Dame Ellen Pinsent has a primary school named after her and a meeting room at Birmingham City Council bears her name. As a pioneer, she is very important to the history of this city, in the fields of both special education and politics, so I feel it is important to look into her achievements.
When examining the legacy of someone born over 150 years ago, it’s very hard to judge them by today’s standards. The language and attitudes of the time were so completely different that even Dame Ellen Pinsent’s job titles “Commissioner in Lunacy” or board member of the “Royal Commission for the Care and Control of the Feebleminded” sound insulting, rather than caring to us now. However, when you look at the amount of dedication and care she put into her work, it is hard not to feel admiration for what she achieved and particularly her practical attitude of getting involved and going into schools. In this article, I will use the words of the time for historical accuracy, although I realise that they are offensive in today’s context.
Ellen Parker was born on 26 March 1866 in a little village between Lincoln and Grimsby. She was the youngest child of Rev Richard Parker and Elizabeth Coffin. Aged 22, she married her brothers’ friend, Birmingham solicitor Hume Pinsent and moved to the city she’d call home for the next 25 years. There, her circle of friends was “a group of middle-class women who between them dominated organised philanthropy in Birmingham”, according to Anna Brown, who wrote about her in an article called “Ellen Pinsent: including the ‘feebleminded’ in Birmingham, 1900–1913”.
They were a well-off family with five servants for a five-member household reported in the census of 1901. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in the first world war, with both sons dying. Richard Parker Pinsent was killed in action at Richebourg St Vaast at the age of 22 on 9 October 1915, while eldest son David Hume Pinsent was the co-pilot of a plane which broke into five parts in mid-air on 8 May 1918, and he died instantly at the age of 26. Her daughter Hester Agnes Pinsent followed in her mother’s footsteps, also working as a mental health worker, having three children and being created a DBE in 1965 (becoming Baroness Hester Adrian).
Ellen Pinsent moved from being a philanthropist to a position where she could directly influence public policy in 1900, when she was co-opted to the Special Schools Sub-Committee of the Birmingham School Board. According to Brown, she didn’t seem to be very well qualified for this post, but took to it with great passion, visiting all the elementary schools in the city and personally selecting many of the children who were transferred to the special schools. We can see how quickly the energy and commitment she brought led to her authority increasing with her appointment as Chairman of the Special Schools Sub-Committee in 1903.
In her position, Ellen Pinsent dramatically increased the numbers of children attending special schools, changing the whole field. In January 1898, when The Special Schools Sub-Committee was formed, there were 49 deaf children in two schools for the deaf and 66 ‘feebleminded’ children in three special classes. This doubled by Ellen Pinsent’s appointment and she then volunteered to visit all fifty-six elementary schools containing about 60,000 children and personally ‘selecting’ about 250 of them for examination by the Medical Superintendent of the Board. By 1913, when Pinsent left Birmingham, there were eight special schools for 1,281 ‘mentally defective’ children. She had also served for two years as Birmingham’s first female councillor, having been elected in the Edgbaston Ward in 1911.
She faced opposition to such increases in spending on educating those who were generally considered ‘ineducable’ at the time. However, she argued that:
“The ratepayers’ money is used to teach many things which will never be turned to a money-making use, but in the teaching of which lies our best hopes of the humanising and refining of the people. Surely education should tend to unfold and develop all that is best in a child’s nature. The purely utilitarian view is not in the long run either wise or economical. If, therefore, we retain in our classes some few who will never directly contribute to their own support, but who are undoubtedly better disciplined and less uncontrollable when they leave us, are we stepping far beyond what is being done for other children?”
However misguided we may feel that many of her policy positions were now (particularly in respect of institutions and eugenics) her motivations were of a concern for the children’s welfare. Having campaigned firstly for there to be a minimal level of schooling for children that would have had none before; she then campaigned for their permanent care. As Brown says: “Consistent throughout her actions is a desire for the best care (in her view) for marginalised children, which was possible at any given time and context.”
In the field of special education, which was only just beginning at that time, she had a huge influence over Birmingham’s special schools. As a pioneer, she didn’t get everything right in this new and unexplored field, but she should be applauded for taking her concern for the welfare of some of Birmingham’s most vulnerable children and trying to make a positive difference.