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Joseph Garratt - a Man with Mental Disability

Cardington church from south-east Mar 2007
Cardington church from the south-east March 2007

In 1842 a fictitious legal case (using the standard unknown person – John Doe – a practice which continues in the United States of America) was a vehicle for a dispute over the ownership of the land between Avis Wyche and Richard Garratt.

The land concerned was five acres, three roods in Wilshamstead which had belonged to Joseph Garratt (Richard Garratt's uncle), and which he left, in his will of 13th December 1794, to his brother Thomas Garratt (Richard's father) for his life and, after his death to Thomas' son Joseph. Thomas died in 1815 when the property was devised to his son Joseph and when he died in 1840 without children his eldest brother Richard was left as his heir in the eyes of the law.

Richard Garratt's title was disputed by Avis Wyche, his sister and her relatives, who alleged that Joseph Garratt had made a conveyance in their favour in 1810 or 1811. Numerous witnesses testified that Joseph Garratt was "a person of weak mind from his earliest years and quite incapable of entering into any contract" making the alleged conveyance void, thus his property rightly devolved to his brother Richard.

The evidence prepared for the case gives us a lot of information about Joseph, who clearly had quite a severe learning disability. The evidence also tells us quite a lot about how adults with learning disabilities were treated in the community, though it must be remembered that Joseph's father, as a farmer, was a man of some social standing rather than one of the poor and so he could afford to have the responsibility of looking after his son which some families would have found difficult.

Joseph, son of Thomas and Martha Garratt, his late wife, was baptised at Cardington on 3rd February 1767 and lived there until he was about forty. About 1810 his father went to live in Millbrook and Joseph was transferred to the care of his sister Avis who lived, with her husband, on a farm in Oakley; a few years later the farm was given up and the family moved to Stevington where they owned a little property. Joseph lived with his sister until his death; he was buried at Stevington on 9th February 1840 and so would have been about seventy three at the time of his death – a good age for those days. He appears to have had excellent physical health, never seeing a doctor except during his last illness.

The most interesting parts of the case are the statements of a number of people alleging that Joseph was an "imbecile" or an "idiot". These were the standard medical words used at the time for a person of "weak mind" and had not yet become purely a term of abuse. Thirteen people in all testified:

1. Joseph Brown of Cardington, tailor who was 79 and had lived at Cardington all his life, knew Thomas and Joseph. Joseph had been "very weak in his intellect and quite different to other boys". Joseph was employed in his father's farmyard and never went to school. He was always: "quite a butt and laughing stock for the other boys" and "his intellect appeared to continue just the same as when he was a child". He could never speak on any subject but could answer "yes" or "no" to a question. He was quite ignorant of value of any commodity and incapable of transacting any business though he could do common farm work. As an adult he had the habit of sucking his thumb; he dressed like a farm servant: "but always looked like an idiot in face and manner". He was shaved every Saturday night, being unable to do it himself, and always bought a penny, presumably as he was incapable of receiving change.

2. Thomas White of Cardington, miller, who went to live at Cardington fifty eight years earlier and whose father's land bordered that of Thomas Garratt stated that Joseph acted as farmer's boy, driving the plough but could not attend it like a "normal person". If his father said anything rough to him he took offence and refused to work saying: "I'll match the old devil" and "I'll have nothing to eat", these quotes becoming bywords in Cardington. Thomas White considered him "a downright idiot". He never changed; on holidays and after harvest home he would attempt to sing in the public house but could only remember two or three words, break down and say "I cannot forget it"; he had no capability for business dealings.

3. Thomas Trueman of Cardington, innkeeper of the King's Arms said that Joseph drove the plough and acted as labourer for his father. Trueman was apprenticed to a butcher and supplied the Garratt family's meat, going to the house to kill pigs up to twice a week. Joseph had no idea of value and could not transact business; he could not count to twenty and never spoke to anyone. He would often suck his thumb like a child and would try to sing children's songs at the public house but could never manage more than a word or two, one of his favourites being "Little Robin Redbreast".

4. Samuel Preston of Cardington, farmer, stated that, as a child he and other boys walked to school through Thomas Garratt's fields and often saw Joseph driving the plough or among the sheep but he never appeared to be working "like another man". He never spoke plainly and always sucked his thumb although about thirty or forty years old. Preston and the other boys "used him as a fool", teasing and mocking him by putting their thumbs in their mouths when he would become very angry and try to catch them. They often got hold of him by the leg and threw him down then ran away. He could count sheep up to seven but never any further and he would then cry "hold up" and begin again.

5. Benjamin Prole of Cardington, farmer stated that Joseph had a speech impediment  and "acted as if he was half silly". He drove the horsed plough but could not hold it properly, although strong and healthy. He might know a shilling from a sixpence but had no idea of value; he could not hold a conversation and did not seem to listen to what people said. He could utter a few broken sentences and swear when in a passion - "he was very passionate". Prole was persuaded to go to Stevington to take Joseph to vote in the General Election of 1826, but he was rejected at the poll and Prole gave him to the care of someone from Stevington to take him home again.

6. Rev. Thomas Gadsby stated that in 1809 he wished to purchase the land in Wilshamstead as it bordered his and contracted sale with Thomas Garratt for £300. Theed Pearse senior acted for Gadsby and Thomas Lilburn for Garratt; at a meeting of the parties in March 1810 Joseph Garratt, entitled to the land on his father's death, appeared to be an imbecile and idiot and Pearse objected to Gadsby taking a conveyance from him. Richard Garratt offered to make any deed to confirm the sale but by then Gadsby decided not to proceed.

7. William Rose of Cardington, formerly a labourer, remembered Joseph as looking "silly", of being different from other people in his walk and being very dirty in appearance. He could drive the horsed plough but was incapable of doing a day's work, although strong and healthy. When he was helping to sieve some wheat and a smaller sieve than usual was being used, Joseph was heard to say "wheat yields very badly this year, two sieves won't fill a bushel". He had no idea of value; he would visit Cardington occasionally after going to live with his sister in order to visit a relation, Mr. Clark, he never appeared any different;

8. Samuel Marriott of Cardington, blacksmith who moved from Oakley to Cardington thirty seven years previously stated that Joseph was only capable of "a little drudgery work". Marriott used to go to the farm to do smithing work and Joseph was sent to him to do little jobs; Joseph was never trusted at any business. He would sing as a child, words put together without any meaning and with no tune. He was a family connection and visited Marriott occasionally after going to live in Oakley; he never changed.

9. Samuel Hulatt of Oakley, flour seller and Robert Hulatt, late of Oakley, miller, his brother both knew Joseph whilst he was at Oakley and considered him weak minded. He worked as a labourer on the Wyche family farm but he could not plough or sow and was incapable of business.

10. Thomas Thompson of Cotton End, labourer, then in his 50th year, went to live with Thomas Garratt in Cardington for a year as a farm servant when he was sixteen. There were no other servants except Joseph who was always known as "Crazy Joe". Joseph sometimes held the plough but could not work properly. He was often offended with his father and would not work, sometimes swearing he would kill his father and he sometimes struck him with a stick. He could not fix the plough and once nearly broke it, Thompson having to do it for him. His father sometimes allowed Joseph to pen the sheep at night but would take Thompson to check on them in morning stating "I can't trust that malthead". Thompson and Joseph were at Elstow Fair and Joseph wished to buy some gingerbread nuts for a girl and was unable to count the money, the girl doing it for him. The only money he ever had were the trifles his father gave him. He liked to sing "A Polecat and a Weasel" when at work but could remember no more words.

11. George Cave of Stagsden, farmer; had been born at Cotton End and knew Joseph Garratt who would sometimes drive, sometimes hold the plough but he could not do it properly although very strong of body. Cave saw him at Stevington fifteen years before his death and Joseph did not remember him. Two years later he saw him again and spoke to him of people in Cardington, none of whom Joseph remembered.

12. A man named Paine of Pavenham was a doctor and lived at Oakley and Stevington and knew Joseph Garratt, attending him in his last illness; he considered him an idiot.

13. John Harris, surgeon to Bedfordshire Lunatic Asylum, with a private asylum of his own who, on hearing the evidence, felt he had had the condition from birth with no likelihood of any improvement.

Bedford Asylum about 1820 [Z49/442]
Bedford Asylum about 1820 [Z49/442]