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Sarah Wise and the cover of her book The Undesirables
Ethics and morality, History and philosophy, Intellectual Disabilities

‘She has a bad name in Clifton Hampden’: Bessie B and the policing of female sexuality

Sarah Wise with an extract from her new book, ‘The Undesirables: The Law That Locked Away a Generation’.

04 April 2024

Many of the cases I include in my book The Undesirables: The Law That Locked Away a Generation appear to be clear (to us, in the 21st century) cases where social, and sexual, control was being exerted through the Mental Deficiency Act, the label 'feeble-minded' operating as a catch-all to remove from circulation girls and women whose sexuality manifested itself in just the same way that a male's might. The MP Josiah Wedgwood had argued that the legislation would be used to control working-class girls and women, and he was correct.

Wedgwood had also said that the Act would operate as a blunt instrument against prostitutes. An intriguing, anonymous eight-page document in the London Metropolitan Archives on the topic of venereal disease and mental deficiency incidentally discussed the certification of prostitutes as mentally defective, and seems to bear out Wedgwood's prediction. The paper is undated and may have been some sort of internal memo. It appears to have been written after 1922 and probably before 1930; and it contemplated possible connections between venereal disease and congenital feeble-mindedness. Its author states that women working in prostitution and coming up before the magistrate were a cohort who frequently found themselves assessed under the moral imbecile sub-category of the Act. But all too often, after they had been certified as defective, it would come to light that a significant number of them, once living inside an institution, were found clearly not to be so. For this reason, they were

hard to detain . . . In cases of girls of the prostitute class, it might well happen that at first they would obtain some other livelihood but that exposed to temptations they might in time relapse. The really difficult cases are those on the mental borderline who are from all standpoints the most dangerous to the community. If evidence were available that a girl had returned to an immoral life, she could be re-ascertained, but in instances where such a girl has changed her residence to the area of another authority, it is possible she might escape notice for a considerable period.

This type of insider memorandum gives heft to Wedgwood's belief that the Mental Deficiency Act was deliberately framed to be part of a social control model to target prostitutes – the young women who worked in that profession failing to conform to traditional ideas about feminine behaviour, plus showing high levels of recidivism. The Act can perhaps also be viewed as a twentieth-century covert version of the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s, so successfully challenged and thwarted in the 1870s and 80s. The Mental Deficiency Act was now arbitrarily sweeping up vast numbers of girls and women working in prostitution and, following a court hearing, confining them in institutions on highly dubious evidence of defectiveness.

The fact that a female repeatedly returned to this way of making a living fitted well with the idea that recidivism was a sure symptom of feeble-mindedness. Mental deficiency had, after all, been cited by prison medical officers as linked to individuals upon whom repeat punishment had no deterrent effect. At this particular time, it occurred to few people that becoming involved in the vice trade may have been in part the result of catastrophic early-years abuse; or the economic fact of having significantly fewer other options for making a living. In his 1940 memoir, Josiah Wedgwood made this strange throwaway remark, which the London Metropolitan Archives document may shed light on. Wedgwood wrote that

the Bill had some merits, but it was one whereby prostitutes could be sent to feeble-minded homes to save mankind from infection. I did not know anything about prostitutes . . . but I did know that this was a clear case of Expediency v. Justice. In 1912 I wrecked the Bill on Grand Committee and in the House.

Here, he anticipates the use of psychological medicine to tackle a social problem.

Also in the London Metropolitan Archives is a page of tabulated data entitled 'Women and girls known or alleged to be immoral and notified as mentally deficient, up to 1922'. These statistics were obtained from London prisons, police courts, Poor Law authorities, homeless refuges, and 'misc'. Of a total of 300 surveyed women who had been charged with, or found guilty of, solicitation, sixty-five had been found to have venereal disease; 264 had been certified as feeble-minded, and nineteen as moral imbeciles; and seventeen were deemed 'normal' after all.

I strongly suspect that this table and the London Metropolitan Archives memo that it accompanies are the work of Cyril Burt – geneticist, hereditarian, controversial proponent of the inheritability of IQ, and from 1913 to 1931 psychologist for the London County Council. In 1915, Burt devised a programme of testing children for 'backwardness', and he would be one of the first experts in Britain to set up a 'child guidance clinic'. He published his pioneering book The Young Delinquent in 1925 and it subsequently went through several editions. Later, Burt would be one of the prime movers behind the introduction of the Eleven-Plus school exam, and he would be the first psychologist to be knighted.

Burt was a crucial figure in the 'New Psychology' – the wave of psychologists who, after the First World War, were part of a cultural shift in education, penal reform and psychiatry. The discipline of psychology was in existence by the 1880s in Britain, but the shocking evidence of the psychical impact of war on troops in the trenches was one driver behind its rise to greater prominence by the early 1920s. But this was a highly uneven takeover from Victorian and Edwardian thinking – and Burt's work on 'sex delinquency' in females manages to contain both modern gestures towards how early-years trauma (not his phrase) impacts on the psyche, alongside thoroughly nineteenth-century judgmentalism and misogynistic double standards.

The year after his influential book, Burt published two articles on his preliminary findings on the psychology of prostitutes. Admirably, he confessed that his sample was small and that in comparison to work undertaken on the Continent and in the US, the material that had so far been gathered in Britain was too 'scanty' to furnish completely convincing conclusions. But he hoped that his findings would prompt more intensive research. The conversations, background research and psychological testing of the London-based girls and women he investigated led Burt to conclude that one overwhelming factor in their turn to prostitution was 'the prevalence of sexual irregularities and illegitimacy on the part of the parents and relatives'. Interestingly, for a member of the Eugenics Society, Burt did not believe 'sex delinquency' was a wholly inherited trait – environment played a large role. He cited the moral and psychological 'atmosphere' in which the girl grew up: 'Bad example, tacit encouragement, and even violation of the girl herself may have been sufficient to initiate her to a career of vice . . . [but] it was difficult to resist the inference that an over- sexed constitution was running as an hereditary taint through certain branches of the family.' This is a relatively sophisticated take for a eugenicist, for the 1920s – and at least raises the issue of childhood sexual abuse. Nevertheless, his research findings on environment were all placed under the sub-heading 'Heredity'. (In chapter 9, the impact of child sex abuse as it was starting to be understood in the 1920s is explored in greater detail.)

Burt stated that around a quarter of the girls had grown up in 'tenements' that were officially 'overcrowded' (for 1926, that meant more than two adults to a room) and that 'where all ages and both sexes are huddled together within one stifling room, decency is difficult, delicacy impossible, and premature acquaintance with conjugal relations all but unavoidable; an early preoccupation with sexual topics develops very readily, and sexual malpractices are by no means unknown between the girl herself and members of the same household.' And if there were lodgers, 'an easy intimacy with comparative strangers is bound to lessen social reticence and to injure self-respect.' He found that for eighteen per cent of the case histories referred to him 'the first experience of sexual molestation occurred within the child's own home', and in five per cent the assault had been made by her father or brother.

Whether assaulted or not, seven per cent of his case histories had fled home by age eighteen. Around one-third had previously been in domestic service, and Burt was flabbergasted that being trained to be a maidservant was still the main choice of 'reform' that was selected for 'girls in moral peril'.

He did not agree that immorality in itself was a symptom of feeble- mindedness – and found only twelve per cent of the women he was discussing could be liable for detention under the Mental Deficiency Act on moral grounds. But he said he would certify as defective many prostitutes for what he described as their 'temperamental deficiency'. He wrote:

The most general characteristic of the prostitute is this she is an emotional and excitable person of the unrepressed or uninhibited type. Sometimes this innate emotional instability is so extreme as to amount to what I have termed 'temperamental deficiency'; the girl needs permanent care for her own protection and for that of others, and should be certified accordingly.

Lawyer and doctor Letitia Fairfield, who knew Burt and his work well, believed in the early 1930s that 'the feeble-minded prostitute is now a thing of the past; the absence of the licensed house of ill fame in England probably accounts for the small number of feeble-minded prostitutes – they cannot maintain themselves in competition with their normal sisters.' Childhood abuse did not cross her mind at all when she wrote in 1931, perplexedly, of a number of cases of girls and women certified after committing crimes, that 'all these girls gave a history of a "difficult childhood", sullen, vindictive, irresponsive to affection, with a marked increase of instability at puberty, showing itself in violence, strong sexual or homosexual trends and incapacity for settled work and a gradual "retreat from reality" into a world of phantasy'. It is somewhat surprising that Fairfield could think of no likely reason for this phenomenon.

Historian Linda Mahood has written about Scotland's revelations and official attitudes towards child sexual abuse and incest after around 1920, when discussion there became more open. She notes that the term 'wandering' in a girl's criminal or welfare notes often indicated a wish to avoid home as a site of assaults. (More girls than boys were described as 'wandering'.) Mahood quotes Mrs James T. Hunter, founding member of the Scottish branch of the National Vigilance Association and a lock hospital director, who predicted that many girls, when assaulted as children, 'grow up to be dissolute women'. Girls would often be sent into some form of custodial control in order to save them from the dangers within their own homes. Mothers would often be blamed for 'moral neglect' – for failing to prevent the assaults.

Cyril Burt's contemporary and fellow pioneer John Flügel was one of the earliest adopters of psychoanalysis in Britain. He, like Burt, had a foray into linking childhood trauma to later behaviour – discussing openly a topic that was still hugely taboo, even in 'serious' publications. Flügel wrote in 1921 that 

although in civilised communities regarded with almost universal condemnation, incest has probably always existed to some extent among certain sections of the population, and the practice of incest among modern white races is undoubtedly much more prevalent than is commonly supposed. A well-known British psychoanalyst assures me that in the exercise of their profession he and his colleagues hear with astonishing frequency of cases of incest, the report of which is otherwise suppressed. Particularly is this so as regards children . . . It is startling to note in this connection that, according to the Chicago Vice Commission, of a group of 103 girls examined, no less than fifty-one reported that they had received their first sexual experience at the hands of their father. Even if we allow a liberal margin for incorrect or exaggerated statements . . . these figures would seem to afford astonishing evidence as to the prevalence of incest of the father-daughter type in the towns of America. In this country there is reason to believe that similar occurrences are far from being uncommon.


In October 1950 the Society of Labour Lawyers wrote to Labour Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, in plain language, highlighting the iniquity of applying the 'moral defective' label to girls and women on account of sexual activity. The Labour Lawyers were very unhappy that the mere fact of a female having an illegitimate child should be a diagnostic criterion for feeble-mindedness:

The birth of the baby very often brings into prominence persons who have never been considered certifiable, nor have come into contact with the authorities, and indeed, in many cases, they, up to the birth of the child, have been in regular employment . . . [And] the existence of this provision makes it possible for girls who are social problems to be certified because, in fact, those who have tried to help them see no other way of dealing with them . . . It remains, therefore, a purely personal judgment of any doctor or psychiatrist.

It was quite unsatisfactory that there was no official right of appeal or right to challenge a doctor's opinion; and the Society alleged that the one-year and then five-yearly re-examinations were 'mere routine matters'. The Act did permit a parent, relative or friend to commission a certified medical practitioner to make a re-assessment, but 'as the people certified are almost invariably poor, ignorant and of the lowest strata of society, none of them have the faintest idea that such a right exists, and even if the alleged defective did know, it is difficult to see how he or she could get such a report without the means to pay for it.'

In the case of unmarried mothers, the Labour Lawyers pointed out the suffering of the baby itself: 'There are many instances of girls at present detained who are devoted to the children from whom they have been removed.'

Among the cases that the Labour Lawyers cited in their memorandum to Bevan was that of a seventeen-year-old who had been certified after having been found neglected, and suffering with a venereal disease. She absconded from the colony and while on the run, met a man, set up home with him and gave birth to a child in June 1949: 'The Health Visitor reported that the home was squalid but that she was a good mother and devoted to the child and could manage with supervision.'

In February 1950 the man with whom she had been living was put on trial for theft at the quarter sessions. The alleged defective wrote to the court pleading for leniency. In sentencing, the judge stated that he was taking into account that the guilty man had obtained 'the love of a good woman, from which it can be seen that this alleged defective could write an extremely effective letter'. But someone in the locality found out about her past and 'she is now back in the institution and they will not release her.'

The second case history they had discovered was a young woman who had been torn apart from her child. She was deaf, which, the lawyers stated, was likely to have affected her educational attainment. Suffering from venereal disease, she gave birth to an illegitimate child and was certified as mentally defective within eleven days.

She ran away and was picked up by a police officer, who later stated, 'Why is this girl locked up? If she is bats, I am too.' The girl can discuss, and does, the maternity benefit due to her and enquires into the reasons why it is not received. She is also a devoted mother.

Perhaps most distressingly, it was often – perhaps usually – the parents of such a girl or woman who asked their local authority's Mental Deficiency Committee to ascertain her with a view to certification. This may have been done to avoid the shame that illegitimacy might bring to the family; or perhaps to cover up and deflect from incestuous abuse. Blood relatives were significantly more likely to be responsible for the catastrophic incarceration of an unwed mother than the 'Women Patrols', or the local authority 'rat-catcher'.

By contrast, youngsters swept off to a colony for persistent stealing often had their freedom fought for by angry relatives. Significantly less ancestral shame attaches itself to the people put away as 'morally imbecilic thieves'.

THE UNDESIRABLES: The Law that Locked Away a Generation by Sarah Wise is published by Oneworld on 4 April, hardback £20.

Photo: Paul Neish