The Wellcome Trust is currently funding a project to catalogue and conserve the records of the Royal Scottish National Hospital (RSNH), Larbert. The historical importance of the collection was recognized by its inclusion in the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register in 2013.
The foundation of the Institution
The background to the Institution’s revolutionary approach lies in its reaction to the prevailing social attitudes of the time. Prior to the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, there was no distinction made between mental illness and mental impairment. If children with learning disabilities could not be looked after by their families the alternatives were the poorhouse or an adult lunatic asylum.
The concern generated by this situation resulted in the foundation of the Society for the Education of Imbecile Youth in Scotland in 1859. The Society supported a small school in Edinburgh but it became clear that in order fully to realise their vision, they needed their own premises. In Edinburgh, according to the first annual report, any negotiations with landlords ended as soon as the purpose of the proposed Institution was known. They had to look outside the city and land in Larbert, with its excellent rail links, was chosen.
Initially the children were admitted on a fee-paying basis. For those whose families could not afford the fee the Institution paid, following the election of suitable applicants by donors to the Society.
Applications for admission
This election process created one of the most important parts of the collection: the applications. Around 3000 of these have survived dating from 1865 to the 1940s. Most early applications include a form titled ‘Queries to be answered by Parent or other near Relative personally acquainted with Case, applying for admission’. This form asks for information on the family’s circumstances as well as the child’s health, behaviour and educational abilities.
Usually accompanying the form is a medical certificate signed by a local doctor which classifies the child’s abilities as Class 1 – very hopeful; Class 2 – hopeful; Class 3 – less so; and Class 4 – subject to severe and frequent fits. To ensure the success of its chosen applicants, the Institution makes it clear on this second form that ‘cases of insanity, of confirmed epilepsy, of the deaf and dumb, and of the blind are ineligible for admission except upon payment’.
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