Days Gone By - When ‘idiot’ was a medical term commonly used in Ipswich

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre, next to the Post Office on the right, were replaced in 1928 with the building which is there today.

Attitudes have changed beyond recognition since a survey of Ipswich was published in 1924 by the Ipswich Local Committee on Christian Politics, Economics and Citizenship, which came to light recently, writes David Kindred.

The report suggests that the increasing use of buses from Suffolk villages was bringing problems to

The report suggests that the increasing use of buses from Suffolk villages was bringing problems to Ipswich. This Eastern Counties bus was on the Old Cattle Market around 1930

Those who served on the committee included senior members of the church, local industry and the headteacher of Ipswich School.

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre, next to the Post Office on the right, were replaced in 1928 with the building which is there today.

Under a section headed “Defectives” a report written by the Ipswich Medical Officer of Health “Lays stress on the gravity of the problem of mentally deficient children”

This chart was published in the 1924 report under the section 'Defectives'

This chart was published in the 1924 report under the section 'Defectives'

The report shows absolutely no compassion for the less able and only saw them as a burden on the town.

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre, next to the Post Office on the right, were replaced in 1928 with the building which is there today.

In this week’s Days Gone By I have used extracts from the report, which, if written today, would cause national outrage.

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre, next to the Post Office on the right, were replaced in 1928 with the building which is there today.


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In his report on Medical Inspection of Elementary Schools for 1922 the Ipswich Medical Officer of Health for the town said, in words that sound like they were written a century earlier in even less enlightened times: “The feeble- minded male is the eternal nucleus of the unemployable. He has no trade and cannot be taught one. He has no place in the labour market. He forms the bulk of the hopeless class, who are known to the law as incorrigible rogues and vagabonds. The result is that if they are not supported by charity he is supported by the ratepayer in the workhouse, or the taxpayer in our prisons.

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre, next to the Post Office on the right, were replaced in 1928 with the building which is there today.

“The feeble-minded female is a greater menace to society than her brother, because she is frequently very fertile, and being without morals or control of any kind, breeds mental degenerates in numbers sufficient to assure that civilised communities will never be without an ample supply of the mentally unfit. If a woman of this type marries, as many do, she is incapable of managing her house or her children; and as the latter are also more or less mentally defective, they form the nucleus of the unclean, the verminous, the insubordinate, and the vicious amongst the school population, poisoning the atmosphere of the school physically and morally.”

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre, next to the Post Office on the right, were replaced in 1928 with the building which is there today.

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The report goes on: “In view of this expression of opinion, which no social worker doubts to be entirely true, it is disturbing to find that no less than 151 mentally defective children, including imbeciles and idiots, were found in Ipswich elementary schools of Ipswich in three years. For the most part they are still attending the ordinary schools, though incapable of receiving any benefit there, and are thus deprived of that special kind of training and instruction which is capable of developing to the full such capacities as they possess.

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre, next to the Post Office on the right, were replaced in 1928 with the building which is there today.

“The figures for Ipswich are abnormally high, being much above the average of other towns, and though this may be partly due to the greater efficiency of the means employed here for the detection of such cases, such as the work of the Voluntary Mental Welfare Association, mental inspection of schools, and the ready help of teachers, it is feared Ipswich has an undue pre-eminence in this matter. It is not impossible that the contributory cause may be found in the isolation of many Suffolk villages, and the consequent inbreeding. This isolation is now being broken down by motor buses and other features of modern life, but its results remain.

The Ipswich Town Football Club team for the 1921-22 season.

The Ipswich Town Football Club team for the 1921-22 season.

“Mentally defective children are divided into three classes: 1. Mentally defective; educable in an elementary school. 2. Mentally defective; not educable in an elementary school. 3. Imbeciles, idiots etc.

The junction of Back Hamlet (left) and Grove Lane, Ipswich, in the 1920s.

The junction of Back Hamlet (left) and Grove Lane, Ipswich, in the 1920s.

“A dull child, more than two years behind the normal intelligence, is presumably, though not certainly, defective. The Education Authority does not deal with imbecile and idiot children.

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre, next to the Post Office on the right, were replaced in 1928 with the building which is there today.

“A scheme has now been approved by the local authority and sanctioned by the Board of Education whereby the existing Britannia Road Infants School will be converted into a school for defectives.”

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre

The Cornhill, Ipswich in the 1920s when the report on Ipswich was written. The offices in the centre, next to the Post Office on the right, were replaced in 1928 with the building which is there today.

I have featured photographs from the period to illustrate how life in the town carried on, blinkered to the unfortunate attitudes of the better-off.

Do you have views on this 1920s report? Share your views via email

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