Selected Subjects: Physical and Mental Infirmity

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4.6 Physical and Mental Infirmity, 1851 - 1911

A requirement that particulars should be given of those suffering from infirmities was first introduced into the schedule at the census of 1851. The form in which the question was put on each of the occasions on which it was asked is shown below. The phrasing of these questions was identical throughout Great Britain except in 1911 when the Scottish schedule requested a statement whether the affliction dated from infancy instead of a statement of age.

1851 If Deaf-and-Dumb or Blind Write "Deaf-and-Dumb" or "Blind" opposite the name of the person.
1861 If Deaf and Dumb or Blind Write "Deaf and Dumb" or "Blind" opposite the name of the person; and if so from birth, add "from birth".
1871 If (1) Deaf and Dumb Write the respective infirmities against the name of the afflicted person; and if so from birth, add "from birth".
(2) Blind
(3) Imbecile or Idiot
(4) Lunatic
1881 As in 1871 As in 1871.
1891 If (1) Deaf and Dumb Write the precise infirmity, if any, opposite the name of the person; and if the infirmity dates from childhood, add "from childhood". Do not use such a general term as "afflicted" or "infirm".
(2) Blind
(3) Lunatic, Imbecile or Idiot
1901 If (1) Deaf and Dumb Write the precise infirmity, if any, opposite the name of the person; and if the infirmity dates from childhood, add "from childhood". Do not use such a general term as "afflicted" or "infirm".
(2) Blind
(3) Lunatic
(4) Imbecile, Feeble-minded
1911 If any person included in this schedule is:- State the infirmity opposite that person's name and the age at which he or she became afflicted.
(1) "Totally Deaf" or "Deaf and Dumb"
(2) "Totally Blind"
(3) "Lunatic"
(4) "Imbecile" or "Feeble-minded"


Considerable interest in the statistics derived from this enquiry shown in 1851 by societies concerned with the welfare of the blind and the deaf and dumb was evident from the fact that early information was afforded to them about the number and distribution of these classes in Great Britain. Later their numbers were published for each county by sex and quinquennial age-groups in the divisional tables and total numbers in each category were given for registration districts. The same questions were included in the schedule used at the census of Ireland which was taken at the same time. More than this, each enumerated case was noted and further detailed information was afterwards required as to whether the affliction was congenital or acquired; to what cause the defect was attributed; at what age the person became afflicted if not from birth; whether the person was affected in any other way; and whether any other members of the family were similarly afflicted. The results of this further pursuit of the subject were embodied in Census of Ireland for the Year 1851 - Part III. Report on the Status of Disease, which formed a valuable contribution to a branch of vital statistics up to that time completely unexplored. Such an extensive enquiry as this was not held to be desirable or possible in Great Britain, although in Ireland it appeared to be favourably received and there was only one refusal to give any information.


In 1861 householders were asked to add 'from birth' where this was applicable. The results seem to have been regarded as reliable in respect of blindness; in the case of deaf mutism, which is more difficult to discern at such an early age, the results were rejected and no use was made of them. For England and Wales the data prepared were similar in form to those of 1851, with the addition of corresponding details showing the extent of blindness from birth. In Scotland the age analysis was given for the country as a whole and an analysis by sex for each county. In the General Report for England and Wales there was an interesting and illuminating chapter on the conditions of those suffering from these afflictions and on the services available to them, together with tables indicating their means of support, the charities and aid they received, places for their instruction and their proportionate numbers in relation to the rest of the community.


Interest in infirmities of the people was extended in 1871 when persons who were idiots, imbeciles or lunatics were required to be so distinguished. The method of presenting the data remained the same as at the previous censuses at which the more limited enquiry had been conducted. On all occasions details of the occupations of afflicted persons and their distri¿bution in various institutions were usually given in the General Reports and Summary Tables for England and Wales and in the second volume of the Scottish Reports .


It was realised at an early stage in the enquiries into infirmities that the returns made by persons as to the mental capacity of their children or other relatives were far from trustworthy. It is against human nature to expect a mother to admit her young child to be an idiot, however much she may fear this to be true. Openly to acknowledge the fact is to abandon all hope. This suppression of the truth, however, was not confined to the returns relating to very young children. Even when the child had reached an age when no doubt of its mental capacity could any longer be sustained, mention of idiocy was often still omitted. This was proved by an enquiry made by the Census Commissioners for England and Wales in 1881. The addresses of the families of all those idiots who had been admitted into the institution in the year commencing with the day of the census were obtained from the managers of a large asylum. On examination of the schedules it was found that in exactly half of the cases of idiots who were of 5 but under 15 years of age, no mention was made in the schedule of any mental incapacity.


Those specially interested in deafness urged that deaf mutism only differed from deafness without loss of speech in that deafness dated from an earlier period of life, being either congenital or having occurred before the power of speech had been fully acquired. Consequently they were anxious that the total number of deaf persons of all kinds should be obtained with a distinction of those whose deafness dated from childhood. The Census Authorities thought that it was better to maintain the distinction between deaf mutes and those who were deaf only, since deafness was more difficult to discern than deaf-mutism and the returns of deaf and dumb would be likely to be much more accurate. In 1891 the deaf were divided, therefore, into three groups, (1) the deaf and dumb, (2) those stated to have been deaf, without statement of mutism, from childhood or from before the end of their tenth year of life, and (3) those persons, above ten years of age who were simply returned as deaf.

Figures published for England and Wales in the 1891 divisional tables showed totals of persons blind, blind from birth, deaf according to the three categories listed above, mentally deranged or mentally deranged from childhood for each registration county and district. These were followed by individual tables for each of these classes giving the males and females in quinquennial age-groups to 25 years, and thereafter by decennial age-groups to 85 years and upwards, for each registration county. On previous occasions the age-groups had continued quinquennially to 100 years and upwards.

At the three censuses 1861, 1871 and 1881 persons making the returns had been asked to specify cases in which the infirmity dated from birth. In 1891 and 1901 they were asked instead to specify cases dating from child¿hood. In addition every child under 10 years of age suffering from one of these infirmities was classified as being so from childhood; comparison with earlier census results was therefore not possible.


Further changes both in the form of question on the schedule and in the scheme of tabulation were made with regard to infirmities in 1901. The enquiry into insanity which had been first instituted in 1871 had remained the same at each following census until 1901. In arranging the house¿holder's schedule in 1901 it was thought that a greater degree of accuracy might be obtained if the term 'feeble-minded' were substituted for the word 'idiot' and this form was retained in 1911.


Although in 1891 an abstract of those persons returned as deaf only was made, a return of deaf persons had not been specifically required on the schedule. In 1911 householders were specially asked to state those 'totally deaf or deaf and dumb, and those 'totally blind'. This was an attempt to limit the degree of the infirmity and exclude those only slightly afflicted. In addition the age of the onset of the infirmity was required to be given in England and Wales, the aim being to ascertain the duration of the infirmity in every case and not only, as at previous censuses, in those cases where the affliction dated from birth or from childhood.

Enquiries into infirmity were not repeated after the census of 1911. It had been realized from the beginning that the census was not a suitable medium for obtaining information of this kind though, in spite of their imper¿fections, the data obtained at the censuses of 1861 and 1871 served a useful purpose. In addition to the weaknesses of human nature reflected in the disinclination of many responsible for completing the schedules to admit any defect in their close relatives, there was also the difficulty of defining the degree of disability required to be stated. In whatever terms the question was framed, it was bound to be interpreted very differently by the householders, the majority of whom would be without any technical knowledge.

In 1881 the Census Commissioners for England and Wales had to point out 'how very incomplete are the returns which relate to these afflictions, and more especially those which relate to idiocy and imbecility. We have done the best we could with this unsatisfactory data. We cannot, however, but express our decided opinion that statements made by persons as to the deficiencies, mental or bodily, of their children or other relatives are not worth the cost and labour of collection and tabulation'.

In 1891 the returns were again quoted as being 'in all probability excessively inaccurate' and the General Report for 1901 stated that -'Concerning the above-named infirmities it should be clearly understood that the machinery of an ordinary English Census is but imperfectly adapted to furnish the required particulars with that degree of accuracy which is essential for statistical purposes. It is because experience has impressed us with this conviction that we have abstained from entering into minute details which, had the data been more reliable, would have proved highly instructive and useful'. Similar reservations were made in the third volume of the 1911 Report on the Census of Scotland .

The Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-minded reported in the same strain on the unsuitability of the census as an agency for ascertaining facts concerning mental defect. 'The Census, it appears to us, is not an agency suitable for the ascertainment and classification of facts the nature of which in very many instances can only be learned by the personal observation of men and women whose judgment has been trained and well practised in a special branch of medical work. Both for administrative and scientific purposes it would be better, we think, to ascertain the facts by special investigation such as that which has been made by our medical investigators, or by means of the cumulative records which we hope may be compiled as confidential documents as soon as the importance of the subject is recognised'. The Royal Commission proved by their investigations in 1905 that the census figures for the mentally defective had been under¿stated in 1901.

Office of Population Censuses and Surveys/General Register Office, Guide to Census Reports: Great Britain 1801-1966 (London: HMSO, 1977) Crown Copyright. The Office of National Statistics has granted the Great Britain Historical GIS Project permission to computerise this publication and include it in this web site. All other rights reserved.

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