About the Ida Darwin Site

Language: Through our site we have used the language of the time in order to be historically accurate. ‘Feeble-mind’ or ‘idiot’ could be used to describe a range of people, from individuals with learning disabilities to those with a brain injury. We no longer use these words and today they are considered offensive.

Although the Ida Darwin site was opened in 1966, its creation had a long history, tied in to how Britain thought about people with a learning disability.

In 1845, society had no clear way to differentiate between someone with a mental illness and someone with a learning disability. The first distinctions came with the Lunacy Act of 1886 which defined people using two categories; ‘lunatics’ and ‘idiots or imbeciles’.

Following this there was an increasing concern for the services provided for people and in 1895 the’ National Association for Promoting the Welfare of the Feeble-Minded’ was created with the objective to prove permanent care for the ‘feeble-mind’ in residential homes. The Royal Commission for the Care and Control of the Feeble-mind was set up in 1904 with the warrant ‘to consider the existing methods of dealing with idiots and epileptics, and with imbecile, feeble-minded, or defective persons’. They published several recommendations in how to provide care, including having a ‘Board of Control’ who would oversee the local authorities provisions.

Extract from the ‘Report Of The Royal Commission On The Care and Control Of The Feebleminded’ by Great Britain Commissions for The Care And Control Of The Feeble Minded.

Ida Darwin, along with Florence Ada Keyes, founded the Cambridge Association for the Care of Feeble-mind in 1908 in order to put these recommendations into action. One of the primary aims was to raise public awareness and Ida Darwin campaigned hard for the passing of the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, which was the first legislation by the British government specifically related to services for people with learning disabilities.

The Mental Deficiency Act embodied two key principles: separation from the community and control. The science of eugenics was in fashion at the time and those who believed in it argued that ‘defective’ individuals would cause a general ‘degeneration’ of the population unless they were controlled and segregated. The ‘Board of Control’ specified that ‘mental defectives’ should be either closely supervised or kept in an institution.

In 1946 the ‘Board of Control’s functions were transferred to the National Health Service (NHS). During the 1940s and 1950s, the service for people with learning disabilities were limited, as was the understanding of their needs and wishes. While the introduction of the NHS in 1948 brought these hospitals within the new service, there was only limited public and political awareness of the poor state of these hospitals, which were underfunded and often short of staff.

During the 1950s the Eastern Regional Hospital Board decided to build an institution for people with a learning disability in Cambridge. They chose to build on the land behind Fulbourn Hospital and asked the Fulbourn Hospital Management Committee to run the new hospital. The work began in 1963, and the first patients were admitted in 1965. The unit was named ‘The Ida Darwin Hospital’ after Lady Ida Darwin. Gwyn Roberts was appointed as the Medical Superintendent.

Image of residents of the Ida Darwin Hospital Site featured in the Nursing Mirror in 1972.

In the 1960s ideas about learning disabilities altered. The 1960s were a time of economic growth and, following a series of public scandals, there was increased interest in the lives and education of people with a learning disability. In 1961, Enoch Powell, then Health Minister announced that the Government would not spend any more money on mental health hospitals which, he said, were going to become redundant, and instead the focus became to develop community services.

In 1971 the White Paper ‘Better Services for the Mentally Handicapped’ was released, with Dr Gwyn Roberts, being a major contributor. This advocated a reduction in institutional places. In the 1980s people with learning disabilities began to move in substantial numbers from institutions to domestic housing in the community. The Ida Darwin site was closed in the 1990s, with the residents having moved into individual or shared houses under the supervision of Professor Tony Holland.


As a brain injured person it can sometimes be hard to feel positive about your progress but the gym instructor at Headway Cambridgeshire pushes me in the right direction and helps me to feel more enthusiastic about what I am able to achieve and what I might achieve in the future.