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Places : Teddington

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

Doctor John Haydon Langdon Down

Normansfield Hospital in Teddington was a revolutionary care home and education centre for people with learning disabilities. Today a section of the site of the former hospital is home to the national office of the Down’s Syndrome Association, the Langdon Down Centre, the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disabilities and the Victorian-era Grade II listed Normansfield Theatre.

The hospital was founded by the British physician Dr John Langdon Down in 1868. Dr Down is best known for his description of the genetic condition now known as Down’s Syndrome, which he originally classified in 1866. It was established in 1959 that this genetic condition occurs as a result of an extra chromosome (chromosome 21). The condition was named after Dr Down by the World Health Organisation in 1965 at the request of nineteen international experts, including Dr Down’s grandson Norman.

At the time he was buying the property for the hospital, Dr Down employed a solicitor named Mr. Norman Wilkinson; his role seems to have been sufficiently important for the land to be given the name 'Norman's Field'.[1]

In establishing Normansfield Hospital, Dr Down and his wife Mary created a boarding and education structure that ensured people with learning disabilities were nurtured both mentally and physically, treated with dignity and encouraged to achieve their full potential. This was considered a very enlightened approach at the time; Normansfield played a lasting role as an impetus for positive changes in the care of people with all types of learning disabilities.

Normansfield provides gentle care for the learning disabled  

An exceptional student and practitioner, Dr John Langdon Down was born in Cornwall in 1828, and left school at 14 to be an apprentice 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 accepted the post of Superintendent of the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles (renamed The Royal Earlswood Hospital in 1959) [2], the first institution of its kind in the United Kingdom.

Having established his reputation in the field of learning disabilities, he left Earlswood and acquired land with a recently-built house on Kingston Road. Renamed ‘Normansfield’ he 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 18 to 160 patients over the next 8 years.

Dr Down's enlightened views changed the practice of caring for people with learning disabilities. An example of his humanity 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

Normansfield Theatre

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.

One of the greatest legacies of Normansfield Hospital is the Normansfield Theatre. Dr Down and his wife both had a great love of the theatre, which they passed on to their charges. Architect Rowland Plumbe was commissioned to create the 60ft by 35ft “entertainment hall”, which was completed and opened in 1879. Hospital residents and staff could now create and enjoy evening entertainment, such as plays and dances, as a regular part of their activities. It was also used for the Sunday services conducted by Dr Down; the lectern he used still remains.

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 learning disabilities. His widow Mary, 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, Dr Down’s medically-qualified sons who were already assisting their parents. Reginald was remembered by his daughter Elspie as having a gift for 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 occupational 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 to the National Physical Laboratory, the Normansfield grounds received a V1 bomb and many other 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.

The League of Friends of Normansfield was created in 1957, its first president being Lady Stella Brain. A prominent and highly effective member of the Committee was the West End actor-manager Brian Rix, later Lord Rix. About £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.

The tradition of enlightenment continues

The immediate end of the Down family’s supervision of Normansfield Hospital ushered in a dark period for the institution - largely due to poor new management - and its ultimate demise in 1997. 

However, the theatre wing was separated from the main hospital, refurbished and given to the Langdon Down Centre Trust as part of a Section 106 planning agreement by developers Laing Homes in October 2003.

The remit of the Langdon Down Centre Trust was to promote, preserve and manage this beautiful Grade II* listed building, and the historical archive material of Dr Langdon Down.[3]  In April 2010 the Langdon Down Centre Trust and the Down’s Syndrome Association merged. The Down’s Syndrome Association now manages the building and is continuing to promote and preserve the beautiful Victorian-era theatre.[4]

In 2007 The League of Friends of Normansfield celebrated its 50th anniversary, and in 2012 changed its name to Normansfield and Richmond Foundation.

The Down’s Syndrome Association, its Langdon Down Centre and its Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability, as well as the Normansfield and Richmond Foundation all work to continue the tradition of providing support for people with learning disabilities and their families, whilst ensuring that the general public is educated and enlightened about the members of this community.


Down’s Syndrome Association:

Langdon Down Centre:

[1] Dr Langdon Down's Normansfield Theatre John Earl, 1997, revised 2010, Borough of Twickenham Local History Society:


[3] and [4]:

This page also includes a condensed account from an unpublished collection of reminiscences compiled by Heather Cadbury, a member of the Teddington Area Reminiscence Group (TARG). 

Further Information:

Video: Langdon Down, The Legacy Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability

History and photographs of Normansfield Hospital (use the left-side menu to view all information): Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability

History of The League of Friends of Normansfield: Normansfield and Richmond Foundation:

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