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A CENTURY OF CARING: The St Margaret’s Hospital Story

Part Two: The truth about Great Barr Park Colony
by Peter Allen

This second of three articles celebrating a Century of Caring on the Great Barr Hall Estate focuses on the widely-misunderstood colony years. But first, some historical background material.

Towards the close of the nineteenth century, a number of factors led to a growing interest in the affairs of the learning disabled, then called mental defectives. The Education Act (1870) brought in compulsory education for all children. Soon, dull and backward children were becoming an inescapable educational problem. At the same time, new "knowledge" of heredity, coupled to the eugenics movement associated with Francis Galton, gave rise to acute and, with hindsight, exaggerated fears of racial degeneration. Concern centred on the "frightening fertility of the feeble-minded", a class of mental defectives not so severely impaired as idiots and imbeciles, but numerically greater and requiring "care, supervision, and control for their own protection or the protection of others".

In the wake of this hysteria, a Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded was appointed in 1904. It found nearly 150,000 mental defectives who were not certified under the existing lunacy laws. Of these, just over a third were under Poor Law supervision in workhouses, cheek-by-jowl with the destitute but normal poor. Another third were receiving no care or supervision at all. The remainder were either children at school or inmates in prisons, inebriate reformatories and similar institutions.

The epochal Mental Deficiency Act (1913) was spawned by this Royal Commission. It outlined the circumstances which rendered defectives "subject to be dealt with" and prescribed a form of procedure for their committal to institutions or, rarely, care under guardianship. Local authorities were to provide these institutions, in the form of farm and industrial colonies, in order to train and employ mental defectives away from society. They were also required to ‘ascertain’, certify and detain mental defectives in their area.

In many cases local authorities used a loophole in the Act to delegate their responsibilities back to Poor Law Guardians, a particularly retrograde step which went against the spirit of the new legislation.

Terms such as 'mental defective', 'idiot', 'imbecile' and 'feeble-minded', now used wholly in a pejorative sense, were legally defined in the Act. Doctors were left largely to their own judgment as to what constituted a diagnosis of mental defectiveness. Lack of training, prejudice, imprecise criteria, and the absence of standardised psychometric testing led to a climate of arbitrariness. In fairness, most doctors tried their best under difficult circumstances.

The process of institutionalisation required that a person should first have been diagnosed as "mentally defective". Only then could they become "subject to be dealt with" by virtue of a number of 'triggers' including being found neglected, abandoned, or without visible means of support; guilty of a criminal offence; undergoing imprisonment or detention; an habitual drunkard; ineducable; or in receipt of poor relief at the time of giving birth to an illegitimate child or when pregnant of such a child.

A petition for an Order to place a defective in an institution required medical certificates from two qualified medical practitioners, one of whom was approved for this purpose by the Board of Control. There were severe penalties for supplying incorrect information. Stories of people being "put away" solely at the whim of a parent or magistrate are apocryphal.

Walsall and West Bromwich Guardians drew up plans for the large number of mental defectives and epileptics in their charge soon after setting up the children’s home described in the last article.

The Local Government Board initially approved four homes for 225 patients (45 men, 40 women, 70 boys, 70 girls) in 1913. The First World War delayed progress and the first two homes, for men and boys (Prince Edward Home and Wells Home), were not ready for occupation until the first week in 1918. Lavender and James Home, for women and girls, remained unfinished until well into 1921.

The rigorous application of the provisions of the Mental Deficiency Act, led to an additional 342 beds and ancillary buildings being built in the late 1920s. Contracts to take mental defectives from other areas helped to defray the considerable costs of the Great Barr Scheme.

The new homes were ranged around the original four villas in a pleasing horse-shoe shape, which is retained in the present-day Bovis Homes development. [Incidentally, Great Barr Hall was once known as the Netherhouse, to distinguish it from nearby Old Hall, but was NEVER known as Nether Hall!]

The sexes were strictly segregated—females occupied the left flank, males the right. Male attendants entering female homes faced instant dismissal.

This 'training colony' for the 'feeble-minded', a classification reserved for the most able mental defectives, was nearly self-sufficient. The men and boys were engaged in shoemaking, tailoring, bricklaying, painting, agriculture and horticulture. The women and girls were engaged in the laundry, kitchens, sewing room or in domestic work.

Within their individual capabilities, all the colonists were more or less gainfully employed. Whenever possible, those of less ability, the so-called 'low-grade unimproveable types', were deliberately excluded from the colony.

If you wish to know more about the mental deficiency era, particularly with regard to Great Barr Park Colony, you should read my extended chapter in Learning Disability Nursing Practice (Quay Books, 2009). Contact me at with queries and comments.

The third article commemorates the pioneering role of St Margaret's Hospital...

This article is Copyright Peter Allen, Chair of Barr and Aston Local History Society

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