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Ethical Matters:
The Undesirables: The Law that Locked Away a Generation

2nd June 2024 · 3:00pm - 4:30pm

Brockway Room | Virtual event

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Ethical Matters: The Undesirables: The Law that Locked Away a Generation

Through the early twentieth century, ‘liberal’ Britain locked away thousands of innocent people.

By 1950, an estimated 50,000 people had been deemed ‘defective’ by the government and detained for life under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. Their ‘crimes’ were various: women with children born outside of wedlock; rebellious teenagers caught shoplifting; those with learning disorders, speech impediments and chronic illnesses who had struggled in school; and, of course, those who were simply ‘different’. Forcibly removed from their families and confined to a shadow world of specialist facilities in the countryside, they were hidden away and forgotten about – out of sight, out of mind.

In this Ethical Matters talk, award-winning historian Sarah Wise pieces together the lives irrevocably changed by this devastating legislation and provides a compelling study of how early twentieth-century attitudes to class, gender and disability resulted in a nationwide scandal. Horrifyingly, she reveals how these archaic practices and assumptions continue to shape social policy and have led to the unnecessary detention of countless young people with autism and learning disabilities in the present day.

Sarah Wise teaches 19th-century social history and literature to undergraduates and adult learners and is visiting professor at the University of California’s London Study Center. Her debut book, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. Her follow-up, The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize, followed by Inconvenient People which was shortlisted for the 2014 Wellcome Prize. Her latest book, The Undesirables: The Law that Locked Away a Generation, will be available on the day.

Age Recommendation: 16+

Price: Standard (in person) £9 •Concessions (in person) £6 • Standard (online) £6 • Members FREE

Access Information

Due to the age and Grade Il listing of the building, there is no lift access to rooms above the ground floor.

All the ground-floor rooms are fully accessible by wheelchair. Main Hall (street access, step-free), Brockway Room (street access, step-free), Bertrand Russell Room (street access, shallow ramp), Hive Cafe (street access, step-free), There is also an accessible toilet on the ground floor opposite the Brockway Room.


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Further Info

This event will be held with an in-person audience at Conway Hall and online via livestream. Everyone wishing to join this event must register for a ticket in advance.

If you have any accessibility enquiries, please contact us at / 020 7405 1818.

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