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Definition of an imbecile

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Victoria Report 26 Apr 2006 09:31

Hi. Can anyone tell me what the distinction was between imbecile, lunatic and idiot on census records? I have found an imbecile in my family (!) and am interested to know exactly what that meant.


Dave Report 26 Apr 2006 09:50

Definition of terms used on Census returns England & Wales 1841 - 1891 : Lunatic : a mentally ill person with periods of lucidity Imbecile : persons who have fallen in later life into a state of chronic dementia Idiot : persons who suffer from a congenital mental deficiency Regards Pat


Merry Report 26 Apr 2006 09:51

There is no clear answer to this............I have tended to think an idiot would be a person who has been affected by something since birth (such as brain damage from lack of oxygen at birth).....An imbecile might be someone who has suffered a decline in their mental state (such as senile dementia) and a lunatic, someone who suffers (possibly) aggressive mental health problems that may vary in their severity from time to time. But this is my personal definition only. Here is something from a site about the census: Higgs states (pp88-89 A Clearer Sense of the Census' by Edward Higgs, pub. PRO ISBN 0 11 440257 4). ' The exact definitions of terms such as 'lunatic', 'imbecile', 'idiot' and 'feeble-minded' are plainly extremely problematic'. He goes on to say that according to the 1881 Census Report 'No accurate line of demarcation can be drawn between the several conditions indicated by these terms. Speaking generally, however, the term idiot is applied in popular usage simply to those who suffer from congenital mental deficiency, and the term imbecile to persons who have fallen in later life into a state of chronic dementia. But it is certain that neither this nor any other definite distinction between the terms was rigorously observed in the schedules, and consequently no attempt has been made by us to separate imbeciles from idiots. The term lunatic also is used with some vagueness, and probably some persons suffering from congenital idiocy, and many more suffering from dementia, were returned under this name.' Merry


Heather Report 26 Apr 2006 09:53

My 91 year old GGMx2 was in hospital on the 1901 shown as imbecile - As she had been a VERY strong woman all her life looking after her kids whilst hubby at sea and running a shop - I think this probably meant what we would see as senile dementia now or Alzheimers.


Merry Report 26 Apr 2006 10:04

Yes, I agree, Heather......several of my elderly Victorian rellies are described as ''imbecile'' on their last census report :o(( One has dementia on the death cert (a year after the census) Merry


Tammy Report 26 Apr 2006 10:10

I have just found an ancestor (distant cousin) aged 25 with the word imbecile next to his name in 1851. I was assuming he was born like this!!! Tammy :~)

Glen In Tinsel Knickers

Glen In Tinsel Knickers Report 26 Apr 2006 10:39

Hi all 1871 Census for the Lincoln Workhouse ties in with comments made by Merry. Imbecile is recorded as imbecile,the idiots are all idiots from birth. Not a nice way to put it,but it does indicate a difference between the two descriptions. The imbeciles also appear to be the older individuals,the younger ones seem to be termed the idiots. Maybe the enumerator was onto something.... Glen


Merry Report 26 Apr 2006 10:45

Sorry to but in, but Glen.....I hope you have had your new name ''passed'' by Ed......You might be lowering the tone of the Tips Board!!!!!! LOL Merry


Merry Report 26 Apr 2006 10:48

Some lunatics were certified, so if you can find documentation about them then that can be really informative. I have two for whom I have all the Dr's reports etc. They actually don't sound that bad to me........ I think we have to take the emumerator's descriptions fairly losely.....he would write what he was told in most cases and the person supplying the info would often just be a family member. Merry

Glen In Tinsel Knickers

Glen In Tinsel Knickers Report 26 Apr 2006 10:54

I'm sorry Merry but do you realise your last but one post was neither a tip or a lookup request. LOL My tip don't increase your assetts with turnips!!!!!! Glen (stomping off to the sound of rustling tinsel,in search of Ed)


Merry Report 26 Apr 2006 11:09

Glen, it might be dangerous to Stomp in your condition?! Merry


Linda Report 26 Apr 2006 12:20

I would just like to add that the definition of a lunatic is this... an insane person daredevil: a reckless impetuous irresponsible person insane and believed to be affected by the phases of the moon My grandad had this condition and was by all accounts a meak and mild man until the full moon then he would just flip and be violent towards grandma and their 6 children. My mum loved her dad dearly but has vivid memories of having to be locked in a room for her own safety. It must have been dreadfull to suffer from this and to see someone you love and trust change so much, he died in 1957 but I wonder now a days would he be classed as bi polar or even schizophrenic but back then in the 1800's it was a recognised condition hence the terms lunatic asylums or loony bins..Linda


Victoria Report 26 Apr 2006 12:29

Thanks everyone for your replies - this does make some sense, although it would seem that you have to take the terms very loosely.


Margaret Report 13 Aug 2015 17:58

I have a relative who was described as an 'idiot' aged 8 so presumed that perhaps she had Down's Syndrome or had been starved of oxygen at birth as others have suggested.


ArgyllGran Report 14 Aug 2015 10:53

That's an interesting old thread to resurrect, Margaret - no definitive answer there, but interesting to read people's opinions.
Possibly not all records followed the official guidelines posted by Dave back in 2006.


Dawn Report 15 Aug 2020 10:04

Margaret I have a relative who in the 1911 census aged 8 is listed as imbecile. I have often wondered if she had been born starved of oxygen or had downs syndrome. More so the DS as she died at the age of 33


nameslessone Report 15 Aug 2020 10:13


Margaret’s post was 5 years ago. The original post was made Fourteen years ago !