In a corner of Teddington in south-west London, lies an imposing building. Now the Langdon Down Centre, from 1868 to 1997 it was the Normansfield Hospital
Established by John Langdon Down, Normansfield was designed to provide care, education and treatment to people with a learning disability. Langdon Down also spent time there researching the condition that bears his name – Down’s syndrome.
Nowadays, a large part of the hospital is being converted into flats, while the remaining wing is home to the headquarters of the Down’s Syndrome Association and Down Syndrome International. On Saturday 28 January, the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability will open its doors.
Ian Jones-Healey, the museum’s archivist, has spent the last year collecting artefacts and books, and working with volunteers and museum designers to set up the museum. “There are all these archives and artefacts about the people who lived here,” he explains. “I want to give them a new lease of life.”
A theatre and model boats
Within the Langdon Down Centre is the Normansfield Theatre – a Grade-II listed theatre built in 1879 as an entertainment hall. The theatre was used for church services and entertainment for the residents and staff. Now, visitors can admire it when they tour the museum.
Surrounding the theatre is a warren of corridors and rooms, which were once used for scenery and costume changes. The bulk of the museum’s collection now resides here.
Before founding Normansfield, Langdon Down had been employed as medical superintendent at the Royal Earlswood Asylum in Surrey, and many of the artefacts originate from there. They include a cabinet full of medical implements, as well as model ships made by one of Earlswood’s residents, James Henry Pullen.
“Langdon Down described Pullen as an ‘idiot savant’,” says Ian. He was most likely autistic and created a number of models, including one of Brunel’s ship the Great Eastern. “It’s very accurate,” says Ian. “He worked on it for three years.”
Ian has also been hunting down more artefacts. One woman, who had worked at the hospital, brought him a box that she had saved when the hospital closed. “It contained photographic glass negatives from the Victorian period – one of which was of John Langdon Down,” says Ian. Other contributions include magazines describing daily life at Normansfield.
As well as collecting physical objects, Ian hopes to build an oral history of Normansfield experiences. One person who can provide some memories is Mencap’s president, Lord Rix. His daughter Shelley, who had Down’s syndrome, lived at Normansfield, and he will tell his story at the museum’s conference in May.
A home for 200
When the hospital was established, around 200 people would have lived at Normansfield. “What is extraordinary is that in Langdon Down’s time, Normansfield was very progressive,” says Ian. “There were 42 acres of land and a boathouse on the Thames. Everyone was treated as family and given a present from the Langdon Downs at Christmas.”
Most of the artefacts that Ian has amassed so far are Victorian. However, he plans to bring the museum up to date. “It would be good to display artwork by people with a learning disability and to have groups of people with a learning disability performing in the theatre.”
The museum is a tribute to his hard work, and it’s also fitting that it’s situated in the very building where Dr Langdon Down worked so hard to improve the prospects of people with a learning disability.
“I most liked getting to see the beautiful theatre”
Lorainne Bellamy, Mencap’s communications assistant (pictured), visited the museum for Viewpoint.
I thought it was really interesting to see the things that are there. The thing I liked the most was getting to see the beautiful theatre. I saw how they change the scenery, the original stage and the incredible ceiling.
I liked seeing the boats and things that had been made by James Henry Pullen. You could tell that a lot of work went into those – the detail on his model ships was amazing.
I also really liked seeing the family tree of the Langdon Downs. It showed that a member of the family was involved with Normansfield until the 1970s.
People should go there to find out about the history of learning disability and how things have changed since the old days – they haven’t always improved.
The Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability is open on Monday afternoons and Saturday mornings.
Call 020 8614 5100 or go to www.langdondownmuseum.org.uk