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Seminar 11: From Eugenics to the Problem Family


For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the state has been preoccupied with ‘problem families’, families who are perceived to place extra burdens on charity, social welfare and the state through their poverty, poor health practices and irresponsible behaviour. This seminar focuses on these changing concerns across the modern period, highlighting particular historical moments, including the rise of eugenics and Thatcher’s Britain.

1. How has state intervention in the family's health changed from the mid-nineteenth century to the present?
2. Have failing families largely been seen as resulting from the failure of mothers?
3. Assess the relationship between poverty and the problem family?
4. How have ideas of individual and family responsibility been integrated within state welfare provision from the mid-nineteenth century to the present?


Seminar Reading:

B. Taylor and B. Rogaly, ‘“Mrs Fairly is a Dirty, Lazy Type”: Unsatisfactory Households and the Problem of Problem Families in Norwich 1942-63’, Twentieth Century British History, 18 (2007), 429-52. e-journal

John Welshman, ‘In Search of the “Problem Family”: Public Health and Social Work in England and Wales, 1940-70', Social History of Medicine, 9 (1996), 448-65. e-journal

Pat Starkey, ‘Mental Incapacity, Ill-health and Poverty: Family Failure in Post-War Britain’, in J. Lawrence and P. Starkey (eds), Child Welfare and Social Action in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: International Perspectives (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), 256-76. e-book

Primary Sources

Francis Galton, Essays in Eugenics (1909) historical texts

Digital Archives

The Eugenics Society Archive (The Wellcome Library)

The Eugenics Archive

Additional Reading:

(refer back too to the literature on birth control)

Lucy Bland and Lesley A. Hall, ‘Eugenics in Britain: The View from the Metropole’, in Alison Bashford and Philippa Levene (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 213-27. e-book

Lindsay Farrall, The Origins and Growth of the English Eugenics Movement, 1865-1915 (New York and London: Garland, 1985).

Julie Grier, ‘Eugenics and Birth Control: Contraceptive Provision in North Wales, 1918–1939’, Social History of Medicine, 11 (1998), 443-48. e-journal

A. Levene, ‘Family Breakdown and the “Welfare Child” in 19th and 20th Century Britain’, History of the Family, 11 (2006), 67-79. e-journal

Lesley Hall, ‘Women, Feminism and Eugenics’, in Robert Peel (ed.), Essays in the History of Eugenics (London: The Galton Institute, 1998).

Greta Jones, Social Hygiene in Twentieth-Century Britain (London: Croom Helm, 1986).

Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

John Macnicol, ‘Eugenics and the Campaign for Voluntary Sterilization in Britain between the Wars’, Social History of Medicine, 2 (1989), 147-69. e-journal

John Macnicol, ‘From “Problem Family” to “Underclass”, 1945-95’, in Rodney Lowe and Helen Fawcett (eds), Welfare Policy in Britain: The Road from 1945 (London: Macmillan/Institute of Contemporary British History, 1999), 69-93.

John Macnicol, ‘In Pursuit of the Underclass’, Journal of Social Policy, 16 (1987), 293-318. e-journal

Pauline M.H. Mazumder, Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its Sources and its Critics in Britain (London: Croom Helm, 1992).

James Moore, 'The Fortunes of Eugenics', in Deborah Brunton (ed.), Medicine Transformed: Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1800-1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press for the Open University, 2004), 266-97.

Dorothy Porter, ‘“Enemies of the Race”: Biologism, Enviromentalism, and Public Health in Edwardian England’, Victorian Studies, 34 (1991), 159-78. e-journal

Gavin Scaffer, Racial Science and British Society, 1930-62 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008). e-book

G.R. Searle, The Quest for National Efficiency: A Study in British Politics and Political Thought, 1899-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971).

G.R. Searle, Eugenics and Politics in Britain, 1900-1914 (Leyden: Noordhoff, 1976).

R.A. Soloway, Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth Century Britain (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).

Pat Starkey, ‘The Medical Officer of Health, the Social Worker, and the Problem Family, 1943 to 1968: The Case of Family Service Units’, Social History of Medicine, 11 (1998), 421-41. e-journal

Pat Starkey, Families and Social Workers: The Work of Family Service Units, 1940-1985 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000). e-book

Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London (London: Penguin, 1976).

Nancy Stephan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800-1960 (London: Macmillan, 1982).

Dan Stone, Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race and Eugenics in Edwardian and Interwar Britain (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002).

Mathew Thomson, The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Social Policy and Democracy in Britain, 1970-1959 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

John Welshman, From Transmitted Deprivation to Social Exclusion: Policy, Poverty, and Parenting (Bristol: The Policy Press, 2012).

John Welshman, ‘Social Science, Housing, and the Debate Over Transmitted Deprivation’, in Mark Jackson (ed.), Health and the Modern Home (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 266-84.

John Welshman, ‘From the Cycle of Deprivation to Troubled Families: Ethnicity and the Underclass Concept’, in Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland (eds), Migration, Health and Ethnicity in the Modern World (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 174-94.

Essay Questions

How influential was eugenics in Britain?

Why was there such a strong focus on the 'problem family' in mid-twentieth-century Britain?

How was social policy and medical treatment concerning the 'mentally deficent' informed by eugenics?