James Henry Pullen (1835–1916), also known as the Genius of Earlswood Asylum, was a British savant, possibly suffering from aphasia. He was born in Dalston, North London, in 1835 and grew up in Balls Pond Road. He and his brother William were regarded as deaf, mute, and developmentally disabled. By the age of seven, Pullen had learned only one word, mother, which he pronounced poorly.
As a child, Pullen began to carve small ships out of firewood and draw pictures of them. At the age of 15, in 1850, he was taken to the newly commissioned Earlswood Asylum (later called Royal Earlswood Hospital) in Reigate, Surrey, when it opened in 1855. Once admitted into it, Pullen spent the rest of his life in the asylum. He died there in 1916, and his obituary was published in the Daily Telegraph.
Pullen, the Genius
In 1878, Pullen – a man who did not speak until he was seven and barely spoke a comprehensible word for the rest of his life – drew his own pictorial autobiography in which he portrayed his mother as a remote figure, handing him over to an asylum for children at the age of seven apparently without a backward glance. When he was moved to the newly built Earlswood Asylum, one scene shows him in tears of despair.
Apparently, Pullen could not give any answers through speech, but could communicate through gestures. He could read lips and gestures but never learned to read or write beyond one syllable. Earlswood Asylum tried to teach its patients a number of handicrafts to support themselves and the asylum.
Picture Credit: “File:James Pullen’s model of SS Great Eastern at Langdon Down Museum.JPG” by P0mbal is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Pullen became a gifted carpenter and cabinet maker. Most of his drawings were of the corridors of the asylum, but he also made practical items, such as bed frames, for the needs of and use by the asylum.
He was highly regarded, paid a salary for designing and building furniture for the asylum, and was provided with a workshop for which he created a mobile bench that could be raised into better light.
Pullen was alternatively aggressive or sullen. He could be reserved but also wrecked his workshop once in a fit of anger. He did not like to accept advice and always wanted to get his own way. Nautical themes were a particular favourite and the staff at the Redwood Asylum once used the gift of an admiral’s uniform to placate Pullen when he became infatuated with a local woman he decided he wanted to marry.
Over the 60 years spent at Earlswood, Pullen completed many fine models, paintings and drawings. Queen Victoria accepted some of his drawings, and Prince Albert received one that Pullen had drawn of the Siege of Sebastopol in the Crimean War, which he based on newspaper accounts.
Pullen even attracted the interest of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), who sent him pieces of ivory so he could carve something out of them.
The Superintendent of the asylum was Dr John Langdon Down – the man who transformed the care of people with learning disabilities and who first described and classified Down’s syndrome. Down gave Pullen significant leeway both in terms of managing his occasional violent outbursts and by providing for his creative outputs in the form of a specially converted studio-room – from which the creativity would endlessly flow. Another example of the leeway given to Pullen was that he was allowed to eat his meals with the staff.
Pullen’s masterpiece is a model ship, a 10-foot-long replica of SS Great Eastern, which he started in 1870 and spent seven years to complete. Pullen made everything, including 5,585 rivets, 13 lifeboats and interior furniture in miniature, himself. The model ship sank for lack of buoyancy in its maiden voyage, but Pullen rectified that flaw later. The model was exhibited in the Crystal Palace.
Pullen also built a large, mechanical mannequin in the middle of his workshop; he would sit inside it, manipulate its face and appendages and talk through a concealed bugle in its mouth. After Pullen died in 1916, his workshop became a museum of his work until the Royal Earlswood Hospital was closed in 1997. It is now an apartment complex.
The state barge and his magnificent model ship named Princess Alexandra in honour of the royal wedding of 1863 – launched on the pond in the asylum gardens in front of invited patrons and locals as well as the hospital brass band and all the residents – were exhibited at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle. Today, many of the treasures Pullen created, including Pullen’s model of SS Great Eastern (see page 1), are in the care of The Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability at Normansfield, Teddington.
Although well known as an example of an Idiot Savant – one who is mentally retarded but has a special talent in one narrow field – it is now known that Pullen was intelligent but suffered from a severe communication disorder and high-frequency deafness.
Pay a visit to The Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability website – you won’t be disappointed.
In particular, you can download a booklet – The Life of James Henry Pullen (1835-1916).
Sources and Further Reading
Picture: Pullen in a Royal Navy uniform, holding what appears to be a navigational chart.
Historical photograph of James Henry Pullen (1825-1916)
Permission Details: Copyright expired no later than 1966 under Copyright Act 1911 S.52
Picture Credit: Original publication: Unknown Immediate Source: https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/subjects/disability-history/royal-earlswood/james-pullen/
- Savant syndrome is a rare condition in which someone with significant mental disabilities demonstrates certain abilities that far exceed average. The skills that savants excel at are generally related to memory. This may include rapid calculation, artistic ability, map making, or musical ability. Usually, only one exceptional skill is present. About half of cases are associated with autism, and these individuals may be known as “autistic savants”. The condition usually becomes apparent in childhood, but sometimes develop later in life. Savant syndrome is estimated to affect around one in a million people and affects more males than females, at a ratio of 6:1. ↑
- Aphasia is an inability to comprehend or formulate language because of damage to specific brain regions – usually caused by a stroke or head trauma. Aphasia can also be the result of brain tumours, brain infections, or neurodegenerative diseases, but the latter are far less prevalent. It affects about 2 million people in the US and 250,000 people in Britain. ↑
- At: https://langdondownmuseum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Pullen-Booklet.pdf ↑
- Download from: https://langdondownmuseum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Pullen-Booklet.pdf ↑