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The Undesirables by Sarah Wise
The Undesirables is published by Oneworld Publications in hardback at £22.

Sarah Wise

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 indefinitely under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. Their ‘crimes’ were various: women with children born out of wedlock; rebellious teenagers caught shoplifting; those with epilepsy, speech impediments and chronic illnesses who had struggled in school; and many 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 – out of sight, out of mind. Through painstaking archival research, award-winning historian Sarah Wise shines a light on this shameful chapter. Piecing together the lives irrevocably changed by this devastating legislation, The Undesirables provides a compelling study of how early twentieth-century attitudes to class, gender and disability resulted in a nationwide scandal – and how they continue to shape social policy to this day.

“The heartrending stories Sarah Wise has unearthed beggar belief… beautifully researched and truly compelling.” — Catherine Bailey, author of Black Diamonds.






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