© 2020

Idiocy, Imbecility and Insanity in Victorian Society

Caterham Asylum, 1867–1911


Part of the Mental Health in Historical Perspective book series (MHHP)

Table of contents

  1. Front Matter
    Pages i-xvii
  2. Stef Eastoe
    Pages 27-58
  3. Stef Eastoe
    Pages 59-96
  4. Stef Eastoe
    Pages 127-157
  5. Stef Eastoe
    Pages 159-190
  6. Stef Eastoe
    Pages 191-200
  7. Back Matter
    Pages 201-212

About this book


This book explores the understudied history of the so-called ‘incurables’ in the Victorian period, the people identified as idiots, imbeciles and the weak-minded, as opposed to those thought to have curable conditions. It focuses on Caterham, England’s first state imbecile asylum, and analyses its founding, purpose, character, and most importantly, its residents, innovatively recreating the biographies of these people. Created to relieve pressure on London’s overcrowded workhouses, Caterham opened in September 1870. It was originally intended as a long-stay institution for the chronic and incurable insane paupers of the metropolis, more commonly referred to as idiots and imbeciles. This purpose instantly differentiates Caterham from the more familiar, and more researched, lunatic asylums, which were predicated on the notion of cure and restoration of the senses. Indeed Caterham, built following the welfare and sanitary reforms of the late 1860s, was an important feature of the Victorian institutional landscape, and it represented a shift in social, medical and political responsibility towards the care and management of idiot and imbecile paupers.


Inclu Incurably insane Imbecile asylum Lunatic asylum Victorian, Edwardian Chronic Welfare reform Institution Social responsibility Pauper patients Moral management Stigma Psychiatric treatment Social geography

Authors and affiliations

  1. 1.Independent ScholarLondonUK

About the authors

Stef Eastoe is a social and cultural historian, who has taught courses on the social history of medicine at several British universities. She specializes in the history of idiocy, welfare, and Victorian institutions, and has had work published in Journal of Victorian Culture and Landscape Research.  

Bibliographic information

  • Book Title Idiocy, Imbecility and Insanity in Victorian Society
  • Book Subtitle Caterham Asylum, 1867–1911
  • Authors Stef Eastoe
  • Series Title Mental Health in Historical Perspective
  • Series Abbreviated Title Mental Health in Historical Perspective
  • DOI
  • Copyright Information The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2020
  • Publisher Name Palgrave Macmillan, Cham
  • eBook Packages History History (R0)
  • Hardcover ISBN 978-3-030-27334-7
  • Softcover ISBN 978-3-030-27337-8
  • eBook ISBN 978-3-030-27335-4
  • Edition Number 1
  • Number of Pages XVII, 212
  • Number of Illustrations 15 b/w illustrations, 0 illustrations in colour
  • Topics Social History
    History of Britain and Ireland
    History of Medicine
    History of Science
    Urban History
  • Buy this book on publisher's site


“Idiocy, Imbecility and Insanity in Victorian Society starts with a stated goal to challenge works that emphasize narratives of repression and violence in the asylum. This is grounded in a both a desire to find the complexity of the patient experience and in the fact that the records do not record much explicit abuse at Caterham.” (Amy Milne-Smith, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 60 (2), April, 2021)

“This is a book for multiple audiences-those interested in social and institution history as well as history of psychiatry and related institutions. But more than anything else, it is a book for practitioners about the institutionalization (or not) of mental conditions-a book for reflection on the care provided to subjects with the great dilemma of the choice between institutionalization or insertion in life.” (Alain Touwaide, Doody’s Book Reviews, August 21, 2020)