On Saturday 5 May, the new Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability hosted a conference focused on the Normansfield Hospital. Founded in 1868 by John Langdon Down – the physician after whom Down’s Syndrome is named – the Hospital remained superintended by the Down family for over 100 years. Originally a private home “for the backward and feeble minded”, Normansfield was incorporated into the NHS in 1951, and eventually closed in 1997. The building is now home to the Down’s Syndrome Association.
The day provided a wide variety of papers around the topic of Normansfield: from medical and local history, to personal reminiscence and theatrical display. Held in the beautiful original entertainment hall (pictured below), the morning focused directly on the Hospital. Professor Conor Ward, author of Dr John Langdon Down and Normansfield, talked about Dr Langdon Down and his work at Normansfield and Earlswood – focusing on his relationship with James Henry Pullen (1835 – 1916), whose Ships of Reality and the Imagination will form the subject of a new exhibition. Brian Rix then focused on twentieth century Normansfield, through memories of his daughter Shelley, who came to live at Normansfield in 1956, sparking his own involvement in Down’s Syndrome campaigning. Finally, Jan Pimblett from the London Metropolitan Archives told the audience about the Normansfield archiving project: shedding some light on the fascinating array of materials in the collection.
In the afternoon, topics ranged a little wider. Medical historian Sarah Chaney portrayed Normansfield as part of a wider context, by looking at the way in which nineteenth century asylums of all kinds focused on occupation, entertainment and environment. These were regarded as having direct medical and general psychological and social benefits, as well as being a means of maintaining order: distinguishing between the three is often impossible. Local historian Ray Elmitt then examined Normansfield in relation to the local community; during the late nineteenth century, the Hospital formed the biggest single grouping of people within Hampton Wick and South Teddington. Surprisingly, however, it seems to have had little impact on the local area, operating as a fairly closed community. One audience member, who worked at Normansfield a century later, noted that such continued to be the case, with staff having to be recruited hundreds of miles away: perhaps because of local hostility to the site. Finally, theatre historian David Wilmore related the story of the Gilbert and Sullivan Ruddigore portraits lining the walls of the theatre, speculating as to whether these had ever been used for a performance at Normansfield, and concluding that it is almost certain that these paintings were six of the original portraits from the 1888 Savoy Theatre production.
While clearer involvement with people with learning disabilities would have been appreciated – something that was raised in discussion and seems to be planned for future events, in particular an oral history project – overall the conference provided a wide range of perspectives on an interesting and often ignored topic. Ground-breaking events continue at Normansfield in the near future: this Saturday 26 May, the Blue Apple Theatre Company’s new production of Hamlet will take place in the theatre. This company, which includes performers with and without learning disabilities, was formed to challenge pre-conceptions and raise the ceiling of expectation for learning disabled performers. The Pullen exhibition, featuring the artefacts made by “the Genius of Earlswood Asylum”, opens in July.