The Asylum, mental health and barbarity

The Victorian Asylum was horrific, the system set up to treat or to lock away those that we would say have mental health issues. My Great Uncle Gordon was locked away in institutions that were the legacy of the asylum system for about 30 years…the crime that took most of his life…Panic attacks.

The first Asylum in Europe was the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, It has been variously known as St. Mary Bethlehem, Bethlem Hospital, Bethlehem Hospital and of course Bedlam where we get the word meaning chaos from.

It’s old, very old and was built as a priory 1247 and ended treating its first mentally ill patients It in 1407.

And how did they treat them…well Bedlam was racked by scandals. One charge died after his intestines burst, many slept naked on straw in the cold, others were sadistically tormented by their warders.

Until the government brought about the ‘Madhouse Act’ of 1774 treatment of the Insane was carried out by non-licensed practitioners who were clearly more interested in money than their charges. This Act went at least some way to care for insane patients and brought in yearly inspections of any premises taking place although what their standards were in quite unclear but it wasn’t until 1792 when the York Retreat, set up by William Tuke, actually started to treat their charges as human beings.

People attitudes were less than compassionate as Londoners flocked to Bedlam to laugh and poke fun at the antics of the inmates, after all a visit to the madhouse was a good day out, either that or a public execution!

The County Asylum Act was passed In 1808 but this little to help the mentally ill, many of who remained in the workhouse or treadmill. Finally the County Asylum-Lunacy Act was passed 1845 and just over 100 asylums were built but these fine building housed some horrors and gave rise to a legacy of horror which followed through to the 20th century.

The visiting days are two Mondays in each month. The Government pays 15s. a week for each criminal in this hospital. The average change for the pauper lunatic in the county asylums is 7s. a week; and for idiots, or lunatics, in the workhouses, from 2s.10d. to 3s. 6d. a week. The income of Bethlem and Bridewell Hospitals amounts to £33,000 per annum, and with the exception of £3000 voted by the city of London for the building of the new hospital, the whole is the accumulation of private benevolence! The number of patients in the hospital at the present time is about 390, of whom 194 are supposed to be incurable, and 85 are criminals. The Illustrated London News, 1843

My Great Uncle Gordon

Of course Asylums were of use to many to lock away unwanted relatives. Unwanted wives could quite easily end up there, my Great Uncle Gordon…placed in a mental institution in the 1930’s by his parents because:

‘They said I just wasn’t right’ from the diary of my Great Uncle Gordon Johnson 

He spent 30 years, his prime of life locked away, he was experimented upon to ‘cure his conditions with Electroconvulsive therapy or more commonly known as electroshock therapy, another cure was to put him in a hot bath and then into an ice filled bath…I can’t imagine how painful this must of been.

I can recall visiting him as a child in dirty, smokey conditions in the 1970’s. My family got him out of Long Grove mental health institution in Epsom in 1977, his life wasted along with the many thousands that passed in but never out of the asylums doors.