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Yes, you have to be rich to be mad here.

It's doubtful whether any part of the English language has changed as much as our vocabulary for dealing with mental illness. Whatever you may think of political correctness, it's unlikely that you would make use of the terminology that the Victorians em ployed.

In fact it's shocking just how much of their pseudo-medical vocabulary has been shifted sideways into the wordlist entitled "abuse".

Take "Dr Guggenbuhl's Institution for Cretins", for example. Hard to imagine that this German hospital accommodated anyone other than football fans who had overdosed on lager. Or "The Royal Albert Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles" in Lancaster. Surely no more than a safe haven for destroyers of bus-shelters, who wear their baseball caps backwards?

Sadly, yes. The 19th century science of the mind was very specific in its allocation of different terms for different mental conditions. The decennial census forms, for instance, had a column set aside for individuals considered by the head of the househ old to be "lunatic", "imbecile" or "idiot". The words weren't meant to be interchangeable but the differences between them were less than scientifically held. Even the notes for enumerators in 1881 accepted that "no accurate line of demarkation can be dr awn between these terms".

In theory, though, "idiot" was used to describe someone whose mental condition was congenital and "imbecile" to one who had later fallen into such a state. "Lunatic", it seemed, could be a bit of both. Only when "idiot" was replaced by the term "feeble-m inded" in the 1901 census forms were many families willing to enter members in that column.

All this is leading to perhaps the most oddly-entitled institution in the whole of the Midlands. Founded in 1868 and based in Knowle, it was called the "Midland Counties Asylum for Middle-Class Idiots".

However strange, misjudged or downright offensive we might find Victorian attitudes to mental illness, the idea of erecting class barriers within it is almost disarmingly comic. A fund-raising pamphlet of 1871, entitled A Few Words on Idiots and Their Fr iends, explains the ethos behind the institution. A County Lunatic Asylum for Warwickshire had recently been opened for the accommodation of pauper lunatics previously looked after in the county's workhouses.

However, until that asylum is filled with pauper idiots, it is proposed, at certain fixed payments, to take idiots of the higher and middle classes. But this seems only a temporary arrangement, and certainly defective, for it is on the one hand most unde sirable to mix the welrought up of the middle and upper classes with badly brought-up paupers and exceedingly objectionable to mix up idiots even very remotely with lunatics.

Therefore the Asylum for Middle-Class Idiots would provide, for around pounds 50 a year, suitably superior accommodation and treatment for those whose affliction was of a classier kind. It would have its work cut out, for estimates suggested that there w ere around 2,000 pauper idiots in the Midlands and that idiocy "prevails in greater proportions in the classes above pauperism". It would be interesting to know why.

The goals of the asylum were sadly limited. There was no talk of "cure" or "integration"; only of "education" and "separation". For it was said that the idiot was more susceptible to "temptation" and more prone to "sin" than his or her able-minded counte rpart. All that could be offered was training and education in a clean and disciplined institution. Care in the community was the last thing that was needed.

Thus for the unfortunate members of the middle-classes, given sufficient sponsorship, all paths led to Knowle Grove. One wonders whether the sign over the door read, "You don't have to be rich to be mad here, but it helps!"
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 12, 1998
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