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Grove Road Housing Scheme, Sutton in Ashfield.  Institutions often served deaf and disabled people well through the centuries and, at their best, allowed for fulfilling lives. But they could also be places of imprisonment and infantilisation away from the world.  Disabled activists Ken and Maggie Davies were the first to generate a model allowing disabled people to live in the community.  At Grove Road Housing Scheme non-disabled people received free housing in exchange for supporting the needs of  disabled residents. The creation of Grove Road marked the beginning of the Independent Living Movement.


St Saviour’s Deaf Church.  A church for deaf people had existed in London since the 1870s, and symbolised the equal place of deaf people in church and society.  With the building of St Saviour’s – the only purpose built deaf church – in Acton in 1925, the community both underlined its mature development, and created a space exactly architecturally tailored to deaf experience. It closed in 2014, but the congregation continue to meet at other sites.


The Guild of the Brave Poor Things was a social club which opened in Bristol for people with disabilities.  The Victorian sentimentality and aura of pity and tragedy in the name was disliked by the members themselves, who changed it in 1917 to the Guild of the Handicapped.  But for almost a century, the club offered a strong sense of community and survived in various forms until the late 1980s, by which time it had been increasingly replaced by other social structures.


Panorama showing magnificent stately house

Dr John Langdon Down opened Normansfield Hospital for the care of people with learning disabilities – Down’s Syndrome is named after him. He built an ornate theatre in the grounds of the hospital, as part of a plan to ‘provide the highest possible culture’ and ‘the best physical, moral and intellectual training’ to residents.

19th century

Since the medieval period, public institutions for people with mental illness or learning disability were often frightening and brutal places, with little treatment – or punishment and public display as at London’s ‘Bedlam’. During the Victorian period, some owners of private asylums began to evolve a more humanitarian approach. Those who attended were a fortunate few, whose families could pay for private care, but these places pioneered an approach which eventually became mainstream.


Mural by Mick Jones shows a symbolic painting of Edward Rushton, one eye covered with a scarf to represent his blindness, and with his arm around four other figures, who are also blind.

Edward Rushton, himself blinded at sea as a young man, founds the Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind. Blind people without means were often beggars and badly treated: Rushton’s school allowed blind people to learn a trade and live dignified lives. It was the first such institution in Britain.

18th century

The late 18th century was a period when, with growing urbanisation, institutions began to emerge for specific interest groups – first tied to a particular city, and then becoming national organisations.


Illustration from manuscript depicting a queen and a monk

The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII meant the end of this way of caring for the population: Elizabethan Poor Laws, which made those needing help the responsibility of the parish partly replaced the hospital system.