Recently I went to a talk at the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability. Delivered by Ian Jones-Healey, the LDM Archivist and Curator, the talk was entitled The Life of James Henry Pullen and focused on the life of this resident of the Royal Earlswood Asylum, called an “idiot savant” by Dr John Langdon Down, the Asylum’s Superintendent.
Langdon Down pioneered revolutionary treatment of “mongolism” (later renamed Down’s Syndrome after him) He ran the Normansfield Asylum, where the LDM is located, but prior to this worked with James Henry Pullen at the REA. The two centres differed in that the Royal Earlswood Asylum was free, whereas the Normansfield Asylum, as a private enterprise, had to charge residents. The REA building still exists, near Redhill.
Pullen (1835-1916) originally resided at the Asylum for Idiots in Essex Hall, Colchester, before moving to Earlswood. Originally supervised by Dr John Connolly and Reverend Andrew Reid, he seemed to thrive under the care of Dr Langdon Down. Pullen may have been on the autistic spectrum, although his condition is difficult to diagnose over a century on. He remained in institutions all his life, though he seemed happy enough making things: he had a reputation as a talented carpenter, and examples of his work are on display in the museum.
During the talk we were shown Pullen’s “autobiography”: complex illustrated panels telling the story of his life. These are fascinating and rich in detail. We also saw pictures of Pullen’s many creations, which we were able to view “in the flesh” later on in the museum: they were donated by the Earlswood Museum in 2011.
Pullen designed and made models of fantasy ships: one looked like a dragon, another was surrounded by angels and clouds. He also designed a rotary sailboat. However, his greatest achievement was probably the heavily detailed scale model of the SS Great Eastern which he designed and built in 1872. The ship, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, had laid the first transatlantic cable between the UK and North America. When Pullen launched it in the asylum pond, it sank – he hadn’t thought about buoyancy – but he tried to fix the problem and, although he never attempted to launch it again, it is believed that the ship would have floated the second time around.
Pullen also built a model of a 40-gun Napoleonic-era man-of-war, the Princess Alexandra, inspired by a picture on a pocket handkerchief and an illustration in the Illustrated London News. He also designed another ship made of musical instruments. One of his best-known constructions is the Giant: an impressive structure, possibly inspired by soldier toys, inside which it is possible to climb.
Pullen’s creations have to be seen to be believed: they are quite simply stunning, incredibly detailed and perfectly put together. While talks like the one I attended only happen a couple of times a year, the Langdon Down Museum is open most Saturday mornings, and it is certainly worth a visit.