The Life of James Henry Pullen – Langdon Down Centre

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.

Photo of James Henry Pullen
James Henry Pullen

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's design for a ship
Pullen’s design for a ship

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.

One of the ship models that Pullen designed and built
One of the ship models that Pullen designed and built

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.

Model of the ship The Great Eastern
The Great Eastern

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.

Interior of the Great Eastern
Interior of the Great Eastern

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.

Model of the ship The Princess Alexandra
The Princess Alexandra

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.

The Giant
The Giant

Langdon Down Centre

The Langdon Down Centre
Entrance to the Langdon Down Centre

I visited the Normansfield Theatre in the Langdon Down Centre a couple of weeks ago to attend a performance. I reviewed the production here, but I wanted to post something on the theatre and the building itself, as it has a history much more interesting than most.

The centre was founded as a private home and hospital/care facility by Dr. John Langdon Down, who specialised in the care of people with learning disabilities. Many had the condition which now bears the Doctor’s name – Down’s syndrome. Langdon Down’s approach was radical for the time, with his emphasis on education and sympathetic care.

The theatre itself is utterly stunning. It’s rare to find such a beautiful surviving example of a private Victorian theatre; completed in 1879, it was built as an entertainment venue by Langdon Down as somewhere for his patients and students to explore drama and music. The performance I attended was a music hall-style revue telling the story of Langdon Down and one of his patients, James Henry Pullen, whose incredible creative ability is still evident in the ‘Giant of Earlswood’ which is still on display in the Centre, and the stunningly detailed ships he constructed from wood, on display in the museum.

Normansfield Theatre - proscenium arch
Normansfield Theatre – proscenium arch
Normansfield Theatre - side wall
Normansfield Theatre – side wall
Normansfield Theatre - ceiling
Normansfield Theatre – ceiling
Normansfield Theatre - back of the theatre
Normansfield Theatre – back of the theatre
The Giant of Earlswood
The Giant of Earlswood