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Living With Disability in the Regency

Updated: May 4, 2022

By Jessie Lewis, co–author of A Match Made At Matlock

In A Match Made At Matlock, one of the characters—Samuel Anderson—runs a charitable institution for disabled children, funded from his own pocket. His reasons for doing so are centred in his own family history, but how would people with disabilities really have been treated in Regency England? In far too many cases, the answer is: appallingly.

To humanity’s great shame, there seems to have always been stigma surrounding disability. It is a prejudice that goes back a long way. In ancient Sparta, new-borns were brought before a council, who inspected them for defects. If they were considered unfit for a life of soldiering, they were abandoned to die of exposure. In Roman times, fear of disfigurement from disease led to Lepers being ostracised and required to wear bells to warn others of their approach. By the Middle Ages, perceptions of disability had been tainted by religious fear and superstition. Characteristics as innocuous as birthmarks and cataracts could see people burned, drowned, or hanged for witchcraft. Children born with physical impairments were considered to be ‘changelings’ sent by the devil.

By the sixteenth century, the German priest and theologian Martin Luther was espousing the killing of profoundly disabled children, claiming he could see the Devil in them. Shakespeare had made Richard III evil, to match the nasty twist of his spine…you get the idea! Thus, the wholly fallacious association between disability and moral corruption was begun, which persisted in England for a shamefully long time.

By the Regency, things were beginning to improve as advancements were made in scientific and medical studies. Nevertheless, many people still believed disability was a moral problem, not a medical one, perpetuating the shame. This stigma is borne out in an essay written by a gentleman called William Hay in 1754. Colin Barnes, in Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination, summarises Hay’s thoughts:

“Hay describes himself as barely 5 feet tall with a back 'bent in my mother's womb.' He was extremely conscious of his personal appearance and considered himself very fortunate to have been born into a social class where a high emphasis was placed on good manners and politeness. This prevented any ‘gentleman’ from making derogatory remarks concerning his stature. He noted, however, how the gentle ‘friendly’ teasing of his close friends contrasted sharply with the treatment of disabled people by society at large, ‘where insolence grows in proportion as the man sinks in condition.’”

He was not the only example of this. Lord Byron, arguably one of the most eminent individuals of the age, had a deformed foot, of which he was famously ashamed. Perhaps indicative of the extent of that shame is his unfinished play, The Deformed Transformed. It depicts a young man with a hunchback, abandoned by his mother because of his deformity, who contemplates suicide until a stranger offers him the chance to change his appearance. Yet, as Hay observed, this shame was not shared by Byron’s peers. Indeed, he was revered both in his lifetime and posthumously for his keen intellect and notoriously good looks.

He was also a fabulously wealthy baron who could afford specially designed shoes to disguise his limp, was not required to work the fields for his wages, and proved no financial burden on anyone. As Zoe Shier, visiting lecturer at Newman University, Birmingham, observes; “Different disabilities were treated differently depending on the condition, the patient, and their social standing.”

As anyone who reads Austenesque or Regency Romances will know, social standing had a huge bearing on every aspect of life. If you were poor in nineteenth-century England, then you were likely very poor. Inadequate housing, diet, education, and medicine all increased your chances of contracting one of the many debilitating illnesses rife at the time. Polio, smallpox, measles, rickets—to name but a few—all had the potential to cause physical disfigurement or mental impairment. Add to that any of the congenital diseases to which all humans are susceptible, and it is easy to understand just how many families were living with disability in some form or other.

Disability for those at the poorest end of society meant something quite different to those with money. People on the lowest incomes had to work for a living, and that work was invariably physically demanding. Therefore, if a child was born with, or later afflicted by, a disability that did not impede his or her ability to work, even a cognitive disability, then they would generally stay with the family and contribute where they could—despite the fear and prejudices discussed above.

If the disability was more profound, however, it placed a huge burden on already strained resources. Cases of infanticide were not unheard of, but there were other means of support available. The Poor Law of 1601 still applied in the early nineteenth century, and destitute families could apply to the parish for welfare payments, though the amount was locally determined, and provision varied greatly between parishes. There was also the option of boarding a disabled relation with another family in the community. Often, the parish would pair boarders with families in need of subsistence themselves, so the allowances handed out to the household would cover the needs of both.

If neither option was available, disabled individuals might end up in the parish workhouse. There are so many portrayals of workhouses in popular literature that I hardly need explain the undesirability of such an outcome. They had atrocious hygiene, negligible security, long working hours, and the constant threat of anti-social behaviour fuelled by a lack of supervision and hope, leaving inhabitants vulnerable to the cruellest and most brutal elements of society.

Even for the able bodied, these were hellish places in which to live. Spare a thought, then, for the disabled individual in such a setting. For somebody with impaired mobility or understanding--or both--it would have been a terrifyingly dangerous place, and many did not long survive. For those with cognitive conditions like autism—a condition more than a century away from being identified—such chaotic environments would have exacerbated behavioural problems, leading to harsh discipline, corporal punishment and, if all else failed, committal to a public asylum.

Understandably, people often preferred to do anything than end up in the workhouse, and many ended up on the streets, begging. For those individuals who were too profoundly disabled to either remain in their communities or survive on the streets, the public asylum was their fate also.

Colin Barnes tells us, “Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the policy of segregating severely disabled people into institutional settings slowly increased.” And Simon Jarrett, in his essay, Disability in Time and Place, also remarks that, “In a population of around nine million people at the end of the eighteenth century, probably less than 10,000 lived in some sort of institution. Imperceptibly though, the notion of the institution as the ‘right place’ for people who are ‘different’ had begun to insinuate itself into the public consciousness.”

The infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital, perhaps better known as ‘Bedlam,’ was one such institution. Wikipedia says of it: “Although the hospital became a modern psychiatric facility, historically it was representative of the worst excesses of asylums in the era of lunacy reform.” Bad enough for those with mental health issues—but when you consider that many of the people sent to Bedlam on the basis of their physically disability were not cognitively impaired at all, the true horror for its patients becomes clear.

At the other end of the spectrum were the wealthy. As with Byron and his ‘gentlemanly’ ilk, a person suffering a relatively minor impairment might have had the social clout to enable society to overlook his or her disability—but probably only if it was not overly noticeable. Because, in an age where beauty in nature was venerated, the ancient Greek ideals of perfection were emulated in contemporary fashion, the Picturesque was vaunted in the arts, and where the laws of primogeniture made faultless blood lines invaluable, a conspicuous disability presented a real problem for the aristocracy, despite a burgeoning trend towards philanthropy. A birthmark, a limp, possibly even a missing limb requiring a prosthetic, could all be romanticised and accepted with a little effort. More serious and physically obvious conditions such as cerebral palsy would more than likely have resulted in the individual being ‘hidden’ from society’s notice.

That age-old shame surrounding disability was very much still in evidence, and we need look no further for evidence of it than our very own Jane Austen. Her older brother, George, was disabled—modern scholars suspect he suffered from a combination of epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and some form of intellectual impairment. He lived almost his entire life in the paid care of another family. There is little evidence to suggest that he was visited often by his relations, despite living close enough for them to do so with ease. George Austen was the only one of Jane’s siblings to be removed from his mother’s will, and he was laid to rest in an unnamed grave upon his death. It seems fairly safe to conclude that the Austen family was as beholden to the stigma of disability as every other family of the age.

If a position with another family was not available, a family of consequence would not condescend to place their disabled child in a public asylum. As a result, there sprang up a great number of private institutions, catering for the needs of notable families in want of a little discretion. Often run by profiteers, many became as notorious for corruption and abuse as their state-run counterparts.

Perhaps you can see why Mr Anderson chose to open his own institution in A Match Made at Matlock! He provides care solely for children with profound disabilities or severe disease who require full-time care. During this period in history, most children with this extent of disability would not have survived long past infancy or early childhood, but Mr Anderson aims to give them what protection and contentment they can have in the short years available to them, away from the cruelties of the workhouses and asylums. No wonder Miss Hawkridge is in love with him!

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