“Space, Mapping and Disability in 19th- and 20th-Century England and Wales”

Steven King and Kevin Schürer

(University of Leicester)

 “Space, Mapping and Disability in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century England and Wales”


Paper presented to the conference:

"Mapping Humans: From Body to Cosmos"

13-15 September 2011, Oxford


Third Annual Conference of the Berendel Foundation, in association with the University of Leicester and the Cantemir Institute at the University of Oxford


Summary: In 1824, the chair of the committee of ratepayers (the vestry) for the town of Warrington lamented the fact that the town was obliged to look after so many people with what we would now recognise as disabilities or impairments. Some of those against whom he directed his ire were ‘cripples’, ‘idiots’ and (an unusual word in the north of England at this time) ‘defectives’. Others were disabled by accidents, infectious diseases, or had been propelled into insanity by drugs, alcohol, economic misfortune or depression. Many of this group were also aged, though Thomas Evans, the chair of the vestry, did not criticise the elderly directly. Reflecting on the ‘extraordinary costs’ of this group on the parish resources he concluded that the town ‘must be rid of these waste people’. To achieve this he advocated a strict enforcement of the settlement system (which in effect allowed the town to pass on their disabled poor to other places if they could prove they ‘belonged’ there), commissioning places in specialist institutions or (his preferred option) forcing relatives to provide more care for their disabled kin. Further lamenting the persistent failure of his predecessors to enforce the law in relation to familial care – broadly that parents must care for children and vice versa – he noted ‘had such been done their families might themselves have moved on the waste’. To those with any knowledge of the poor law this sort of attitude will be familiar. From 1834, it would be equally unsurprising to those who have read Anne Borsay’s Disability and Social Policy, to find that industrial towns such as Warrington confined a large number of the impaired poor in workhouses and other institutions of confinement from which they appear to have found it extraordinarily difficult to extricate themselves notwithstanding their absolute right in theory to leave.

We might, however, see a balancing side to this story. Also in 1824, the Northants town of Thrapston was experiencing an industrial renaissance based upon shoemaking. In percentage terms it was growing as fast as much larger places such as Preston, with consequent strains on the rates. Impairments of various stripes were as common here as in Warrington. Visual impairments and those related to bone curvature, back problems and arthritis were particularly acute given the shoemaking trades. In this town, however, the vestry were more sanguine about these groups. A vestry memorandum of June 1824, for instance, noted that ‘The Committee resolved that a rate be raised to send the poor hereunder recorded [11 names] to Dr Thomas Summerson [the famed London eye doctor] that their suffering of sight might be relieved’. In December 1824, a particularly poor winter, the overseer was charged to ensure that ‘our poor brethren labouring under defect of sight or hearing or being low in their spirits or labouring under a deformity of the bones’ were adequately catered for in terms of fuel, house repairs and allowances.


Short Bios:

Steven King is Director of the Centre for Medical Humanities at the University of Leicester and Professor of Economic History. He has worked widely on histories of health, welfare and demography and is just completing a study for Continuum Press on the sick poor in England 1750-1834. Recent publications include: S.A.King, ‘Demographische Vergangenheit, demographische Zukunft: Wolfhart, politik und Bevölkerung in England, 1750-2000’, in T. Sokoll (ed), Soziale Sicherungsssyeteme und demographische Wechsellagen: Historisch-vergleichende Perspektiven (1500-2000), (Münster, 2011), 133-68; A.Gestrich, E. Hurren and S. A. King (eds.), Poverty and Sickness in Modern Europe: Narratives of the Sick Poor, 1780-1938 (London, 2012); and S. A. King and M. Shephard, ‘Courtship and the remarrying man in late-Victorian England’, Journal of Family History, 52 (2012), 1-22.

Kevin Schürer is Professor of English Local History and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at the University of Leicester. A former member of the Cambridge Group for the Study of Population and Social Structure and Director of the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex, he has published widely on issues such as migration, family structure and historical demography. In 2009 Kevin Schürer received a major award from the ESRC to create a standardized and harmonized version of the censuses for Great Britain from 1851 to 1911 (the IceM project), working with a commercial partner to create one of the largest historical data resources in the world. His publications include Surveying the people (1992), The use of occupations in historical analysis (1992), A guide to historical data files in machine-readable form (1992); Victorian communities in census enumerator’s books (1996), and Changing family size in England and Wales. Place, class and demography, 1891-1911 (2001) as well as a number of chapter and journal articles.


[Recorded and edited by Simon Wilson]



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