Today in London’s mental health history: Winston Churchill statue straitjacketed, 2004.

A fibre-glass statue of former Prime minster Winston Churchill locked into a straitjacket was banned from display in London’s Trafalgar Square in September 2004 by the Greater London Authority ‘on grounds of good taste‘ – after Churchill’s family objected, basically.

The statue, commissioned by the mental health charity Rethink, “was intended to illustrate how for hundreds of thousands of others the discrimination surrounding manic depression and other forms of severe mental illness acts like a straitjacket, denying people work and other opportunities to participate fully in society.”

Churchill famously wrote about the ‘black dog’ of depression that haunted him, and numerous posthumous diagnoses have suggested he was bi-polar, his well-known heavy drink problems have been seen as self-medication…

Ironically Rethink’s point was hardly anti-Churchill – they were trying to suggest that suffering from depression had not stopped him from becoming a great prime minister wartime leader, greatest living Briton blah blah etc…

Rethink had the statue driven around Trafalgar Square on September 14th 2004, in spite of the London Assembly decision… It then travelled around temporary exhibitions, before being later erected in Norwich in 2006. On which controversy erupted again, with Churchill’s grandson, Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, branding it as ‘absurd and pathetic’ (interestingly, adjectives often attached to Nicholas Soames himself, along with ‘parasitical’ and ‘bloated’).

However, some people with mental health problems were “incensed to have Winston as a pin-up boy for madness. After all, while he might have admitted to his “black dogs” of depression, he wasn’t exactly a mental health advocate, having derided the “unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes” and believed that the “source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed”.

That’s right, like many movers and shakers of his times, Churchill was an advocate of eugenics. In a memo to the prime minister in 1910, Winston Churchill cautioned, “The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”.

When he was Home Secretary (February 1910-October 1911) Churchill was in favour of the confinement, segregation, and sterilisation of a class of persons contemporarily described as the “feeble minded.” He supported the compulsory internment of people he labelled ‘mental defectives’ in labour camps, but thought forced sterilisation a preferable option on grounds of both cost and libertarian grounds (really).

“The improvement of the British breed is my aim in life,” Winston Churchill wrote in 1899; like most of his contemporaries, family and friends, he regarded races as different, racial characteristics as signs of the maturity of a society, and racial purity as endangered not only by other races but by mental weaknesses within a race.

“The phrase “feeble-minded” was to be defined as part of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, of which Churchill had been one of the early drafters. The Act defined four grades of “Mental Defective” who could be confined for life, whose symptoms had to be present “from birth or from an early age.” “Idiots” were defined as people “so deeply defective in mind as to be unable to guard against common physical dangers.” “Imbeciles” were not idiots, but were “incapable of managing themselves or their affairs, or, in the case of children, of being taught to do so.” The “feeble-minded” were neither idiots nor imbeciles, but, if adults, their condition was “so pronounced that they require care, supervision, and control for their own protection or the protection of others.” If children of school age, their condition was “so pronounced that they by reason of such defectiveness appear to be personally incapable of receiving proper benefit from instruction in ordinary schools.” “Moral defectives” were people who, from an early age, displayed “some permanent mental defect coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities on which punishment had little or no effect.”

In September 1910, Churchill wrote to his Home Office officials asking them to investigate putting into practice the “Indiana Law”-dominated by sterilisation, and the prevention of the marriage of the “Feeble-Minded.” Churchill wrote: “I am drawn to this subject in spite of many Parliamentary misgivings… Of course it is bound to come some day.” Despite the misgivings, “It must be examined.” He wanted to know “what is the best surgical operation?” and what new legal powers would be needed to carry out sterilisation.

Concerned by the high cost of forced segregation, Churchill preferred compulsory sterilisation to confinement, describing sterilisation as a “simple surgical operation so the inferior could be permitted freely in the world without causing much inconvenience to others.”

To be fair, many on the liberal left also embraced eugenics… GB Shaw, HG Wells, Labour historian Harold Laski, JBS Haldane, JM Keynes, the New Statesman and the Guardian all went through pro-eugenics phases… Many of them also thought the rights of horrible working class people and suspect foreign types also ought to be restricted when it came to re-production. Socialism meant progress, efficiency, sobriety, proper organisation by the right people, and the weak, morally corrupt and unfit would just have to fall by the wayside as the shining future was built.

More details of Churchill’s beliefs on eugenics


Some retrospective diagnoses of the ‘great man’

Churchill, despite the widespread adoration of him in the UK, is not universally popular… not just warmongering, but obsessed by bloodshed; egomaniacal, fiercely aristocratic, fond of sending in troops against strikers, grandiose and militarily incompetent, misogynistic, racist, anti-semitic…

This article is worth a read


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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