Tuesday, 26 August 2014


There were some very moving stories in last week's episode 1 of ITV's Secrets from the Asylum with three celebrities uncovering the records of their ancestors who all became patients in lunatic asylums. Aside from some slight over-reactions from the participants, the programme did succeed in showing how people with senile dementia, post-natal depression and general paralysis of the insane (the last stage of syphilis) were treated in Victorian times.

The concluding episode airs on Wednesday and I will be interested to see which other mental conditions are covered. To tie in with this and with Kate Tyte's excellent recent guest post on this blog, I'd like to share part of an article from Living London about a journalist's visit to St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics in 1900.

He described "grimy, forbidding St Luke's" as essentially "the twin sister of Bethlem; not so comfortable, perhaps, not with such fine grounds, but broadly a replica of the famous cure house. It receives the same class of patients, has pretty much the same rules, and has the same system of wards."

Both St Luke's and Bethlem looked after patients who were generally from the educated and professional classes, and art, music and literature was actively encouraged. At St Luke's in a room housing the worst female cases were "two attendants of neat, nurse-like appearance. In one corner a woman is to be seen standing like a pillar; in another a lunatic is in the attitude of prayer - outwardly, a rapt devotee; and close by a poor deluded creature is kneeling before a box of paints, some of which she has been sucking."

The journalist described the contrast of a middle-aged woman "sitting in listless vacuity, her head drooping, her hands clasped in her lap, fit model for Melancholia" with another in the middle of the room "striding to and fro with regular steps over a fixed course - so many forward, so many back - muttering unintelligibly and raising her arms aloft with machine-like regularity."

 He went on to note, "How truly painful it is to study the faces of the patients in this and other rooms! The knitted brow of acute melancholia, the grotesque indications of delusion - here perplexity, misery and fear, there dignity and exaltation - the fixed look of weariness indicative of the reaction that follows acute mania, are all present, with many other characteristic expressions."

On red-letter days such as St Luke's Day and on festival days like Christmas, there were frequent dramatic and musical entertainments, occasional dances, billiards and other games, as well as ample reading facilities. According to the journalist, "Everything possible is done to rouse and amuse patients, and that in this the officials succeed is attested by the high percentage of cures - a percentage which, happily, increases every year."

Lunatic patients at Bethlem and St Luke's were the lucky ones; they were of a more superior class to those housed in county lunatic asylums and their mental conditions were such that there was always hope they would be cured and discharged.

Pauper lunatics were not so lucky. They were admitted to the workhouse to the 'mental' wards, which had padded rooms where the most violent cases were housed for their own safety. The journalist described the newest of these rooms as being "about three feet wide and seven feet high, and lined throughout - top, bottom, sides, and door - with perfectly smooth padded rubber, more yielding than a pneumatic tyre inflated for a lady's weight."

If the mental state of pauper lunatics was too serious to be treated in the workhouse, they were transferred to a county lunatic asylum. Although conditions in these institutions had improved by 1900, they were frequently overcrowded and understaffed, and their patients were too often deemed to be 'hopeless cases'. These were the men and women who were destined to die in the asylum. Then, as now, mental illness was a tragedy not just for the patients, but for their families too.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014


It's been a while since I blogged but I'm starting back with a great guest post from Kate Tyte, an archivist, writer and expert on mental health history. Writing about Victorian lunatic asylums, she offers excellent advice about how to get admitted to one and, more importantly, how to get out again:

Any visitor to mid-Victorian England would find the healthcare landscape very different from today’s. There were no state-funded hospitals, but in 1846 each county was required to open an asylum to care for the mentally ill.

The modern, mid-Victorian asylum was an optimistic place. Doctors had cast aside the superstitions and barbaric treatment of previous centuries. They felt certain that a pleasant therapeutic environment, free from chains, straitjackets and other ‘mechanical restrains’, would soon cure most of their patients. They would apply the new ‘moral method’ of treating lunatics. Rest, work and rewards for good behaviour would soon coax their patients back to health.

A Victorian Lunatic Asylum, circa 1900 (Copyright Michelle Higgs)

Visitors to Victorian England who want to get admitted to an asylum will need to:

•    Have depression, manic-depression, psychosis, or epilepsy
•    Get classified as an ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’ – in other words, have a developmental disorder or learning disability, such as Down’s syndrome
•    Be an elderly person with dementia
•    Be an alcoholic or drug addict
•    Contract syphilis. Wait until it infects your brain and nervous system, giving you delusions of grandeur, psychosis, and gradually paralyses you
•    Contract ‘puerperal fever’ in childbirth, from poor hygiene. This can lead to temporary insanity. The good news is you’ll probably recover within 6 months, and be able to go home again

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor (courtesy of Wellcome Images)

Once you’re inside, you can enjoy some of these wonderful activities:

•    Look at the view – most asylums were in the countryside as a lovely view was thought essential to recovery
•    Do some therapeutic gardening – asylums were largely self-sufficient communities where staff and patients worked together to produce most of their own food
•    Learn new craft skills – asylums had workshops including upholsterers, tinsmiths, cobblers, tailors and bakeries so there’s plenty of scope for hipster hobbies!
•    Sew your own clothes. Female patients at Broadmoor in 1864 hand-sewed an astonishing amount of clothes and household linens, including 1138 shirts, 197 dresses and 270 bath towels!
•    Catch up on some reading – asylum wards were well-furnished with libraries
•    Become a card sharp – in the days before television, patients spent a lot of time playing cards
•    Have a knees-up around the old Joanna – the women’s wards were sometimes furnished with pianos
•    Join a band – or a sports team, choir, or amateur dramatic troupe. For the exhibitionists in asylums, there was plenty of scope for showing off their skills to others. Boules and cricket were the preferred sports, but football was usually banned for being too violent
•    Enjoy some seriously hip entertainment. Troupes of actors, magicians, singers, bands and vaudeville acts played on the asylum circuit. Variety shows with sentimental and comic songs were popular, as were short one-act farces. You’d pay a fortune for that kind of entertainment in London’s trendy East-End bars nowadays!
•    Indulge in some carb-loading. A typical asylum patient had bread and butter for breakfast, a dinner of 4oz of meat, 12oz of potatoes, fruit pie or suet pudding, unlimited bread, and ¾ pint of beer. Four times a week, some of their potatoes were swapped for seasonal vegetables. Tea was bread and butter again. You wouldn’t get your five a day, but you certainly wouldn’t be hungry!

Somerset County Asylum Patients at a Dance (courtesy of Wellcome Images)

When you’ve seen enough and want to leave, you’ll need to convince the superintendent that you’re perfectly sane and not likely to relapse. Work hard, do what you’re told, and engage in rational conversation, and you could be released within a year! Just don’t mention that you’re from the twenty-first century…

Thanks, Kate! I'm sure it would be fascinating to visit a Victorian lunatic asylum but I think I'd prefer to do it as a day visitor... For more details on Victorian asylums, mental health history and musings on other historical subjects, visit Kate's excellent blog at Kate Tyte Writes.