Blind; Imbecile or Idiot; Or Lunatic

Joni: incurious and long-lived

As well as causing excess mortality in cats, idle curiosity is a great source of unlooked-for discoveries. Grazing the online 1911 census again recently, I tried searching the “infirmities” column under “More search options”. This is the section of the return where individuals were to be described as “Deaf and Dumb; Dumb only; Blind; Imbecile or Idiot; Or Lunatic”. The aim, one presumes, was to collect medical statistics, and the nature of the afflictions chosen implies interest in heredity. With hindsight, this looks like the beginnings of eugenics.

Inevitably, a large number of people filling out the form misunderstood its purpose, and saw this section as an invitation to tell the government about their health. All of these returns can be retrieved simply by choosing “Other” in the “Specified Illnesses” search box.

Just choose ‘Other’

In the midst of the cheerful lists of “All right” and “No infirmity”, and the rather less cheerful “Bad Corn” and “Cold in Chest” and “Want of Money”, one return stood out. As their infirmity, Ellen Barry of Churchill Terrace in Sandymount and her two daughters had entered “unenfranchised”. Further investigation showed a number of similar returns, including a Kathleen Shannon of Lower Leeson Street who entered the wonderfully tart “Not naturally [infirm], but legally classed with imbeciles on account of my sex”.

The description of census day on the National Archives website, part of the fascinating and underappreciated contextual material, points out that the suffragette movement throughout the United Kingdom had called for a boycott of the census. Evidently, some suffragettes decided to be visible to history (and the census enumerators) by protesting on the form, rather than simply refusing to fill it out. Further idle grazing even shows a number of women recording their religion as “Militant suffragette”.

This is history in wonderful personal detail, and it is only possible because the National Archives has positively insisted on idle curiosity by making every single aspect of the censuses searchable.

13 thoughts on “Blind; Imbecile or Idiot; Or Lunatic”

  1. Those are great. Who knew, well, you did. The suffragists’ replies remind me of 19c NYC naturalizations in which all Irish were described as subjects of the Queen of England. To become citizens, they had to ‘renounce and abjure’ any such ‘allegiance and fidelity.’ I have seen naturalizations where the potential citizen said ‘Refused’ or ‘Omitted’ as he would not admit ever having been such a subject.

    1. In the 1920s my Great Grandfather refused to renounce an allegiance he did not have. Left the field blank on the form and never became a US citizen.

  2. Mr. G,

    Gosh, all we need is to take the time to really “view” that census!! Need to add a few extra hours to my day to accomplish all~ 🙂

    Once Again, Many Thanks!

  3. I was aware of the above descriptions and found them amusing to say the least. You have explained it very well. Thanks.

  4. I don’t know whether it was part of a campaign, but some of my relatives who had advanced nationalist views decided to confuse the government by omitting their usual Christian name and entering themselves under their middle name.

  5. These are wonderful. Go Ellen Barry and daughters, and Kathleen Shannon!

    Btw, the 1911 Canadian census also sought to collect information on (putatively hereditary) infirmities, with columns for “Blind,” “Deaf and Dumb,” “Crazy or Lunatic,” and “Idiotic or Silly.”

  6. Great article, John, as ever. The wry humor and assertion of individuality is marvelous. They probably only expected the enumerator to ever read their comments!

  7. Great post. I really must have a closer look at what it says on the forms. At least in those days you could put what you wanted – today you are presented with a drop down menu and not much choice. I’m reminded of having to fill in a form for attending a Secretarial Course many moons ago. We were a group of girls filling in the form together and we had great fun finding imaginative answers to the question “sex”. We did not put female but “Yes, please” or “as often as possible” and had a great laugh.

  8. Eugenics? That’s tad over the top, especially as the question is still asked today. The main reason been that the census is used for planning for people like Dept. of Health etc.

    Look at questions 16-18 on 2016 census for example:

    Do you have any of the following
    long-lasting conditions or difficulties?
    (a) Blindness or a serious Yes No
    vision impairment
    (b) Deafness or a serious Yes No
    hearing impairment
    (c) A difficulty with basic physical Yes No
    activities such as walking,
    climbing stairs, reaching,
    lifting or carrying
    (d) An intellectual disability Yes No
    (e) A difficulty with learning, Yes No
    remembering or concentrating
    (f) A psychological or Yes No
    emotional condition
    (g) A difficulty with pain, Yes No
    breathing, or any other
    chronic illness or condition

    If ‘Yes’ to any of the categories
    specified in Question 16, do you
    have any difficulty in doing any
    of the following?
    (a) Dressing, bathing or getting Yes No
    around inside the home
    (b) Going outside the home Yes No
    alone to shop or visit a
    doctor’s surgery
    (c) Working at a job or business Yes No
    or attending school or college
    (d) Participating in other Yes No
    activities, for example leisure
    or using transport

    How is your health
    in general?
    Mark one box only
    1 Very good
    2 Good
    3 Fair
    4 Bad
    5 Very bad

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