Disabled Children During the Second World War
Manchester University Press 224pp £65
Physical and mental disabilities have existed as long as life itself, but historians have paid little attention to them. On the other hand, much has been written about the evacuation of British children in the Second World War, but rarely mentioned are the large numbers of disabled children involved, their experiences and treatment, and the impact on perceptions of them. This is changing, as Sue Wheatcroft’s book attests.
As education expanded and became compulsory in the 19th century, the question arose of what to do about disabled children. The readily diagnosed conditions of deaf and blind children were provided for, first by voluntary schools, then by the state. The educational needs of severely physically disabled children were long neglected, unless their parents could afford home tuition. Mental disabilities were far from completely diagnosed even by 1939, often misunderstood and much stigmatised. The emergence of eugenics at the end of the 19th century suggested a solution to some but, despite some illegal sterilisation, its more negative forms were successfully resisted in Britain.
At the beginning of the war all but the most seriously physically disabled children were evacuated, where possible billeted with families or, if they needed special care, in residential homes and camps. Evacuation made visible previously hidden problems. Wheatcroft describes the provision for children with diverse needs, their reception outside the cities, the problems that were identified, the difficulties of doing so and the attempts to respond. She could find few personal testimonies from evacuees, though clearly they had a range of experiences. She mainly provides a useful account of official policy and services and the continuing, invaluable work of voluntary organisations, though this receives less attention than it deserves before the immediate postwar period, when the voluntary sector continued to identify and fill gaps in the welfare state.
The visibility of disabled children during the war changed understandings of their conditions and even began to change language. In 1941 Queen Elizabeth visited the Cripples Training College, Leatherhead. At her request, it was renamed the Queen Elizabeth Training College for the Disabled. But she was ahead of her time. Terms like ‘cripple’, ‘spastic’ and ‘imbecile’ remained in everyday use for decades, though Wheatcroft shows that they were largely eliminated from official discourse after the war.
The 1944 Education Act was the first not to treat disabled children separately and to seek to provide education for all children, where possible in mainstream schools, or otherwise by appropriate means, including home tuition for the seriously disabled. Still, progress was slow, patchy and vulnerable to discrimination. The education of disabled children was perceived as low status ‘women’s work’, with low expectations, geared to vocational survival rather than academic success.
Wheatcroft has opened up important aspects of the histories of disability, childhood and the impact of the war and they should be taken further.
Pat Thane is Research Professor in Contemporary British History at King’s College, London. She is writing a history of 20th-century Britain for Cambridge University Press.