Eugenics is the movement which advocated practices to improve the genetic composition
of a population, usually a human population. Immediately, connotations of Germany,
and its odious pursuit of the Aryan ‘super-race’ ideal in the middle of the twentieth
century, spring to mind. Two hundred thousand disabled people were eliminated by
the Nazis and 400,000 were forcibly sterilized.
Today, this mind-set seems foreign in view of the groundswell of opinion when the
needs of the disabled are highlighted - they even enjoy their own paralympics.
Eugenics was a by-product of evolution’s Survival of the Fittest teaching - indeed,
its earliest fervent promulgator was a cousin of Charles Darwin. The wisdom of caring
for the disabled ‘weak’ was questioned because of its drain on resources and because
it allowed them to reproduce. Darwin wrote, ‘We civilised men...do our utmost to
check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and
the sick...Thus, the weak members of society propagate their kind’.
In Britain and America, there was a call for government to improve biological strains
of humans through selective parenthood. It was argued that as a result of the application
of eugenics, crime, vagrancy, alcoholism, prostitution and unemployment could be
significantly reduced. Concern was also felt that the talented and the intelligentsia
should buck their trend of marrying late and having fewer children.
Supporters of eugenics included H G Wells, the economist, Keynes and George Bernard
Shaw who proposed that the State should issue colour-coded ‘procreation tickets’
to prevent the gene pool from being diluted by inferior beings. A Royal Commission
on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded was established in 1908 which equated
the care taken in breeding animals and plants with human pro-creation. In 1910, Winston
Churchill advised, ‘The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger
to the race’.
But what has eugenics to do with a little village in the Hertfordshire countryside
which had seen its share of inter-family and first-cousin marriages over the years
and which had its ration of feeble-minded as noted by census regulators?
It has been noted elsewhere that Lord of the Manor of Temple Dinsley (1901 - 1908),
James Barrington-White was among subscribers to a list to raise £15,000 for the Galton
Laboritory for National Eugenics in 1911.
Around the same time, the headmistress of Preston School, (Anna) Maud Mary Horsfield
gave an extraordinary interview to a newspaper reporter. Miss Horsfield was born
at Hitchin in early 1870. Her father, George, was an insurance superintendent - in
1895, he was with the Railway Passengers Assurance Company. The family (including
Maud) was living at 16 Highbury Road, Hitchin in 1911 and had Nellie Swain from Preston
as a maid.
Maud taught at Preston School from January 1909 until May 1913. In 1918, aged 38
and evidently not working, she married a soldier, Thomas James Davis (27) at Hampstead,
In October 1912, the Luton Times and Advertiser reported:
Possibly the reader will not be familiar with eugenics - but will certainly be aware
of its practice in recent history.
He or she might also question the relevance of eugenics to the village of Preston.
‘In an interview, the headmistress of Preston, Herts village schools where the subject
of eugenics is taught, said, ‘If you don’t teach children the facts of nature in
a sensible open way, they find out for themselves in a vulgar improper way. I believe
in telling children those essential facts concerning life which they must know sooner
or later. They ought to know; their ignorance is not a moral safeguard, it is the
reverse; in fact, sometimes our educational methods make me want to scream. Up ‘til
fourteen, a child is strictly cared for by the Government - even the temperature
of the schoolroom has to be regulated - but directly he is fourteen, he can straight
to the Devil for all the |Government cares.With girls, it is far worse than with
boys. So long as a girl keeps straight, no-one bothers to help her at all. Let her
go off the rail however and rescue homes galore will take her in hand. It is like
shutting the stable door after the horse has been stolen. I think eugenics should
be taught in every school in the kingdom’
Armed with this information, I went back over the Preston School logbook. Maud’s
comments were not noteworthy. When she started, she found the ‘children bright and
intelligent’. Maud said that she used the Archibald system of infant discipline.
Twice the School Inspectors reported ‘The discipline and tone are most praiseworthy’.
So, what influence did the teaching of eugenics have on the children of Preston?
On a purely personal note, my father was born in 1905 and attended the School throughout
Maud’s tenure. I saw no evidence that his thinking was touched by eugenics. Moreover,
my mother was profoundly deaf when they met and married and presumably would have
been classed as ‘weak’. I am grateful that they saw no benefit from practicing the
beliefs of eugenics....