number, but their narratives shed new light on the nature of charitable endeavours for children with mental disabilities between 1870 to 1910.

At the outset it is perhaps wise to comment on medical nomenclature.  ‘Lunacy’ and ‘insanity’ were often catch-all terms for  —as we would refer to them today— a range of mental illnesses and learning disabilities.  Mental illness or lunacy was usually considered to be a temporary condition that an individual acquired and would typically recover from.  Nineteenth-century diagnoses of lunacy included ‘mania’ and ‘melancholy’.  On the other hand, mental disability was apparent from birth or infancy and was believed to be permanent.  Mental disabilities came under the medical terms  of ‘idiocy’ and ‘imbecility’, diagnoses that have altered meanings in modern vocabulary.  The majority of children that I encounter in my research were diagnosed as mentally disabled.

I first came across the records of the Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuge in the summer of 2012 when I was exploring alternative spaces that catered for insane children.  The charity’s archival material has been well maintained and its detail instantly piqued my interest in the philanthropic efforts of the Refuge.  I didn’t expect to find much about mental illness within the archive but the personal narratives that it revealed were compelling.  The charity, relatively overlooked by historians, spread across Manchester and included homes and shelters for vulnerable, abandoned, and orphaned children.  What really sparked my curiosity was the role that the Refuge played in the emigration of pauper children to Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries.  I knew of similar emigration programmes in other cities, but had not heard of one operating in Manchester.

Child emigration met a number of middle-class philanthropic goals.  Firstly, the children were settled with stable farming families in rural Canada where they were exposed to the benefits of domesticity. Secondly, they were made productive through employment on farms and consequently taught the value of their work.  Thirdly, they were considered to be settling the empire.  Finally, they got a new start in life, away from the dirt and vice of the industrial city.

Of course, the expectations of the reformers were overly optimistic and many of the children were beaten (some even killed), worked too hard, treated as outsiders in their foster families or exhibited some of the vices that were considered so detrimental to the British city.  These experiences have been documented elsewhere but they are important in setting the scene.  I was more interested in the mentally ill child and hopefully asked a question of the archival material: were children who were mentally “inferior” ever emigrated?  Of course, the records screamed back at me, in the stern reformist voice of Victorian philanthropy, that children needed to be in good health and have obtained a medical certificate attesting to such condition before they could embark on a voyage to Canada.  Alas, it seemed as if I had reached another dead-end attempting to discover unconventional spaces where child insanity was managed.

Perhaps a little selfishly, the apparent good physical and mental health of these children had left me a little downbeat.  To me it seemed as if emigration would have been an ideal way to rid the charitable homes of problem, awkward, or medically expensive children.  Maybe I had just formed an unnecessarily negative opinion of Victorian charity?  Then I came across a range of scholarship from Canada that suggested children emigrated from England were tainted by their ‘heredity’.  Cautious about such eugenics language, I continued my search of the child case files in Manchester to see if I could identify “taints”.  After a huge amount of trawling through the extant records I unearthed a handful of children described as insane in the individual annual reports sent back from Canada.  These children were said to be ‘epileptic’, ‘feeble-minded’, ‘imbecilic’ and some were eventually confined in Canadian lunatic asylums.  All were said to be congenital cases and had been emigrated despite their medical condition.

Somewhat frustratingly (to me at least), the mental inferiority of the children was only revealed when they were situated in families in Canada.  This letter sent from the distributing home in Canada demonstrates how authorities in England learned of the mental illness of one of their emigrants:

Edith A. was returned to the home because of her strange behaviour, she was becoming mentally unbalanced, had interrupted the minister in the service for one thing. She came here on Tuesday July 31st, was rational at times but gradually got worse requiring close attention all the time, for a night no one could sleep on that side of the house for her continual singing or knocking. We tried to coax her in every way as she thought herself quite a baby. At last we called in medical advice and she was examined by our own kind friend Dr Gibson and also by Dr McCall. Both gentlemen advised removing her to Rockwood Hospital for the Insane. They did their best to press the officials to take her in at once without the usual papers being signed, and they agreed yesterday. Miss Ramsey and I took her there. The superintendent thought she ought to have been sent to another hospital and so await further developments. In the meantime the doctor has to answer fifty odd questions that are asked. There is one question that may crop up, and that is who will pay for her there. She is under 18 and has been out three years.1

Of course, the Refuge would never have been able to justify the removal of the children if they had identified them as mentally disabled in Manchester.  When thinking of reasons for removing them I am left pondering two possible conclusions. Firstly, the Refuge, quite proudly at times, stated that the cost of emigrating a child was £10, but maintaining them in the city was an expense of £15 (for a healthy child) a year.  Children with mental disabilities were likely to be a burden on charity and ratepayers for a considerable amount of time, maybe even the rest of their lives. Their removal to Canada made good economic sense; it shifted a considerable expense to a faraway land for a reasonable one-off fee.

The second is more optimistic. The purpose of emigration for Victorian philanthropy, at least at a rhetorical level, was to provide a better life in a new land for those that were never going to be successful in the urban and industrial city. The open spaces of the countryside were considered therapeutic for those suffering from mental impairments and contemporary alienists thought that the agricultural classes were mostly exempt from insanity. Consequently, emigration was in the best interests of these children and Victorian charity provided them with a better life.

The binary nature of these conclusions bothers me, a lot! It is apparent that mentally disabled children were emigrated to Canada. The question is about the nature of Victorian philanthropy and whether the children were sent to improve their lives or the balance sheets of the charity? In the end I suppose the conclusions come down to personal interpretation and whether these youngsters were representative of the bright or dark side of Victorian charity.

For more information see Steven J. Taylor, ‘Insanity, Philanthropy and Emigration: Dealing with Insane Children in Late-Nineteenth-Century North-West England’, History of Psychiatry 25, no. 2 (2014): 224-236.

1.  Greater Manchester County Record Office, Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuge, Emigration Files, M189/7/2/5/048-54, 7 August, 1913.
This entry was posted in Features, Steven J. Taylor, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Feature: Mental Illness and Childhood Migration: The Bright or Dark Side of Victorian Philanthropy?

  1. Annmarie Valdes says:

    I find lines of inquiry that look at larger social initiatives, in this case ways of looking at how Victorian philanthropy impacted the lives of English children deemed unsuitable to live and learn in normative spaces like a home or school, as important research that also opens up new lines of inquiry about the metrics of childhood. In this case, what sparks my curiosity is what to do with concepts like “normative growth” or “functional maturity” when looking at archival accounts of children deemed the opposite of “normal”. In particular because a determination of normal, or, as Mr. Taylor notes, a counter determination such as mental illness, allowed for different levels of socially and politically sanctioned intervention for children. Simply put, this post led me to more deeply ponder the lengths institutions within societies (and in particular Westernized societies) endeavor to “help” children who are deemed “normal” or “ill”. Alongside this pondering, I also am thinking more deeply about what role does an understanding of (or lack of understanding of) functional maturity play in different environments that children occupied during the late 19th early 20th century–such as school, home, factory, farm, asylum and as Mr. Taylor demonstrates, spaces of childhood also included geographical resettlement as a result of emigration practices (due in part from a diagnosis of abnormality). Here Mr. Taylor introduces a critical consideration–both in the physical spaces the children under his examination occupied and for the historian who is thinking about the spaces children occupied as they grew into adulthood. When historians consider childhood do we ask ourselves: were these children being moved during their childhood? (sometimes the documents tells us this, but do we ask it?) Into which spaces were children being moved into and why? And did reasons for geographical or institutional resettlement of children stem from the application of developmental paradigms that privileged children who met physical and psychological targets that were constructed by members of the educated elite in Westernized societies, e.g., Johann Georg Bergmuller, James Tanner, G.Stanley Hall (just to jot down a few leading up to this time frame and during). Perhaps what I really am asking is: what are the social consequences of measurements that consider age and expected capability? And how do we tell these stories? In particular for children who often have little say in these determinations. This, I think, is definitely something for historians of childhood to contemplate–both during research and when you are in front of your own children or students (who may be experiencing what are now called by experts stages from early-to-late infancy, early-to-late childhood, early-to-late adolescence and emerging adulthood 25+). The shifting temporalities of age, environmental spaces and the constructed social paradigms that affected children will prove to be an exciting challenge to tackle intellectually. Especially since it is the historian who is often telling the story of the child.

Comments are closed.