The Twickenham Museum
Places : Teddington

Normansfield Hospital
Founded for the care of those with learning difficulties
1868 - 1997

detail from a 1515 Flemish painting (The Adoration of the Christ Child) showing an angel and a shepherd perhaps showing signs of Down's Syndrome

Down's syndrome named in honour of John Haydon Langdon-Down

The commonest single cause of learning difficulties is a condition in which facial characteristics are present in people of perhaps lower than average intelligence yet in whom musical appreciation, a sense of humour and an affectionate nature are well-preserved. They are usually loved and cherished by families who bring them up.

The early descriptive term ‘Mongolian type' led to the use of terms such as ‘Mongolian idiot' and ‘imbecile of the mongoloid type' but such expressions fell out of use after the genetic cause (an extra chromosome) was established in 1959 and the Mongolian Peoples' Republic had petitioned the World Health Organisation.

The condition was henceforth to be known as Down's Syndrome in honour of the first physician to recognise it as a distinct entity, John Haydon Langdon-Down, the founder of Normansfield Hospital.

An Exceptional student and practitioner

Down was born in Cornwall in 1828, and left school at 14 to be apprenticed to his apothecary father. He showed enthusiasm for science and exceptional ability, winning gold medals and qualifying in medicine from the London Hospital in 1858.

That year he took the unexpected step, for one so promising, of accepting the post of Superintendent of the Asylum for Idiots at Earlswood, the first institution of its kind in the United Kingdom.

Normansfield opened - enlightened views change the care of patients

Having established his reputation and gained a large experience in the field he acquired a recently-built house, ‘Normansfield', on the Kingston Road and opened it in May 1868 as a Private Home for the "care, education and treatment of those of good social position who present any degree of mental deficiency".

Children from these classes were, he felt, in some ways more deprived than the others, being hidden away in the servants' quarters and given no chance of a normal life. One nurse reminisced:

Many of the children came from wealthy families and well-known families, therefore you had to keep counsel.

That the need for such a place existed is shown by an increase from twenty to a hundred and fifty patients over the next twenty three years.

Down's enlightened views changed the care of the mentally subnormal. An example of his humanity, not always easy to exercise when someone of limited understanding is fractious or unruly, was his view that the only acceptable punishment was the displeasure of a loved carer, and the threat of a temporary withdrawal of affection.

Each pupil, according to his or her ability, was taught 'life skills' such as dressing, feeding and cooking, the use of money, weights and measures and buying and selling.

The Community expands

Extensions were built and further houses acquired. The community became self-sufficient in many respects. Instruction was given in 'kindergarten', drill, dancing, gymnastics, music and languages. There was driving, riding, cycling, cricket, tennis, football, bathing, boating, 'entertainments' and seaside visits.

About forty acres were actively farmed, with a well known herd of black and middle white pigs. Cows and chickens and a productive garden provided food for the kitchens and occupation for the patients.

Family continues the tradition of care

John Langdon-Down died, much honoured, in 1896. He had worked at the London Hospital throughout the years at Normansfield and become a major authority on mental subnormality. His widow Mary, an able and practical woman who had always helped in the management and daily running of the hospital, continued in this work until she died in 1901.

Responsibility for the hospital was inherited by Reginald and Percival, medically qualified sons who were already assisting their parents. Reginald was remembered by his daughter Elspie as having the happy knack of spotting, and engaging, those who would be good nurses even when they had had no training.

The brothers ensured that modern advances in medical knowledge and occupation therapy were reflected in the life of the hospital.

This was now divided into four parts: one wing for women and children, another for boys, and one house each for higher grade men and women. The reminiscences of old nurses convey a picture of hard work and long hours, but also happiness and love for their charges.

Reginald's wife died in 1917 and Percival's wife took her place in day-to-day management.

Wartime, followed by transfer to the NHS

Reginald's daughter Stella married the famous London Hospital neurologist, Dr Russell Brain (later Lord Brain), and she and her family moved to Teddington to help her father and Percival's wife during the difficulties of the Second World War. Being so near the National Physical Laboratory the grounds received a V1 and many high explosive and incendiary bombs, fortunately without casualties.

The problem of maintaining a private hospital became overwhelming after the war, and a smooth transfer to the National Health Service was successfully negotiated in 1951.

Reginald died in 1955, and yet another Dr Langdon-Down, Percival's son Norman, took over as Physician Superintendent under the Staines Group Hospital Management Committee.

A League of Friends of Normansfield was created in 1957, its first president Lady Brain, the granddaughter of the founder. A prominent and highly effective member of the Committee was the West End actor-manager Brian Rix, later Lord Rix. £100,000 was raised in eleven years to provide not only small things for the patients but a school, a shop, a clubroom and a holiday home at Selsey.

Dr Norman Langdon-Down's retirement in 1970 brought to an end a century of beneficent guidance by the family.

Disastrous appointment and final closure

He was replaced by a psychiatrist described as authoritarian and incompetent who was suspended six years later in the middle of a nurses strike. By then senior personnel were resigning and buildings were in disrepair. A seemingly disastrous appointment. Not many years later the hospital closed its doors.

Further reading:

This account is condensed from an unpublished collection of reminiscences compiled by Heather Cadbury, a member of the Teddington Area Reminiscence Group (TARG). She is is still working on the history of the hospital and will be glad to answer questions on the telephone: her number is 020 8943 1484.

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