March 28, 2015

Finest Hour 131, Summer 2006

Page 22

By Paul Addison

TRUE OR FALSE? “Winston Churchill tried to enact a law that everyone should have an IQ or mental health test, and wanted those who failed it to be sterilised.”


As Secretary of State for the Home Department (February 1910-October 1911) Churchill was much interested in the possibility of sterilising the “unfit.” Like most educated people of the time, he was much impressed by the theory of eugenics. Eugenics was based on the belief that heredity was far more important than environment in determining the physical and mental qualities of the population, and the eugenics movement enjoyed a considerable vogue between the turn of the century and the First World War.

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According to the eugenists, Britain was threatened by the “degeneration of the race.” The “unfit,” who were concentrated among the poor, were reproducing themselves more rapidly than the “fit,” who were to be found mainly among the middle classes. The remedy, they argued, was for Governments to practise positive eugenics through tax incentives to the middle classes to have more children, and negative eugenics through measures to prevent the procreation of the unfit.

In 1904 the Balfour Government appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into the “feeble-minded.” When the commission reported in 1908 it recommended that certain categories of the mentally inadequate should be compulsorily detained in institutions. As the Home Office was the department responsible for mental institutions, the proposal went to Herbert Gladstone, who deferred a decision, leaving the matter to be taken up by Churchill.

Shortly after Churchill’s appointment as Home Secretary he received a pamphlet extolling the practice of the ‘sterilisation of degenerates’ in the state of Indiana, where it was provided for by state law. In May 1910 he sent a minute to the Permanent Secretary, Sir Edward Troup, asking him to examine the idea: “I am drawn to this in spite of many Party misgivings….Of course it is bound to come some day.” The pamphlet was forwarded to Horatio Donkin, Medical Adviser to the Prison Commission, whose verdict was scathing. “The real fact is,” he wrote, “that no one hardly who tries to propagate doctrine or stimulate action in the matter of sterilisation has informed his or herself of the elementary grammar of Heredity …” Having visited mental institutions in the United States, Donkin continued, he had gathered that all the instructed and sensible doctors regarded the propaganda for sterilisation as “the outcome of an arrogation of scientific knowledge by persons who had no claim to it.” In case there was any remaining doubt about his views, Donkin characterised the Indiana pamphlet as “a monument of ignorance and hopeless mental confusion.”

There matters rested for the moment. On 15 July 1910, Asquith and Churchill received a deputation on mental welfare which included Montague Crackanthorpe, president of the Eugenics Society. Crackanthorpe made a renewed plea for the segregation of the feeble-minded, and pointed out that in the United States some states had laws forbidding marriage between the mentally retarded. Churchill cautiously replied that there were “immense difficulties” surrounding the question, and that some might think that it belonged “more to the politics of the future.” But if anything could be done to segregate the 130,000 feeble-minded people “so that their curse dies with them,” future generations would be grateful.

Behind the scenes, and in spite of the outright opposition of Donkin, Churchill was still pursuing the idea of sterilisation. At the end of July Troup tried his best to dissuade him. In the present state of feeling, Troup argued, it was “useless to attempt anything. I don’t think any Committee, Departmental or Parliamentary, wd have courage to report in favour of the proposal whatever the opinions of the individual members might be.” But Churchill pressed on. In September he wrote a memorandum to his officials explaining why he was so attracted to the idea of sterilisation.

I am surprised that Dr Donkin, with his great experience, should throw doubts upon the enormous influence of heredity in the transmission of defects physical, mental and moral. A very large proportion of criminals are abnormal only in the weakness of their faculty of self-control. Surely that weakness is definitely traceable in a great number of cases to parentage. I cannot agree with him that “virtue and vice, honesty and dishonesty” are “concrete virtues acquired by the individual.” On the contrary it is natural to men, in contradistinction to animals, to be virtuous and to be honest, to have that restraining power to repress the baser promptings of their lower nature, and virtue and honesty are the rule and not the exception in the human species. A minority exhibit a failure to control the primary animal promptings, and a still smaller minority again use their intelligence from a definitely immoral standpoint. It is that middle class, whose human intelligence is so far defective as to deprive them of the average restraining power, that we should seek by sterilisation of the unfit to prevent.

This question must be considered in its proper place in relation to the treatment of the mentally defective. For my part I think it is cruel to shut up numbers of people in institutions, to them at any rate little better than prisons, for their whole lives, if by a simple surgical operation they could be permitted to live freely in the world without causing much inconvenience to others. I certainly do not look forward to that millennium for which some scientists appear to hanker when the majority of the human race will be permanently confined within the walls of state-maintained institutions, attended by numerous doctors, and guarded by legions of warders.

It is rare to discover in the archives the reflections of a politician on the nature of man. Churchill’s belief in the innate virtue of the great majority of human beings was part and parcel of an optimism he often expressed before the First World War. In his view, sterilisation was a libertarian measure intended to free unfortunate individuals from incarceration. But let us turn over the coin. Churchill’s optimism was tempered, it seems, by a fear of national decline which he had never expressed before. In December 1910 he wrote to Asquith:

I am convinced that the multiplication of the Feeble-Minded, which is proceeding now at an artificial rate, unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a very terrible danger to the race. The number of children in feeble-minded families is calculated at 7.4 whereas in normal families it is but 4.2….Runciman [President of the Board of Education] tells me that he has now got 12,000 feeble-minded and defective children in the Special Schools; many others are in residential homes. These are all segregated and kept under control until the age of 16. At 16 the parents claim them in the hope of making some profit out of their earnings. The girls come out by the thousand at 16, are the mothers of imbeciles at 17, and thereafter with surprising regularity frequent our workhouse lying-in wards year by year. The males contribute an ever broadening streak to the insane or half insane crime which darkens the life of our towns and fills the convict prisons.

As Churchill explained to Asquith, he was certain that one day the “acquiescence” of the feeble-minded in a sterilising operation would enable a large number of them to regain their liberty. In the meantime he proposed a stopgap measure for the segregation of children. No more was heard of this and if a bill was drafted it never saw the light of day. But the momentum in favour of legislation continued after Churchill’s departure from the Home Office. In 1912 the Government introduced a bill for the detention of various categories of the feeble-minded, but withdrew it after opposition from libertarian back-benchers. In 1913 the bill was reintroduced with amendments to disarm the critics, and passed into law as the Mental Deficiency Act. By this time the power to prevent the procreation of the unfit had been whittled away to exclude all but the pauper mothers of illegitimate children. There was no mention of sterilisation.

Churchill’s intentions were benign, but he was blundering into sensitive areas of civil liberty. The same can be said of his policy towards aliens, a problem which briefly returned to haunt him. Churchill had led the Liberal opposition to the Aliens Bill of 1904, and opposed the Aliens Act of 1905. In the Manchester by-election of 1908 he had claimed, with some justification, that the Liberal Government had “practically smashed” the act and rendered its worst aspects “nugatory.” He also promised that the Government would make further concessions by establishing receiving houses and reducing the naturalisation fee. The first of these promises was carried out by Gladstone in 1909, but the second was overlooked.


Professor Addison is the director of the Centre for Second World War Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and author of Churchill: The Unexpected Hero (FH 127:37) and Churchill on the Home Front (1992), from which this article is excerpted by kind permission.

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