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.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014


If you visit Victorian England right at the end of Queen Victoria's reign, a look inside one of the luxurious department stores or draper's emporiums is highly recommended. From the 1880s, shopping had become a leisure pursuit for the wealthy and the largest drapery stores, especially in London, employed hundreds of staff to cater to the needs of their clientele.

By 1900, female shop assistants, or 'shopgirls', had become extremely important to the success of the draper's emporiums, not least because most of the customers were women. The best establishments often had upwards of 250 young ladies working for them; it was their job to dress the windows of their departments and deal with the customers when they came in.   

When Mrs Belloc-Lowndes wrote her article on 'London's Drapers' for Living London (1901), she commented that:

"The best-looking young lady assistants are generally to be found in the millinery department; for human nature being what it is, many a middle-aged plain customer will the more willingly invest in a hat when she has seen it gracefully poised above the pretty face of the young lady who has been told to attend to her wants."

'A cash desk' from Living London (1901)
If a customer had an account and was known to the assistant, the amount of her purchase was simply debited to her; otherwise, she was asked to pay ready cash or to pay on delivery. This was taken advantage of by some ladies and "one type of customer whom the experienced saleswoman can detect almost at a glance" would order a great number of things to be paid for on delivery and then instruct her parlourmaid or butler to refuse the parcels when they arrived the same evening or the next morning.

The busiest times of day were from 12 to 1 o'clock and from 3 to 5 o'clock which meant that meals for the shop assistants in the larger emporiums had to be staggered with five different times. Half an hour was allowed for dinner and twenty minutes for tea. It was more difficult to find time for meals when the bi-annual sales weeks just after Christmas and at midsummer were taking place.

'Sale Day at Peter Robinson's' from Living London (1901)
At the end of the working day, the young lady shop assistants had the whole evening for leisure, unlike, for instance, domestic servants. They also had Saturday afternoons from two o'clock. However, according to Mrs Belloc-Lowndes, in the largest drapery emporiums, they were "not allowed to go out from Saturday to Monday unless they can show a letter from their parents authorising them to do so, and stating where they are going." They were, however, provided with pleasant sitting-rooms and plenty of books and games. 

'A Workroom in a Draper's' from Living London (1901)
Unseen by the public, women also toiled in the workroom which was a very busy department of a drapery emporium. Before the 1870s, ladies preferred to buy their materials and have them made up at home or by their own dressmakers. By 1900, the sale of made-up goods was the largest and most profitable side of the drapery business. It was important to be able to alter bodices and skirts to fit the figure of every customer.   

From the cash desk and shopfloor through to the workroom, women were vital to the success of the large drapery establishments. Take the opportunity to do some shopping in Victorian England and watch these talented females at work!

Friday, 23 May 2014


I was very pleased to be invited to join the Writers' Blog Tour recently by my Twitter friend Gillian Mawson at http://whaleybridgewriter.blogspot.co.uk
I hope you’ll enjoy your visit, and will go on to sample the blogs of the other talented writers, highlighted below. We are part of a growing international community of writers, working to introduce our blogs to a wider audience. Christine Findlay, Chair of Bookmark Blair, (Blairgowrie Rattray and The Glens Book Festival) in Perthshire, Scotland, invited us to take part (see www.cfindlay.blogspot.com).

Gillian Mawson invited the writers Anne Allen (http://www.anneallen.co.uk), Rita Roberts (http://ritaroberts.wordpress.com) and myself to follow her on the tour.

Today, it's my turn to be host on the Writers' Blog Tour and, as with the previous hosts, I'm going to share some insights about my writing.

What am I working on?

I'm currently working on publicity for my latest book, A Visitor's Guide to Victorian England (Pen & Sword, 2014). I am also at the early research stages for my next book which has a working title of Servants' Stories: Life Below Stairs In Their Own Words. For this, I'm returning to the world of domestic service, having written Tracing Your Servant Ancestors a couple of years ago. It's fascinating but I've had to learn some new interviewing skills because all my other books have been based in the Victorian period, or earlier, and all the sources took the form of documents, rather than living people! 

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is a difficult question because there are so many brilliant writers who write about the Victorian period. All I can say is that Victorian social history is a real passion of mine, and has been since I started tracing my family tree at the age of 16. I also try very hard not to restrict my work to London because I think it's important to tell the history of other regional centres as part of the story of the UK's past.

'A London May Day' from The Graphic, 1876
Why do I write what I do?

I've partly answered this above but I love to search out the seemingly insignificant details which bring history to life for readers. I'm interested in how people lived and worked on a daily basis - basically, I'm very nosy!

How does my writing process work?

Thorough research of primary sources is always the first stage of the process when I'm working on a new book. I find out which archives have the most promising material and try to visit as many as I can. At the same time, I'll be sorting out the structure of the book and the kind of content I want to include. Then I supplement the primary sources with information from secondary sources. When all the research has been done, I start to write and will do several drafts before the final edit. 

Scarborough Sands from Fish Pier, circa 1900
Finally, I'd like to introduce you to two wonderfully talented writers whose work you may enjoy.

Sue Wilkes

Sue, a Lancashire lass who lives in Cheshire, has written extensively on social, literary and industrial history. A creative writing tutor specialising in non-fiction, Sue has written many articles for history and family history magazines such as BBC History and Who Do You Think You Are? Her seventh book, A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England, will be published by Pen & Sword in October 2014. Sue blogs at:
http://suewilkes.blogspot.com and http://visitjaneaustensengland.blogspot.co.uk

Angela Buckley

Angela Buckley is the author of The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada (Pen and Sword, 2014). She writes regularly for family history publications on a range of subjects including crime, poverty and the plight of the working classes in Victorian England. Born in Manchester, Angela enjoys exploring the city’s colourful past and the experiences of her own ancestors in the slums. Her blog is dedicated to Victorian crime: http://victoriansupersleuth.com


Thursday, 8 May 2014


Today, I'm delighted to be hosting a guest post from Denise Bates, author of Breach of Promise to Marry: A History of How Jilted Brides Settled Scores. Her fascinating book sheds light on this little known law and explores the different ways in which it was used to claim for compensation after a seduction led to pregnancy; to exact revenge and financially ruin an ex-suitor; to illegally extort money in order to set up home with another lover; or simply to seek recompense for ‘hurt feelings’. Here, she offers sage advice for gentleman visitors to Victorian England:

Although the Victorians considered that men were the stronger sex, one very unusual law put them at a disadvantage. Asking a woman to become his wife and then changing his mind could have serious repercussions for a gentleman's bank balance. Some women enforced their right to compensation for a man's selfish behaviour by suing him for breach of promise to marry. Usually they obtained £100 damages (current value approx £10,000), but a few came away from court with damages of £1,000 or more to soothe their hurt feelings if a man's conduct was considered particularly bad.
Nine out of ten women who claimed for breach of promise received some money from their former suitor. This high success rate encouraged a few fraudulent claims from artful hussies whose family and friends concocted an unlikely story about a man proposing; or plied him with drink until he did so. Assuming that you have no wish to change your bachelor status or part with any of your hard-earned cash to buy your way out of an unfortunate romantic entanglement, a few simple rules will protect you:

Do not spend too much time with a single woman. Odd as it seems, juries occasionally inferred an engagement from the couple's behaviour, even if neither party had spoken the word ‘marriage’.

If invited to the family home, do not accept any refreshment from a woman or her relatives unless you know what is in it. A few parents may slip something which causes temporary amnesia into food and drink given to a male visitor.

If you find yourself alone with a woman, immediately check inside the cupboards and outside the room. Occasionally, a friend or sister who was wedged in an unlikely hiding place or standing with an ear against the door overheard a disputed proposal.

Should you discover that a woman's sister has already won damages for breach of promise, take your leave immediately as lightning can strike twice. Sheffield sisters Emily and Eliza Laycock achieved a notable feat in 1850 when both were awarded several hundred pounds in damages for breach of promise at different courts in consecutive weeks.

If, despite your best endeavours, you find that a woman is threatening to sue you for breach of promise, you have two choices. One is to offer to settle immediately, out-of-court and in cash, as soon as she signs a piece of paper freeing you from all other claims. This is the gentlemanly way to behave as it is discreet, avoids legal costs and will allow you to negotiate a lower figure than the £100 she will be demanding. The other option is to defend the claim. If you don't mind your name being bandied about in the newspapers and are absolutely sure that you can prove that you never proposed, go ahead and take your chance with the jury. It is a high stakes gamble, but as one woman in every ten lost her claim, lady luck might just be on your side. 

Denise Bates is the author of Breach of Promise to Marry, A History of how Jilted Brides Settled Scores (Pen & Sword Books, £12.99). She has investigated a range of cases to discover new information about what a claim for breach of promise meant to the Victorians.

Thanks, Denise! So if you're a gentleman visitor to Victorian England, add breach of promise to your list of pitfalls to avoid...

Thursday, 1 May 2014


When I agreed to host this month's History Carnival, I was looking forward to seeing the wealth of talent in blogging across all historical eras - and I was not disappointed. My research and writing is usually restricted to the Victorians with occasional forays into the Edwardian and WW1 periods. Reading the outstanding blogs from all kinds of history and other eras was both liberating and exciting, akin to visiting a new country for the first time. I decided not to follow a particular theme but just chose subjects which I found interesting. I hope you enjoy reading my selections as much as I did.

From the British Library's Untold Lives blog came the strange tale of the 'Deliberately Dangerous Beard' which sparked angry scenes at a church in 1843. As it was posted on 1 April, I thought it might be an April fool but no, it's true!  

Two Nerdy History Girls highlighted some 'Interesting Births, Marriages & Deaths in 1817' including runaway brides and a woman giving birth to her twentieth child.

On the Imperial & Global Forum, Paul Doolan explains how the 'Dutch Imperial Past Returns to Haunt the Netherlands' and has forced Dutch courts to acknowledge and apologise for the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Indonesia during decolonisation between 1945 and 1949.

Over at Khronikos, Greg Rogers discusses the role of 'Iroquois Informers: Spies, Knowledge and Empire in the Northeast Borderlands' in crossing imperial boundaries and returning with intelligence for the British and French.

Also at Khronikos, in 'Kernels of Conflict: Farmers, Canners, and Environmental Knowledge in Maine's Canned Sweet Corn Industry', Cody P Miller examines the uneasy friction between farmers and canners.

At the Art and Architecture, Mainly blog, Helen Webberley offers her view of the History Channel's Churchill & The Fascist Plot in her post on 'Archibald Ramsay, the Right Club and British Fascism'.  

Jonathan Willis at The Many-headed Monster blog tells the tale of Goodwife Dannutt who was driven to distraction by noise in his post on 'Elizabethan 'madmen' Part II: Nightmare Neighbours and Tudor ASBOs'.

For St George's Day, the British Library's Medieval Manuscripts blog looked at the 'Anatomy of a Dragon' and how the creature was portrayed in medieval illustrations; this post has some beautiful accompanying images taken from the manuscript collection.

In 'This is not a test', Ian Curry at Vaguely Interesting discusses the shocking nuclear test which took place near Totskoye in the southern Urals in 1954 and the human consequences for 45,000 of the Soviet Union's own troops.

On the Vintage Everyday blog, you can read about the exuberance of 'Two Young Girls Bicycling Across America in 1944', inspired by Mark Twain; scroll down the post to find the link to the girls' full diary entries.

Over at The Pirate Omnibus in 'Expressing Your Love', Simon Abernethy explains how Victorian railways aided elopements and how another new invention, the electric telegraph, helped to thwart them.

In 'The Anzac Day Silence, Religion and Garland' at Stumbling Through the Past, Yvonne Perkins looks at how the Christian rituals associated with Anzac Day came about, 98 years on from the first commemoration. 

On the Cotsen Children's Library blog, Jeff Barton writes about the illustrations of 'School Days in Children's Books' and how they add to our understanding of classrooms and learning environments in the past.

The Chirurgeon's Apprentice looked at 'Death's Doll: The World's Most Beautiful Mummy', the unsettling story of a two year old girl who died from pneumonia in 1920 and was embalmed and placed inside the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Italy.

At Frog in a Well, Alan Baumler highlights the extraordinary Chinese film footage that can be viewed online in his post 'The Internet is Awesome - Chinese History in Film Version'.

Looking ahead to May, at the Furnace Park blog, Adam Smith offers sage 'Advice from an Eighteenth Century 'Gardener's Calendar'. Then, as now, at this time of year, gardeners were advised to pay careful attention to cucumber plants.

Finally, a big thank you to everyone who nominated a blog entry and to those who wrote them. Next month's History Carnival 134 on 1 June will be hosted by Ian Curry at Vaguely Interesting. Don't forget to nominate your favourite blog entries from May - see you there!

Monday, 28 April 2014


Today, I'm very happy to be hosting a guest post from Gill Hoffs, author of The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic. Her fascinating book tells the tragic story of the passengers and crew who lost their lives when RMS Tayleur struck rocks off Ireland and sank. Here, she explains the controversy behind the tragedy:

Most people haven’t heard about the first major White Star Line disaster, which occurred nearly 60 years before an iceberg ended the maiden voyage of arguably the most famous ship of the modern age.  I hadn’t until a curator at Warrington Museum in the north-west of England told me the source of the porthole lying, minus its ship and unnaturally dry, in a display case.  He advised me to read the survivors’ stories and, after a lot of crying (me not him), these became the subject of my book “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014).    

It seems clear, after reading contemporary accounts and comments and researching the lives of the people involved as much as the internet allowed, that there’s good reason for this disaster – which was reported with horror and ghoulish attention to detail (headless bodies, hacked off finger etc.) around the world at the time – to have been forgotten just a few generations later.  A cover-up.

'Death - The Poor Man's Friend' (John Leech, Punch, 1845)

Built with unwise haste to transport people and goods to the Australian Gold Rush, the Tayleur left Liverpool 160 years ago with much hype only to sink two days later after crashing into the base of a cliff in the middle of the day.  More than half of those on board died despite being close enough to land for some of the travellers to jump to safety.  The statistics of the survivors are shocking: 3% of women and 4% of children were saved compared to 59% of the men.  But that wasn’t what appalled the Victorian public.

To them, it was the death of a dream of safety on the waves, of Victorian Britain’s might and power over the ocean and the forces of nature herself.  The RMS Tayleur was the largest ship of her type in the world at the time, both monstrous and luxurious, with airy berths and two flush toilets provided for the approximately 700 travellers on board.  She was heralded as the ship to board – safe, clean, and the very pinnacle of modernity.  In a time of several shipwrecks a day in British and Irish waters alone, high mortality rates and miserable living conditions for many on land meant the hope of health and a fortune drew thousands to the goldfields overseas, and a ship like the White Star Line’s Tayleur seemed the safest bet to get them there – making a fortune for the shipping companies and their associates at the same time.

Unfortunately, the Tayleur’s revolutionary iron hull meant her compasses didn’t work.  The ropes were too new, unseasoned and stretchy and too thick to fit through the pulleys and control the sails.  The masts were improperly positioned, the crew unfamiliar with each other and the ship.  And when the captain ordered the anchors dropped in a final desperate effort to swing the ship away from the island rising ‘like a mountain from the sea’ both chains snapped ‘like a carrot’ leaving the Tayleur to wreck and sink at the foot of an island off the coast of Dublin.

The RMS Tayleur

There was much skulduggery in the aftermath, including a mysterious 'Mr Jones' who made the captain and crew leave the inquest before it even began. The whole story is unlikely to be unravelled after so many years and the admitted burning of papers by at least one of the rich men involved. But this brave (or foolhardy) journalist's words indicate the Tayleur was a disaster waiting to happen, and that the media was complicit in her fate:  

     'A skinflint shipowner will withdraw every advertisement he can influence, and cut off your American news, if you presume to challenge the seaworthiness of the Tayleur; what business is it of yours if two or three hundred emigrants go to the bottom? You are not one of them!' (Elgin Courier, 28 April 1854)

Although the shipwreck was rarely spoken of in the years after the tragedy, resources such as the British Newspaper Archive (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) and Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.co.uk/) have meant the travellers involved can be acknowledged 160 years later.  Sadly, those responsible for the disaster and the cover-up escaped justice long ago.  But the heroes of the wreck can be remembered with pride once again.

Thanks, Gill! The story of the RMS Tayleur is endlessly fascinating, yet heartbreaking too. 

'The Sinking of RMS Tayleur' by Gill Hoffs is available from bookshops or online at 

If you have any information on the RMS Tayleur, you can contact Gill at  gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk or @GillHoffs on Twitter