Shhh Family Secrets

A friend of mine is hosted a conference at LJMU next month called Rethinking the Institution in the Long Nineteenth Century, it has several fantastic papers including fallen women and how they were institutionalised, trying to find solace in an institution, Sailor homes, mental health care and prison history. There are also excellent keynote speakers including Dr Helen Rogers, Dr Jane Hamlett and Professor Deborah Cohen who penned to brilliant Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day will be hosting a reading group on her chapter ‘Children who Disappeared’. Needless to say, I am excited!

I was recommended the book a couple of months ago and unfortunately it has stayed on my bookshelf since March. However, knowing that she would be coming I thought it only appropriate to indulge!


I can honestly say that I never get emotional about books – I have a cry at a film but never a book. However, ‘Children who Disappeared’ really made me feel for the children who had been institutionalised and left. Many children had been abandoned by their parents, never to be seen again. Some did visit their children and bring them home but largely children were left.

The research surrounding this chapter was based as Normansfield Hospital in Middlesex. John Langdon Down founded the hospital in 1868, he also founded some of the characteristics of Down’s Syndrome and was subsequently named after him. The hospital went into rack and ruin in the 1970s which sparked a walkout of nurses who left 200 mentally ill children on their own.  The hospital closed in 1997 and now remains a Museum and HQ for Down’s Syndrome Association.


normansfield 76
Normansfield Hospital c.1976


Cohen does a fine job of weaving together several microhistories and creating a bigger picture of the institution and how individuals survived and parents resorted to helping themselves.

What shocked and interested me the most was the fact that the Victorians were more likely to allow their child who had a mental or physical disability to remain as part of the community. The children would not be shunned away or kept quiet they would be known in their local community, they would come home for holidays away from the institution. However, from the 1920s-1960s there was huge stigma against disabilities and children would be left at hospitals or taken from their homes to be institutionalised if the were not showing signs of ‘normality’,

Typical was the story of Thomas Palmer. An only child, he was injured by instruments in a difficult birth and took two house to resuscitate; he did not cry until he was ten days old. His doctors declared him seriously damaged; his parents never took him home. pg. 97.

I was reading this and couldn’t help but think that of course the child was damaged he was physically maimed during birth and then resuscitated for 2 hours – the child was not meant to be alive and this resulted in him having multiple seizures and his parents abandoning him. If you were not the perfectly formed boy or girl, did not act appropriately and engage with things you were meant to, you would put siblings in danger of not having a husband or wife as people were scared of hereditary diseases. This was typical of middle class families.

Working class families on the other hand were more likely to keep their children hidden at home.

…Working class families were, it appears, les eager to resort to institutions than their social betters. Working-class fathers, in particular, seem to have viewed both mental disability and institutionalisation as a personal disgrace. Suspicious of authorities, they were often unwilling to surrender control of their children. They, too, hid children, only at home. pg. 105.

I was initially thinking that this is great, children were being kept with their families and still remaining as part of the family in general. However, the key word was ‘hid’. These children were being kept away from the community in the Edwardian period, likewise, they were not given any support for their development and essentially were left in the house. The problem I have with this is, there was no BALANCE. Ultimately balance was key. Any child with a physical disability or mental health illness or mental disability need to have medical support as well as familial support. At times medical out ways the need for familial but there still needs to be a connection to home. Many of the institutionalised children did not have this support.

This was a fantastic read, although I have only focussed on one chapter. Cohen expertly crafted stories together to give them purpose and to bring attention to issues that had been hushed and ignored previously.

Screenshot 2017-06-12 10.54.58

Rethinking the Institution in the Long Nineteenth Century is being held at Liverpool John Moores University in the John Foster Building on Thursday 13th July and Friday 14th July. 

Cohen, D. Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day, (London: Viking Press LTD, 2013).




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