Visiting Earlswood
The asylum travelogue and the shaping of ‘idiocy’
in Intellectual disability
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In the 1850s, visitors to the Earlswood Asylum, also known as the National Asylum for Idiots, in Reigate, Surrey, wrote about their experiences for publication. Frequently, these reports were presented as forms of travel writing, with the narrator recounting the customs of the asylum natives. The middle-class, sane and (one assumes) intelligent target audiences lived far beyond the asylums, in terms of identity if not geography. The asylum inhabitants, meanwhile, are resolutely ‘other’, subjected to the visitors’ inquisitive, evaluative gaze. This chapter draws on primary documents including works by Charles Dickens and asylum propagandists such as Joseph Parkinson, Cheyne Brady and the Reverend Edwin Sidney, as well as numerous anonymous pieces, to explore how these asylum travelogues, through their own representations of ‘idiocy’, helped shape ideas of idiocy and inform social policy that affected the lives of people identified as ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ in the 1850s, 1860s and after.

Intellectual disability

A conceptual history 1200–1900

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