Tuesday, 5 August 2014

VICTORIAN LUNATIC ASYLUMS: HOW TO GET ADMITTED

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.

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