By Dr Emmeline Burdett
In this ten-part radio series Peter White presents a history of disability in the 18th and 19th centuries. First broadcast on Radio 4 last year, podcasts and transcripts are available on the BBC’s website.
At the end of episode seven (‘Wooden Legs and Wheelchairs’), its presenter, Peter White, says:
‘Thinking about these soldiers with their wooden legs … reminds me about what disability really is. Perhaps it’s always been more about what society expects of you, than about what your body can actually physically achieve’.
In this instance, Peter White was referring to the differing expectations of physically impaired men and women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The historians with whom White had been discussing the experiences of amputee ex-servicemen had given examples of how these could often be rather desirable, custom-made accessories with such things as articulated knees – as in the case of the Marquis of Anglesey, whose leg was shot off in the Battle of Waterloo (1815).
Following this, the Marquis commissioned elaborate prosthetic legs – apparently four at a time – from James Potts of London. Poorer amputees would carve – or have carved – a simple wooden ‘peg-leg’ which would be tied onto a stump, or alternatively a small, wheeled cart not dissimilar to a skateboard, which they would use to get around.
These methods of resuming one’s life, however, tended to be used mainly by disabled men. One of White’s interviewees for episode seven – the historian Amanda Vickery, made this point. To illustrate it, she gave the example of Mary Hartley, a cache of whose letters Vickery had found at the Berkshire Record Office in Reading. Hartley, a spinster residing in Bath in the 1780s, had an extremely painful leg, but chose to stay in her room rather than avail herself of a ‘gouty chair’ or any other device to improve her mobility.
Vickery’s explanation for this is that disabled women’s mobility was simply not considered to be important. Lack of source material might of course mean that it is not possible to reach a more comprehensive conclusion, but Vickery’s explanation seems at once too mono-causal, and too dismissive of Mary Hartley the individual, preferring to see her as Mary Hartley, the peg upon which to hang an argument. Towards the end of episode seven, Vickery also makes the ambitious statement that
‘disabled women are often single, because disability disqualifies you for marriage’.
I like to think that the fact that the next episode - ‘Sex and Marriage’ - both rebutted Vickery’s claim, and showed beyond doubt that the idea was a social construct, was entirely intentional.
This was an engrossing and illuminating series. It is a shame, though, that all ten episodes were devoted to physical and sensory impairments. By apparently assuming that there was nothing to say about the experiences of people in the past who had learning or mental-health difficulties, the series missed a golden opportunity to both bring a little-known area of history to public attention, and also to address continuing stigmatisation.