Joanna Moncrieff: wrong time wrong place

Psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff recently published an article  (“What can we learn from the asylum? Historical study of the Essex County Asylum reflects the perennial functions of the mental health system”) on her blog about admissions to the Essex County Asylum (Warley Hospital) in 1904.

One point that the author makes is that the “idea that asylums acted as places to incarcerate unmarried mothers and social deviants is not borne out by this or other asylum studies.”

Quite apart from the fact that a series of 100 consecutive female admissions would not be enough to pick up on less common reasons for admissions, the study is looking for unmarried mothers at the wrong time and in the wrong place. If you want to find women incarcerated for having had illegitimate children, then you need to look at institutions which operated under the Mental Deficiency Act 1913. This act contained a clause relating specifically to women who were “in receipt of poor relief at the time of giving birth to an illegitimate child or when pregnant of such child.” This qualified them to be dealt with under the Act “by being sent to or placed in an institution for defectives…” There was an additional requirement for the woman concerned to be “a defective” but the definition of deficiency for the purposes of the act included people who required “care, supervision, and control for their own protection or for the protection of others…”, a definition so broad that it would not have been difficult to apply to any unmarried mother in the workhouse if the authorities so wished.

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