Disability from 1660-1832

This section looks at the important shifts in the understanding of disability that took place in the 'long 18th century', from the restoration of Charles II to the Great Reform Act of 1832.

The York Retreat, from Digby's study of the York Retreat. 1796-1914.

The York Retreat, from Digby's study of the York Retreat. 1796-1914.
© English Heritage

New Ideas

New explanations were now challenging the idea that God or astrology caused madness and disability. Madness was no longer seen as possession of the soul. It was the loss of reason, and this could be restored with the right treatment. A disabled person had suffered a misfortune, not been sent a divine message, and they deserved charity.

The Hospital for Lunatics. Bethlem Hospital, London: the incurables being inspected by a member of the medical staff, with the patients represented by political figures. Drawing by Thomas Rowlandson, 1789.

The Hospital for Lunatics. Bethlem Hospital, London: the incurables being inspected by a member of the medical staff, with the patients represented by political figures. Drawing by Thomas Rowlandson, 1789.
© Wellcome Library, London

An Individual Duty

Support for people with disabilities was mostly an individual's Christian and civic duty, not the state's. The parish might give you poor relief, but only if you were destitute as well as disabled. As a disabled person in society, your life was often harsh and brutal, like everyone else's.

The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam] at Moorfields, London: seen from the north, with people in the foreground. Coloured engraving, c. 1771 after Robert Hooke.

The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam] at Moorfields, London: seen from the north, with people in the foreground. Coloured engraving, c. 1771 after Robert Hooke.
© Wellcome Library, London

Grand New Hospitals

London was a rapidly expanding global city at the centre of important social and cultural changes. The city wanted to show off its wealth and power. After the Great Fire of 1666, rich traders and merchants established a massive building programme that included grand new hospitals.

The Royal BethlehemAsylum was the first hospital to benefit and it moved to a commanding new building in Moorgate. Soon after, the Royal Chelsea and Greenwich hospitals for disabled soldiers and sailors were built.

Aerial view of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, from 1928.

Aerial view of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, from 1928.
© Britain from Above collection, English Heritage

Gentle Institutions

As a reaction against these 'brash displays of wealth', a voluntary asylum movement sprang up. It was based on a belief that the disabled and the mentally ill could thrive in healthy, clean institutions. Quakers in York created the York Retreat, their own modest, gentle, asylum regime.

Profit and Progress

Meanwhile, a unique English institution emerged - the private madhouse. These were ordinary houses that catered mainly for the mentally distressed of 'the better sort'. At the end of the century, the charity school movement for the education of poor children led to the founding of the first specialist schools for 'deaf and dumb' and blind children. These were based on a belief in civic order and progress.

Living with disability in 18th century England

Disabled people generally lived in their own homes and communities. They would marry and support themselves if they could, and receive help from the better-off if they could not.

There were disabled people at all levels of society, from beggars to distinguished deaf portrait artists. 'Peter the Wild Boy' was found naked in the forests of Hanover and taken to the court of George I at St James where he caused a sensation, at least for a year.

In a population of around nine million people at the end of the 18th century, probably fewer than 10,000 lived in an institution. However, the idea was growing that an institution was the 'right place' for people who are 'different' and new specialist buildings were in place. Life for many people with disabilities was about to become very different indeed.

Watch the next BSL video on The Rise of the Hospital for Disabled People

British Sign Language

icon_deaf  Watch the BSL video