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Sarah Wise in Conversation: The Undesirables

Thursday 18 April at 7:30 pm
Join multi award winning historian Sarah Wise discussing her latest book: The Undesirables; The Law That Locked Away A Generation

Through the early twentieth century, ‘liberal’ Britain locked away thousands of innocent people.

By 1950, an estimated 50,000 people had been deemed ‘defective’ by the government and detained for life under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. Their ‘crimes’ were various: women with children born outside of wedlock; rebellious teenagers caught shoplifting; those with learning disorders, speech impediments and chronic illnesses who had struggled in school; and, of course, those who were simply ‘different’. Forcibly removed from their families and confined to a shadow world of specialist facilities in the countryside, they were hidden away and forgotten about – out of sight, out of mind.

Through painstaking archival research, award-winning historian Sarah Wise pieces together the lives irrevocably changed by this devastating legislation and provides a compelling study of how early twentieth-century attitudes to class, gender and disability resulted in a nationwide scandal. Horrifyingly, she reveals how these archaic practices and assumptions continue to shape social policy and have led to the unnecessary detention of countless young people with autism and learning disabilities in the present day.

Sarah Wise teaches 19th-century social history and literature to undergraduates and adult learners and is visiting professor at the University of California’s London Study Center. Her debut, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. It was the inspiration for Sky’s The Frankenstein Chronicles.

Her follow-up, The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum, was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize, and was the basis for the BBC’s series The Victorian Slum. Her most recent book, Inconvenient People, was shortlisted for the 2014 Wellcome Prize.

She contributed a chapter to ‘Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps’ — the best-selling illustrated book by Thames & Hudson/London School of Economics. Her TV work includes providing background material for BBC1’s ‘Secret History of Our Streets’, and BBC2’s ‘The Victorian Slum’, and she has twice been the history expert on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Most recently she appeared on Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’, speaking about the work of Charles Booth.

‘A masterpiece of historical research. Sarah Wise’s exposure of the ways in which we treated so many people a century ago, and still many in recent years, begs the question of who is the most morally defective. The Undesirables also raises the spectre of what the large majority of our members of parliament support today, which will come to be seen as so terrible and unjust in future.’ —Danny Dorling, author of Shattered Nation

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Thursday 18 April
7:30 pm - 10:00 pm
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The Wanstead Tap Ltd
352 Winchelsea Road
London, England E7 0AQ United Kingdom


The Wanstead Tap