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Learning disability: from asylums to supported living

Learning disability, Asylums, abandoned royals and a Victorian genius


Royal Earlswood Asylum

In 1855 the first purpose-built asylum for people with a learning disability was opened. Its name used language that we would now find completely unacceptable. The Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Redhill, Surrey, was a charitable institution that housed and aimed to give some education to people with a learning disability.


Before that many people with a learning disability in Victorian England lived in workhouses or asylums for people with mental health problems. In the Royal Earlswood, people would have slept in dormitories and life would have been very regimented, but attempts were made to educate people and help them develop skills. One example of this was James Henry Pullen, known as the ‘genius of Earlswood Asylum’.

The Victorian Genius

James Henry PullenLearning Disability

Pullen was sent to Earlswood not long after it opened. He was 15 years old and lived there for the rest of his life.

Pullen was a highly talented artist and model maker, and one of the rooms at Earlswood was converted into a studio for him. He painted and carved many nautical subjects, and made a series of drawing about his life (shown above).

One of his more surprising creations was a fantastic 15 foot high automated carnival figure that was based on a small model of a Prussian soldier he had seen in an exhibition. Pullen’s giant was paraded around the grounds during the asylum’s annual fete, and he also made drawings of it that are quite haunting.

Pullen’s collection is held at the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability. https://langdondownmuseum.org.uk/the-collections/james-henry-pullen-collection-a-resident-of-earlswood/

Abandoned royals

The Royal Earlswood is also famous for housing Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, nieces of the Queen Mother and cousins to the Queen. They were sent there in 1941 and had virtually no subsequent contact with their family, showing how the stigma and misconceptions about learning disability continued into the 20th century even in the highest social class. Katherine and Nerissa were the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, The Queen’s Hidden Cousins, in 2011.

Changing attitudes

Many people with a learning disability continued to have no other option than to live out their lives in similar institutions until relatively recently.

Attitudes about human rights and civil liberties were changing post-war but slowly; it finally became recognised that abuse was common in these institutions and that people did better living outside them anyway.

The 1990 Community Care Act paved the way for giving choices to people with a learning disability about how they live, and supported living is now a recognised model for providing people with a learning disability their own homes with support to live the life they choose in their communities.

The Royal Earlswood Asylum finally closed in 1997 and is now a block of luxury flats.

Zetetick Housing is a charity providing quality exempt accommodation supported living homes to people with a learning disability since 2007 under the specified clauses of housing legislation. We work closely with local authorities, care commissioners, care and support providers, landlords and property developers, and source accommodation that fits the tenant’s preferences rather than the other way round.

Help Zetetick to continue our work by donating to one of our appeals https://www.totalgiving.co.uk/charity/zetetick-housing, joining our mailing list, or following Zetetick and sharing our posts on social media.




  • Avatar of Steph Cohen

    Steph has worked for Zetetick Housing for 5 years. She is highly valued in the finance and engagement depts. Both her Masters degree and her interest and activity with music enhance her creative writing skills.

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