Specialist interventions, family strategies and the lives of London’s disabled children, 1880-1918

Rachel O’Driscoll is a DPhil candidate in the Department for Continuing Education and at Kellogg College, University of Oxford.  Her fields of interest include the history of disability, education, welfare and childhood in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain.  A policy professional, who has worked as a civil servant and for professional, educational and faith bodies, her research is in part motivated by a conviction that historical research can make a valuable contribution to contemporary policy discussions.  Her intertwined identities as a mother, carer and researcher inform her doctoral studies.

Despite the fact that institutionalisation has always been a minority experience for disabled people, it has dominated disability history.[1]  By uncovering the individual life-experiences of some of the many disabled children living within working class families in London in the late Victorian and Edwardian period, my research aims to address this imbalance.  Moreover, drawing on personal experience of the importance of family support for a disabled child, my work seeks to illuminate the role of family members.  Through researching the lives of disabled children and assessing the role played by family in those lives, I am examining how people engaged with state and voluntary providers during a period of rapid, and pioneering, development of specialist and tailored interventions.  I am also attentive to the way in which family filled gaps in provision – driven by necessity, but also demonstrating love and care for their disabled family member.

Decentring institutional histories presents challenges.  There is a need to think imaginatively about sources, both in identifying those that might allow one to expose the experiences of the disabled child living with family or in community settings, and in combining sources to maximise fleeting archival sightings.  Much of my work in the early years of my doctorate has concentrated on the remaining, very sparse, records for London County Council’s (LCC) scholarship scheme for ‘blind, deaf and crippled’ children.  An absence of policy and case records necessitated an initial focus on portions of the LCC’s Education Committee minutes recording policy decisions and details of scholarship awards.  Although access to underlying sub-committee papers eventually yielded paperwork provided to a couple of panels selecting scholars (which included teachers’ testimonials), the need for a different methodology which could provide greater insights was clear.

Part of my approach has therefore been to borrow from the life-course approach, which has most frequently been used by historians of crime.[2]  Capitalising on the digitisation of records, including the census, vital records, poor law collections and newspapers, has, thus far, allowed me to trace the lives of 96 disabled children and their families.  By combining small fragments culled from a wide body of digital and archival sources and contextualising these facts, my hope is that I will be able to expose sufficient details to bring my subjects to the readers’ mind’s eye.  Choosing to hold both digital and archival detail on private trees in Ancestry, with an indication that I am willing to share access, has had unexpected benefits.  Access requests from family historians have yielded treasured stories and photographs.  A family member’s provision of an un-digitised newspaper article provided insights into the degree to which the limited training options on offer to blind scholar, George Bartingale, were constrained and failed to reflect his inclinations. Trained, and employed, as a piano tuner, George’s un-realised childhood-ambition of becoming a naturalist led him to amass an impressive cacti collection, which was described in 1963 as ‘one of the best in South-East England’.[3]  George’s curiosity, capability and expertise were writ large in an article he wrote in 1934 for The Cactus Journal.  Despite this, societal preconceptions about the capacities of disabled people weighed heavy, to the extent that he felt the need to emphasise: 'I am quite able to manage my plants without the assistance of other people.'[4]


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Lady Campbell, ‘Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind, A Sketch of its History, Organization and Work’, Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 7(1) (1913), p. 38.[5]


The ark of my thesis is substantially designed to reflect successive stages in life; chapters will therefore examine elementary education, vocational training and entry into employment, as well as marriage and associational life. These chapters will be bookended by others which are not tied to life stage.  The aim of my first chapter will be to examine the significance of poor law provision, particularly in the decade before the growth of specialist interventions.  I will conclude with a chapter which builds on the family-related findings encountered throughout my thesis, passing over the threshold to look more closely at the disabled child and working-class family dynamics.  Locating appropriate source material presents challenges but I am placing my trust in the benefits of using a multiplicity of sources, reading official documents against the grain, life-tracing and accessing the limited number of relevant autobiographies held by the Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiographies.

If these challenges were not sufficient, my expansive approach to disability gathers in congenital and childhood acquired disability and conceives of disability as including delicacy as well as more specific categories arising from educational classification.  To manage this range, I am focusing on a different disability in each chapter, using other categories for comparison.  My chapter on vocational training, for example, foregrounds blindness and, in particular, blind girls.  While this reflects the fact that the LCC saw blind scholars as the most problematic category of scholarship holder, my treatment has also been guided by source material.  The availability of evidence provided to the 1917 Departmental Committee on the Welfare of the Blind has been particularly valuable in allowing insights into the relative importance within the LCC of eugenic thought and political and financial considerations, which, in turn, has led me to other valuable source material.

New challenges lie ahead as I move on to develop my chapter on elementary education.  Here I hope to examine family strategies by using the logbooks and other records produced by a special day school for mentally defective children.  Given my personal circumstances, I will be approaching this chapter with a degree of trepidation.  While the likelihood of encountering distressing content and terminology is high, I recognise that I am collecting important evidence.  It is perhaps natural that, with my background in policy development, I am thinking what can I do beyond the production of a thesis?  With my focus on disability outside institutional care, I would like to think that, in an environment where benefits and services are increasingly threatened, my findings could eventually contribute to important contemporary debates about disability, exclusion, and care and the place of family support.


[1] Notable exceptions include: L. Delap, ‘Slow Workers: Labelling and Labouring in Britain, c. 1909-1955’, Social History of Medicine, advance online publication (2023), pp. 1–23; D. M. Turner & D. Blackie, Disability in the industrial revolution: physical impairment in British coalmining, 1780-1880 (Manchester, 2018).

[2] B. Godfrey, P. Cox, H. Shore & Z. Alker, Young Criminal Lives: Life Courses and Life Chances From 1850 (Oxford, 2018).

[3] ‘Blind but has zest for life’, unidentified newspaper article (1963) [provided by family member, via Ancestry].

[4] G. W. Bartingale, ‘What I See in Cacti and Other Succulent Plants’, The Cactus Journal, 3: 1 (September 1934), pp. 13-16.

[5] Via the provision of an LCC scholarship, George Bartingale studied at the College between 1915-1918.  On the completion of his studies, he was awarded the Philip Layton tuning prize for excellence in tuning and repairing.  He immediately secured a position with a Bromley-based pianoforte-maker and dealer, only leaving to set up his own piano tuning business when there was a severe down-turn in the British piano industry during the 1930s.