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Caring for their Children, Forever

March 10, 2010

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Late one Wednesday afternoon in 1950, staff at the Peat and Milson Islands Mental Hospital on the Hawkesbury River found the body of an eleven-year-old patient “wedged into a drum used for soiled clothing.” Police initially suspected that he had been “the victim of some other patient,” but soon abandoned this theory. Instead, they concluded that

the boy [had] hid himself in the drum… [His]… medical history showed that he had a weak heart. Once in the drum,… he struggled to release himself and in the confined space his efforts caused him to collapse, and during his collapse he suffocated.

The Detectives figured that such behaviour was typical of the boy’s “type.” “The urge to escape and conceal himself,” they explained to The Sydney Morning Herald, was a common “symptom” of his “mental derangement.” The Herald, in turn, assured its readers that Peat and Milson Islands housed only “the state’s worst mental cases.” [1]

The Peat and Milson Islands institution was one of the three mental hospitals in New South Wales which accommodated adults and children with intellectual disabilities, and the boy’s “derangement” was almost certainly what we today describe as an intellectual disability. In 1950, these three hospitals were state’s primary provision for people with such disabilities. They were run-down, overcrowded, and could only cater for a fraction of state’s intellectually disabled population. As the language employed by the Herald suggests, the public regarded the inmates at these hospitals, and intellectually disabled people generally, with fear and suspicion. They were seen as “mentals” who posed a very real threat to society.

Opposite The Sydney Morning Herald’s report on the Peat and Milson Islands boy there appeared a small advertisement for the Sub-Normal Children’s Welfare Association.[2] Formed four years previously and comprised of around two dozen parents with intellectually disabled children, the Association sought to find better ways of caring for their offspring. Over the next twenty years, the Scwa would radically change the lot of intellectually disabled people in New South Wales, growing into one of the state’s leading charitable organisations. Together with similar groups such the Slow Learner’s Advancement Society, the Blue Mountains’ Handicapped Children’s Association, and Aid Retarded Persons, the SCWA would open schools, sheltered workshops, and residential facilities for their children. They would also alter the terms of public debates about intellectual disability, transforming people with intellectual disabilities from being seen as “mental cases,” to being imagined as “children who never grow up.” My thesis explores the expansion of parent-run facilities for people with intellectual disabilities in New South Wales between 1950 and 1967, and the discourses developed by the parents as they justified decisions made for their children’s care.

These are the the opening paragraphs of the thesis (dissertation) I completed for my BA (hons) at the University of Sydney in 2007.

It was the genesis of my current research.

You can view or download the whole thesis on Google docs.


Earl, Dave. 2007. Caring for Their Children, Forever: Parent-run organisations for children with intellectual disabilities in New South Wales, 1950 – 1968. BA (Hons) Thesis, Department of History, The University of Sydney.

[1] “Boy’s Death in Asylum: Police Inquiry,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 12th May 1950, p. 5.

[2] “Sub-Normal Children,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 12th May 1950, p. 4.

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