Mary Clare Martin – Refuge or prison? Girls’ experiences of a “home” for the mentally defective in early twentieth century Scotland

Royal Holloway University of London Department of History

Event Date:
14 and 15 September 2010

11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)

 

Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950


Living in Institutions

Home in the Institution

Mary Clare Martin (Greenwich):
Refuge or prison? Girls’ experiences of a “home” for the mentally defective in early twentieth century Scotland

While many institutions founded in the nineteenth century emphasised their “home-like” character, with the passage of time, and greater numbers, a much more regimented organisation might develop. This paper will analyse the experiences of inhabitants of Waverley Park Home, Kirkintilloch, founded in 1906 by the Glasgow Association for the Care of Defective and Feeble-minded Children. While survival of records is uneven, this case-study presents valuable insights into the lives of the 526 inmates as well as staff, before the home was handed over to the National Health Service in 1948.

Early annual reports, from 1915-18, were quick to emphasise informality, the absence of uniforms, and children’s freedom to play. By the 1930s, with over 100 inmates, even the schoolteachers considered it was too regimented. Staff were subject to dismissal, if, as in one case, they stayed out all night. Between the ages of 16 and 21, children left the school and worked in different domestic tasks, for which there were different coloured aprons, and which were also stratified according to ability and behaviour.

Some inmates subverted the regime in a variety of ways. There are more references to fighting and violent behaviour than to friendships. Some escaped, or got into each others’ beds at night, while workmen complained of sexual advances being made to them. The ever-present possibility of punishment might seem to have produced an intimidating atmosphere. Yet others considered it as “home”, and would beg to be allowed back. The case-notes, though refracted through the perceptions of “professionals”, indicate the poverty, dislocation and severe health problems encountered by many children before admission.

In conclusion, this paper will consider whether such an institution could function as a “home” in the early twentieth-century context, paying due regard to the shifting and diverse meanings of the concept.

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