Garlands 1906

Garlands 1906

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Suicide in the Nineteeth Century Cumberland Press

Today, 10th October 2019, is World Mental Health Day. This year’s theme is suicide prevention, and the message is that of hope. Through this post I shall reflect on how suicide was regarded in the later nineteenth century in a bid to reflect on what has changed, and maybe what has not changed so much.

In an earlier post I detailed how suicides were reported when they occurred in the asylum, this time I focus on how they were reported in the local press. An apt starting point is an article published in the Penrith Observer in June 1894 entitled ‘The Prevention of Suicide’. It placed great importance on a lack of faith: ‘the decay of religious faith coincides with an increase of suicides’. It suggested that doctors would do well to advise religion medically and that: ‘Religion is undoubtedly of use to unhappy persons; therefore let all the unhappy by all means seek its consolations and its staying powers.’ This differs somewhat to the contemporary treatment of an individual with suicidal thoughts, and demonstrates the prominence of religion and morality in Victorian society.

An earlier article from the Wigton Advertiser dated September 1860, detailed a paper published by Dr Conolly, the celebrated asylum superintendent from Hanwell. Titled, ‘Prevention of Suicide Among Lunatics’, Conolly stated that: ‘means for the prevention of suicide, save incessant watching, there seem to be none.’ He went on to describe the hidden impulses of those harboring suicidal thoughts, and that it is impossible to predict that they may harm themselves: ‘A lady, who seemed on the preceding evening quite cheerful, and even to awake in the morning reconciled to life, and restored to hope, is left alone for what seemed to have only been five minutes, and is found suspended by the bed curtains.’ Conolly was one of the early advocates of the ‘non-restraint’ movement, which encouraged the abandonment of straitjackets and other implements, and only resorted to them when all else had failed and patients posed a risk to themselves or others. He touches on non-restraint and its impact on suicide in this paper: ‘It is scarcely necessary to say that since the abolition of mechanical restraints suicides have not been of more frequent occurrence than before…I believe it may safely be said that they have even become less frequent in proportion to the increased viligance necessarily substituted for restraints and to the greatly increased attention given to the general comfort of the insane in all our great institutions.

Instances of suicide would frequently be reported in the local and national press. Although this seems somewhat intrusive and an invasion of privacy, until 1961 suicide was illegal, which still protrudes somewhat into today as the phrase ‘commit suicide’ has criminal connotations. This may help to explain why suicide was reported in newspapers in such detail, and quite frequently. This is an example from the Penrith Observer in March 1874, which can be upsetting and quite shocking for us reading in the modern-day:


On Saturday last a very painful case of suicide occurred at the village of Great Strickland, Westmorland. On that day the dead body of Mr John Parker, mason and farmer, an old and respected resident in the village, was found suspended by the neck from a cross-beam supporting the roof of his barn. Deceased, who was an elderly man, left his family after dinner, but nothing in his manner tended in any way to indicate that he contemplated suicide, and it was not until between two and three o’clock that he was missed by his relatives. A search was then made, and the body of the deceased was found as described above. The deceased was usually a cheerful and intelligent man, and up to the present time nothing has been elicited to account for the rash act.

Cases where suicide had not resulted in death would be the subject of inquiry and would result either in the individual being sent to prison, or they would be judged to have been insane at the time of the act and would be admitted to an asylum. One example was reported in February 1897 in the Maryport Advertiser:



Yesterday (Friday) a potter named Edward Keenan, 27 years of age, who lives with his father and several brothers…made an attempt to cut his throat with a table knife, but fortunately only succeeded in inflicting a slight scratch. The man was very violent, and Sergeant McKay and Constable Dodd were called in to hold him down, and it was necessary to have the assistance of a third man. Dr Mitchell was sent for, and after examination he ordered Keenan’s removal to Garlands Asylum. On the way to Carlisle the man continued to be very violent.

It is evident that the way in which suicide is regarded has altered since these newspaper reports were published. However, it has been on the increase in recent years. The more we can encourage people to talk about their feelings, and offer safe spaces to listen, the more chance we have of looking out for each other. In line with World Mental Health day, it is important to highlight that mental illness can occur to any of us, at any time. Reflecting on stories such as the one’s presented here reasserts the importance of talking about our feelings, and helping each other when we may be particularly struggling. For more information about World Mental Health Day 2019 see

Friday, 9 August 2019

Before the Asylum: Provision for Cumbria’s Mentally Ill pre-1862

So far my posts have focussed on the experience of pauper lunatics admitted to Garlands from its opening in 1862 and onwards throughout the nineteenth-century. This time I shall explore what happened to those who required specialist treatment before Cumberland and Westmorland provided its own lunatic institution. I shall present some examples of pauper patients who received treatment elsewhere to demonstrate some of the responses that existed.

With the implementation of the 1845 Lunacy Act, all persons classified as of unsound mind had to be regularly inspected, by the local Poor Law relieving officers, who reported to the Commissioners in Lunacy, a nationwide body who presided over the care of the insane. Whether people were living at home under the care of relatives, in a workhouse or asylum, they had to be regularly visited to ensure they were not a risk to themselves or others. For patients in institutions, they would also be frequently inspected by the Commissioners in Lunacy, to ensure the establishments were providing acceptable levels of care, and the outcomes of these visits were recorded in their annual reports.

For those in Cumberland and Westmorland, pre-1862, there was no specialist provision in either county. Therefore, paupers needing asylum treatment would be sent to county institutions over in the North East. Most commonly used was the Dunston Lodge private Asylum just outside Gateshead. Usually, only the cases requiring constant supervision were taken such a distance to receive treatment, and they were sometimes the ones who posed the greatest risk to themselves or others.

One example, found in the Cockermouth Poor Law Union correspondence of January 1860 (The National Archives -TNA, MH12/1631) was Joseph L, who had been resident in Dunston Lodge since January 1855, at a charge to the Union of 10 shillings and sixpence per week. He was described as a lunatic, aged 45 from Keswick, and was listed along with thirteen others chargeable to Cockermouth Union that were present in Dunston Lodge. There were also a small number of others under treatment in Gateshead Fell and Bensham Asylums.

If cases were not classed as requiring asylum treatment, then individuals could be admitted to the local workhouse to be treated in their infirmary wards. Alternatively, for people who had willing, and able, relatives to look after them, they could reside at home, and the families would receive a small sum of money from the Poor Law Union to help with their upkeep, if they required it. For instance, in the Penrith Poor Law Union lunatic returns for January 1860, Mary B, aged 32 from Plumpton was listed as living in Penrith with her mother, who received five shillings per week to assist with her maintenance. The cases who typically resided with relatives were those classed as an ‘idiot’, which was used to denote life-long, incurable mental disabilities, and they were often cases who posed little risk to themselves or others.

In some cases, the returns list details individuals classed as mentally unsound who were living on their own and receiving maintenance. For instance, the East Ward Union returns for January 1858, details Alice W who was listed as living alone in Kirkby Stephen. She was 73, classed as a lunatic who had been of unsound mind for the previous 30 years, and was receiving maintenance of 2 shillings and sixpence per week. There seems to have been a little concern for her ability to reside at home, but a follow up inspection concluded: ‘She has resided in the same cottage for the space of 36 years which she keeps very clean and tidy and she appears to be very comfortable…she is quite safe alone.’ (TNA, MH12/13566)

Finally, individuals could also reside in the Union workhouse. One case which sparked some interest in the East Ward Union was that of an old man in the workhouse at Kirkby Stephen who was noticed on a visit by the inspectors in March 1858 to not be clothed in the workhouse dress, and was instead wearing his own clothes. This attracted attention because on admission, workhouse inmates would be given union clothing to wear, mainly so that their own garments could be de-loused. Therefore, the Poor Law Board inspectors found this quite odd. Further correspondence provided the explanation: ‘James R…the old man in question, was formerly a farmer in the township of Waitby…subsequently of his giving up his farm he lived alone in a cottage in the village of Waitby. But the 20th of June 1856 on which the Relieving Officer received information that he was not in a fit state to take care of himself and was wandering on a moor some miles from his home. The Relieving Officer went in search of him and found him in a state of imbecility and brought him to the Workhouse…the old man had a sum of money concealed upon him…Forty pounds…the old man’s nearest relatives…agreed that the money should be placed in a bank and if the Guardians would allow him to remain in the workhouse, he would pay for his maintenance’ (TNA, MH12/13566). Thus, as he was paying his own way, he was allowed to stay, and in his own clothes. As he was incapable of looking after himself, the workhouse was a viable option for his care, and ensured that he did not have to be removed and treated a great distance away from his home and his relatives.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, and the rest of my blog, my thesis about the Garlands Asylum and it’s patients is available to view freely by clicking this link - It begins by recounting what happened once the Asylum opened, as patients previously sent large distances to be treated could be cared for much closer to home, allowing relatives to maintain contact. The main focus is analysing how, and why, patients were frequently transferred between some of the responses to insanity discussed in this post, and the effects it had on those who experienced it.

Also available to buy/download is the volume I co-edited – Family Life in Britain, 1650-1910. Chapter 7 centres on how the family remained in contact with relatives who were under treatment in Garlands, and explores their role in the process. Other chapters of interwst look at varying aspects of family life throughout history and attempts to reconfigure our understanding of the family unit and their coping mechanisms in times of strife.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Women in the nineteenth century Asylum – Balanced Treatment?

To coincide with mental health awareness week (13-19 May 2019), this post will look at the treatment of women in the nineteenth century lunatic asylum. Taking into consideration the notion of balance, the focus will be on the inequality of attitudes within asylum environment, which reflected the moral conventions that governed the Victorian era.

Lunatic Asylums themselves were patriarchal institutions. Modelled on a familial framework, the male medical superintendent formed the head of the ‘family’, and the patients were the ‘children’ who had to adhere to the regime. The patients were segregated by gender, and interaction with the opposite sex was limited to mealtimes and during certain events such as the weekly dance. The day-to-day tasks of the asylum were completed by the patients, and were implemented by gender. For instance, men would work on the land, tend to the gardens and the livestock on the institution’s farm. Women would be required to carry out household chores, work in the laundry and tend to any clothing repairs.

Treatments implemented in asylums were also decided upon by men. All doctors in county institutions were male. There were female nurses employed to work on female wards, but they had no say in what treatments should be administered, even though they – along with male attendants employed on male wards - were the ones who had the most day-to-day contact with the patients.

Upholding moral standards was an important aspect of the regime and the asylum environment, which reflected wider societal attitudes. The female staff could not socialise with the male attendants, relationships were prohibited and could result in dismissal. Similarly, immorality was a key factor commented on in asylum patient casebooks, and was used to indicate symptoms of insanity. For instance, in the case of females admitted that had given birth to an illegitimate child, it would be clearly outlined in the admission documents.

An example is Barbee L (Barbra on birth record, but spelling fluctuates), who was admitted in November 1902, aged 18 from Ambleside. The supposed cause for her condition was given as: ‘through giving birth to illegitimate child’, which occurred 25 days prior to asylum committal. The form of her illness was given as ‘puerperal mania’, which we know today as post-natal depression. Her occupation was given as a domestic servant, and she had given birth in Milnthorpe workhouse, where she had begun accusing the nurses of mistreating her baby, which was stated as a delusion. After some months in the asylum, Barbee was discharged as recovered, and did not return to Garlands. It is unclear whether or not she was reunited with her child.  However, on the records of males who had fathered illegitimate children, there was no mention of this, and certainly not as a factor in their illnesses.

The stigma of illegitimacy was also passed down to the illegitimate children. For both male and female offspring, if later in life they were admitted to the asylum, it would be remarked in their case record that they were illegitimate. Thus, indicating that it could have been a contributory factor in their mental illness which caused them to be admitted to the asylum.

The display of unfeminine behaviour attracted attention in the asylum casebooks, and was also used an indication of insanity. This is evident in the next two cases. The first is Elizabeth S, admitted in July 1887, aged 21, single, a domestic servant from Kendal, said to be suffering from mania caused by a 'love affair'. On her case notes recorded on admission, it was stated that: ‘Behaving foolishly and in a silly way, swore a great deal, and began to go with loose company’. It was also stated that she talked in a ‘lewd way’ and ‘said she was pregnant’. Six days after admission the superintendent recorded the following observations of Elizabeth: ‘She labours under mania. She told me today that she had been pregnant for long; that she felt the child moving in her, that its father was a William Woodburn. She is menstruating at present. She also says that Woodburn several times induced abortion for her, but can owe no account of how it was done or the result: talks about little else than sexual subjects.’ The supposed love affair that caused her illness is not mentioned in any detail, rather, the doctors focus on her ‘coarse and vulgar’ language that she used, and referred constantly to the sexual nature of her conversation. Also stated in her notes, four months after admission, was that she: ‘Is very lazy and untidy, foolish and erotic looking’. The reference to laziness and willingness to work is common throughout the case books, but the ‘erotic looking’ reference is quite unclear and is not something which I have come across in other patients, particularly never for males. Thus, the descriptions of her demonstration of insanity were based on appearance and her sexuality, and in turn her immorality. Elizabeth remained in Garlands until October 1888 when she was discharged as recovered.

The second case, that of Phoebe D, demonstrates that the societal notions of femininity presided over the diagnosis of mental illness in the late nineteenth century. Admitted in April 1871, Phoebe was transferred to Garlands from Carlisle Gaol, where she had been imprisoned for throwing vitriol over a man who accused her of having sex with him. Whilst in gaol she began showing signs of insanity, and was admitted to Garlands. In her casebook record, the two causes given for her illness were: ‘lactation’ and ‘being accused by a man of having had sexual intercourse with him’. Throughout her notes the feminine stereotypes are prevalent in signalling recovery. For instance, two weeks after admission it was noted that: A few days ago got much excited when she saw her husband. She even asked about her children.’ However, the following month, any signs of her returning back to normality, in which she would be interested in the welfare of her family, had abated: ‘taking no interest in anything. Shows no signs of caring for children.’ Therefore the stereotypical role of women as primary caregivers was used as an indicator of recovery. If she showed an interest in her family, she must be getting better. Phoebe remained in Garlands until December 1873 when she was transferred unimproved to Staffordshire Asylum. This case demonstrates that female norms were predicated upon women in the asylum as diagnostic tools that could signal both their insanity and recovery. It would be interesting to examine the extent to which male patients were judged by notions of masculinity, and whether or not this was used in their diagnosis and recovery.

The final case to be discussed in this post, is one that I found reported in the local Carlisle press. Titled ‘Shamming Insanity’, a small news item detailed how Mary G from Dumfries had been arrested in Carlisle as she has broken a grocer’s shop window, and was in a state of intoxication. Whilst on trial for her crime, she behaved in an ‘excited manner’ and struck the chief constable in the face whilst in the dock. The constable noted that she had only just come out of gaol, and was behaving this way ‘in the hope of being sent to an asylum’. However, she was noted as not being insane, and was sentenced to two months hard labour. This case demonstrates that, as much as the asylum was believed to be a place of perceived horror that carried a great stigma, for some it was a viable option, as the alternative was much worse.

Through this post, some of the preconceived notions of femininity of the nineteenth century, are evidenced through the statements recorded by doctors on the patient case records. Attitudes towards illegitimacy, female sexuality and women’s roles as mothers have been demonstrated using a handful of cases. Male patients could also be noted to have symptoms of a sexual nature – i.e. through masturbation which was regarded as a sinful act signalling insanity – but these were predominantly through physical acts, rather than through using sexual language, or through illegitimacy or other symptoms discussed here that were attributed to women.

This is part of my ongoing research into the Garlands Asylum, through which I aim to encourage the conversation around mental health by reflecting on the history of treatment, the patients who suffered, and the institutions in which they were resident. For more information on mental health awareness and support:

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Time to Talk Day 2019 – Reflecting on the Victorian treatment of Insanity

In line with Time to Talk Day (7th Feb. 2019), this post will explore some of the common reasons people were admitted to a lunatic asylum in the late nineteenth century. Using my research of the Garlands Asylum, a number of patient examples will be presented to illustrate how mental illness was regarded, and open up the conversation around mental health to demonstrate how much has changed, and how much further there is still to go.

In 1872, the medical superintendent in charge of the asylum, Dr Thomas Clouston, commented on the statistics for the admissions of the initial decade that Garlands was open. At the head of the causes was a ‘hereditary predisposition’ to mental illness, which had been found in 29% of cases. Asylum doctors at this time had noticed the clustering of insanity in certain family trees, but had no explanation as to why, and were uncertain of the conditions it occurred most frequently in. Clouston noted the difficulty in getting the true family background of a patient on admission from relatives due to the stigma surrounding mental illness: ‘Its existence is often most difficult to get at from relatives…One would not be far wrong to say that one-half of all the cases had this cause predisposing to or directly producing the malady.’

In a patient's records it often details a mother/father or a more distant relative such as brother on father’s side, or maternal grandfather as suffering with some form of insanity also. An example of hereditary insanity is John M, admitted in September 1887, aged 30. He was a single farm labourer from Kirkby Stephen, and although it was his first time in the asylum, this was his second attack of depression. His two sisters had previously been in the asylum, suggesting that this was a hereditary condition. 

Next, Clouston remarked that for the initial decade, 14.8% of admissions had been attributed to intemperance. For almost every patient their state of soberness is stated in the casebooks.  A great number were described as being intemperate, addicted to alcohol, or given as a drunk.
One example was Robert H, admitted in March 1898, aged 29. He was a dock labourer from Maryport, and this was his first case of insanity. He was admitted after being struck down by an attack of insanity which had lasted 6 six days. The cause of his illness was given simply as ‘drink’, and no hereditary predisposition to insanity was found in his family. The excess of alcohol had caused Robert to suffer from delusions. These were detailed in his admission notes: ‘[He] said people were taking his bed from under him’, and  ‘[He] imagines a man is going to put vitriol in his eyes’. Hayton had also shown suicidal tendencies as he ‘tried to cut his throat’.

Those with insanity caused by intemperance often recovered fairly quickly. This was because they were not allowed any alcohol once in the asylum and would have no way of getting any. Therefore, their confinement was a way of them getting sober and returning to a normal state of mind. About two weeks after admission, Robert was noted as laughing ‘at his former delusions, and...[said] they were the effects of drink.’ On remaining sober, he was discharged as recovered six weeks after admission. 

Next, accounting for 8.2% of the admissions, insanity caused by childbirth, whether it be post-natal depression, a traumatic childbirth, the fear of being pregnant, but ultimately a number of different causes of insanity suffered by women only also referred to as
puerperal mania. An example of puerperal mania is found in the case of Sarah F Admitted in Oct 1890, she was diagnosed with ‘pregnancy and domestic troubles’. The problem was that she was afraid to be pregnant, but it seemed she was around 7/8 months pregnant at the time of admission. Only a week later her baby was still born and she remained in the asylum until July 1891.

Also common in the classification of mental illness in the asylum was melancholia. This was characterised by a depressed mood and sometimes accompanied by suicidal thoughts. An example is Ann D, admitted in April 1886, aged 39 from Cockermouth. Her melancholia was her first attack of insanity and had lasted only 14 days. She was recorded as being so down that she ‘begs for a knife to cut her throat’. However, due to quick diagnosis and treatment she recovered and was discharged a few months later on 17 July 1886.

A final reason for admission to the asylum that sometimes occurred was poverty. Lack of success in a persons working life often led to asylum admission. For example, Ellen P was admitted to garlands in February 1893. She was labelled a 'tramp' and her illness was attributed to ‘destitute circumstances’. Her background seems to be a tragic one. Her son had died five years previous to her admission whilst they were in the workhouse, and she would frequently be haunted by her son’s dead spirit. During her illness she had ‘tried to drown her daughter in [the River] Caldew’. However, with effective moral treatment at the asylum, she was discharged as recovered on 7 June 1893.

This blog is a small part of my ongoing research into the Garlands lunatic Asylum. Hopefully these examples demonstrate how far we have come in treating these illnesses outside institutions. What were once stigmatized conditions treated away from public gaze, are now topics we can openly discuss to help each other. Continue the conversation, grab a coffee and chat with friends and colleagues, and encourage openness around mental health.

For more information go to

Friday, 21 December 2018

The Relentless Nature of Insanity: Garlands in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Much is documented about the chronic underfunding of the NHS in the modern era, and, in particular, mental health services. The growing number of people diagnosed with mental illness, and a lack of provision to effectively treat them, is not a problem confined to recent times. The optimism of the 1845 Lunacy Act in making compulsory the construction of a lunatic asylum in every county and borough throughout England and Wales, soon proved to be a victim of its own success.

Soon after Cumberland and Westmorland opened its own asylum – Garlands – in 1862, there were calls for an extension to its accommodation. Originally intended to house 200 pauper patients, by 1863 this had been exceeded, as on 31 December of that year, 225 were resident.

This angered many among in the local Poor Law Unions who funded the institution, as they regarded the building of the asylum an extravagant ‘blunder’. The following passage documents a meeting of the Whitehaven Board of Guardians, and focuses on the strain on accommodation so soon after opening. It was published in the Whitehaven News in October 1863.

It was built at a great expense; and yet, in less than two years, we are obliged to go and seek shelter elsewhere for any lunatic patients we may henceforth have…It is with the greatest difficulty that information can be obtained with reference to this costly building…I am told that the asylum cost the two counties £50000, which seems an enormous and startling sum…I cannot reconcile such wholesale expenditure of public money upon an asylum like that, with the fact that before the termination of two years, it is full…

Again in April 1864, the Whitehaven Guardians debated the cost of the asylum when it was built, and the necessity of an extension. They alluded to the fact that they could not see a direct cause for the increase in calls for provision:

From some cause or other lunacy was greatly on the increase. The average number from this union [Whitehaven] used to be 25 to 27: now they had 37…

Garlands underwent several extensions throughout the remainder of the nineteenth-century, taking the capacity to 660 patients. Many cases had to be refused entry. Some were sent to other asylums at a higher cost to the ratepayers. Most were housed in nearby workhouse wards, but the substandard level of care was widely known, and frequently commented on in the annual reports of the Lunacy Commissioners. For instance, they stated in 1860 of the Kendal Workhouse:

The larger of the day-rooms is gloomy and cheerless, dirty, wretchedly furnished, and destitute of every comfort…Two men are, in several instances, placed to sleep in the same bed…There is no paid nurse in any part of the Workhouse, and the porter, assisted by pauper inmates.

An article published in the West Cumberland Times in June 1894 reflected the despair of ratepayers at the unrelenting pressure on mental health provision at Garlands.

The strain on accommodation at Garlands is hardly less than is the case at similar institutions in Northumberland and Durham. The total number of inmates under the charge of Dr Campbell at the end of 1893 was 579…however, as the Committee of Visitors inform us, the number of patients at Garlands has frequently exceeded 600. Thus the County Council are brought face to face with the question of making further provision for the insane…it is clear that the insane at Garlands grow more numerous with each decade.

However, although the tone of the article begins with the Whitehaven Board of Guardians complaining about the increase, they do state the benefit it brings to those who are treated in Garlands, as those in need of provision are more likely to receive it after the asylum is enlarged:

There is a greater desire to have the benefit of skilled treatment such as is afforded at Garlands Asylum to those whose lives have been darkened by mental afflictions. Patients who were formerly dealt with in workhouses are now sent to asylums.

Into the twentieth century, the issue did not abate. After further extensions, the number resident in 1919 had grown to 913. In an article in the Penrith Observer in July 1919, again the pressure on expenditure was being debated in the public arena. However, this time the tone had become much more sympathetic to the work done at Garlands. The Asylum had just, after 58 years, changed its name to the Cumberland and Westmorland Mental Hospital.  Rather than stating its unjust expense, the Penrith Observer was much more understanding of the need for mental health provision, and regarded Garlands as a ‘costly necessity’. They also praised the hard work of the staff, and stated how underfunded they were:

The staff – already insufficient – must become larger, work shorter hours, and yet be better paid, while the cost of living will very likely fail to drop for a considerable time.

These sentiments echo those of the national media today. Underfunded and understaffed, in this respect, not much has changed in the 100 years since this was penned. What is apparent is that mental health has become much less stigmatised since the Victorian institutions have closed. Reflecting on the provision of mental health in the past helps create a lasting conversation. This is to encourage the increased openness and understanding of the invisible conditions suffered by so many of us.

This post is part of my ongoing research into the Garlands Lunatic Asylum, and the history of mental illness. If you want to contact me about this post, or my work, please do so at or on Twitter @caradobbing

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Children in the Asylum

To coincide with World Mental Health Day, and as the focus this year is on the wellbeing of children and young people, this post examines some of those admitted to Garlands under 14 in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What is written here is an extension of the research I have already undertaken for my PhD, and something I wish to explore further in the future. From the beginning, the Garlands annual reports stated that it was not an institution for children. As I did more research, more children kept emerging from the records, and through this post I want to share some snippets of their stories. When beginning to look at the case notes of these patients, although intended to be clinical documents, the emotions acting upon them and their families in seeking institutional committal, is immediately clear.

‘Insanity’ in this period was the catch-all, legal term that referred to mental health conditions and disabilities. ‘Lunacy’ was the umbrella term for conditions regarded as temporary, and curable. These included illnesses such as mania and melancholia. ‘Idiocy’ and ‘Imbecility’ were the terms used to denote chronic, life-long conditions. These would be understood today as mental or learning disabilities, which were present from birth. It is these terms which feature most prominently in the children who will be explored in this post.

Using the admission registers for the period 1862-1914, the number of children 14 and under admitted only stood at 0.5% - 38 children. The mere presence of these patients is fascinating in itself, as it was constantly reiterated that this was an adult institution. For instance in 1883, the superintendent noted: ‘An imbecile child of eight years…was sent here and appeared to me so unsuitable for treatment in this institution…He was afterwards removed by his parent. Lunatic asylums are not proper places for the treatment of imbeciles of tender years’.

This was not uncommon, as the asylums constructed in response to the 1845 Lunacy Act were given no age restrictions for the patients they were built to treat. As a result, children can be found in the admission records of institutions which were only equipped to deal with adult patients. Specialist provision, in the form of idiot and imbecile asylums, began to be erected after the county institutions, but often these were not as great in number, and as was the case for Cumbria, were situated some distance away, and had to cater for a larger population – leading to a demand on their resources. For instance, the nearest to Garlands, the Royal Albert Asylum for Idiots was built to provide specialist provision for children classed as idiots and imbeciles in Lancaster in 1870. It was also known as the Northern Counties Idiot Asylum, as it was intended to cater for such patients from Lancashire, Cumberland, Westmorland, Durham and Northumberland. As such, the cases in the sample should have been sent there to receive care, and some did, but this was not always true.

In the first instance, the response was to board the child out to local workhouse wards, but if patients were displaying violent behaviour, they were reluctant to receive them. Alternatively, if the case was that the child’s family could not cope with their illness, and it was clear that they could not be ‘cured’, then a more suitable place would be sought. For instance, Christopher G, aged 11, was brought to Garlands in October 1890 suffering with ‘epileptic imbecility’, his father stated in his admission documents that he was ‘difficult to manage’ due to his violent outbursts. When examining Christopher, the doctors recorded: ‘At present crying and saying he wants to go home’. These emotions demonstrate the attachment to his family, and show how difficult it must’ve been for them to make the decision to admit him to Garlands.

Christopher was only in Garlands for one week before the superintendent recorded in his notes: ‘…So far has behaved well, and from his tender years he appears to me a very unsuitable case to be associated with adult lunatics. He might have done outside boarded with someone who had no young children…’ And that is what happened. Three weeks later he was discharged from the asylum and was boarded out to a child-less couple in Kendal. However, when he turned 17, in 1897, he was readmitted to Garlands, where he remained until his death two years later.

For the children who remained in Garlands, they would stay in adult wards, and would be placed under the care of fellow patients. Asylums of this era believed in morally treating patients, and useful employment was a major part of this. Therefore, caring for children was a form of employment, and was utilised to keep patients occupied and diverted from their conditions.

One instance is the youngest patient to be admitted, Richard B, aged 4, who was brought from Cockermouth Workhouse in 1862. He was noted from the outset as being an unsuitable case for the asylum. He was noted as causing a ‘great deal of trouble’ as he ‘takes up the entire time almost of one nurse’ – usually one nurse would be responsible for up to 14 patients. He was put in the care of Elizabeth R, a 29 year old female. From her case notes, it doesn’t look as though she cared for Richard for a prolonged period, and when children got slightly older, for males, they were removed to the male adult wards.

A couple more cases have shown that when in adult wards, children could form bonds, particularly of a parental nature, with other patients. For instance, Thomas F, aged 10, was noted shortly after admission: ‘Calls one of the other patients Daddy and goes about with him as if he was his father’. This could also work the other way, as in the case notes of Robert B, a 9 year old admitted in 1862, it was stated that: ‘James M, another patient, has taken the delusion that the boy is his and consequently takes great care of him’.

As mentioned, the Royal Albert Asylum for Idiots was an important consideration for the asylum doctors when planning on what care was best for children. But, only 26% of the children who came to Garlands were either sent there, or arrived having spent time there. It wasn’t a definite that Royal Albert would accept all cases, as it catered for 5 counties, and in the 1880s could accommodate around 500 patients. From the outset it was intended to be training centre. If patients did not show the slightest chance of improvement, or ability to be trained in a certain area, they would not be sent there.

A report on ‘How Imbeciles Are Educated’ from 1884, stated that the ‘primary object of the place is to make it a school for the education of the dormant faculties of imbecile children; they are admitted between the ages of six and fifteen, for a term of seven years. It is not a life refuge…the education of these children is, therefore the special object set before them by the staff of the institution. To discover, to draw out, and to develop any faculty possessed by their defective intellects is the great aim of all persons employed’.[i]

There are instances of children arriving at Garlands having been removed from Royal Albert due to their behaviour or lack of improvement. For example, Edith P, aged 14 was admitted in 1903 having spent 2 years and 9 months in Royal Albert. A letter attached to her admission documents stated that: ‘The poor girl has much deteriorated, and is now most violent. We fear that she will do serious mischief to other patients, and even to the nurses. We must therefore ask you to make arrangements for her immediate removal as we have no proper accommodation for such cases in this institution, such as provided in lunatic asylums.’ Edith remained in Garlands until her death aged 19.

Children sent to Royal Albert often came back once they reached their late teens, and when their treatment ended. One example, Eleanor B aged 17, was admitted to Garlands in 1887 following 7 years treatment in Royal Albert. She did stay for some time at home, but she was ‘beyond the control of her mother’, so she was sent to Garlands. She remained until her death in 1925.

Family breakdown was a major factor which triggered an institutional response to insanity, in patients of any age, but more so for children. For instance, James D was admitted to Garlands following the suicide of his father, in October 1889. His mother had died some years previous, and he was the oldest at 14 of 3 children. He was described as always being of weak intellect, and it seems that his father’s death triggered his admission, due to a lack of adult relatives. Once institutionalised, cases such as James were rarely discharged home, in the absence of supportive relatives, and he died in an asylum, aged 20.

The prevalence of hereditary degeneration, and the eugenic school of thought, is extremely apparent when reading the case notes of these children. A lack of awareness of how to deal such cases led to a constant farming out, and a focus on training them in whatever way possible. As stated by the superintendent in 1888:  ‘Imbecile children are out of place in a lunatic asylum, and yet if allowed to grow up without training, as the majority do in these counties, they in time become the most expensive and troublesome patients met with in lunatic asylums.’

Going forward, to echo the sentiments of World Mental Health day, we can use these snippets of the past to learn from, and to encourage conversation around mental wellbeing, particularly among children and young adults.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Emotions and the Asylum

Throughout my research of the patient case notes of the Garlands Asylum, I have been struck by the emotions that emerge from these clinical documents. Although they contain a high amount of biographical and medical information, the circumstances surrounding a patient’s committal can also offer a glimpse into the emotions experienced by those being admitted. This blog post will offer two examples of female patients who were brought to Garlands in its opening few years, who display the emotions acting upon them on committal.

First, Ann R, aged 50, a housekeeper from Whitehaven, was admitted in March 1863 experiencing suicidal thoughts. Before coming to Garlands, it was stated in her notes that she:

made two attempts to destroy herself. Escaped from her home one day last week and was brought back again by a Policeman, who found her upon the sea-shore with part of her clothes off, and was told she had been making an attempt to drown herself. Her daughter also informed me she took a razor from her a short time ago, with which she believed her mother meant to injure herself.

The cause of her melancholia was given as: ‘Heard that her husband who has been in Australia has married another woman.’ It is uncertain whether or not Ann had separated from her husband, or if he had just taken off and the news had made its way back to her. Whatever the circumstances, it is clear that the event caused Ann to break down emotionally, and led her to take steps to end her life. Doctors noted on admission that she was: ‘Very melancholic and dejected. Will not enter into any conversation whatever.’ After six months treatment in Garlands, her spirits seemed to be lifted, and her case notes stated: ‘For a week she has been much more cheerful, quite a different woman in fact, entering into the amusements…with her fellow patients.’ However, she did relapse, and slipped back into a melancholic state. As a result, she remained in Garlands for just under two years, when she was discharged recovered.

Second, Sarah C, aged 18, a weaver from Carlisle, was admitted in June 1862, also suffering from melancholia. The official cause diagnosed in her notes was ‘suppression of menstruation’. Although this was the era of the emergence of psychiatry as a medical area of specialisation, the ancient beliefs regarding women and their reproductive systems still prevailed as a cause of mental illness. Women were considered to be increasingly susceptible to emotional disorder, particularly at certain points of their lives. Puberty, pregnancy, lactation, menstruation, and menopause, were all key events that could ‘shock’ the female body, prompting a mental breakdown.[i]

On admission, there was a lengthy statement of facts indicating the events leading to her melancholia, which includes vast information surrounding the economic circumstances of Sarah and her family:

‘The history of her care taken today from her mother (who is a widow earning only 2/6 a week weaving in Dixon’s Factory and with 5 children younger than our patient) is that the girl has worked hard and tried hard, that she has been well up to six weeks since, that then the catamenia ceased, she having been regular from 15 years old up to that time. The mother considers this to be the cause of her illness and that directly ‘they’ flew to her head…She appears frightened, gets no sleep, is restless, melancholy and of a religious turn of mind. She has been a respectable, steady, moral and industrious girl, has a constant habit of reading religious books. Dr Elliott signs the order for admission and Mr Reeves who signs the medical certificate says ‘that however much questioned she appears vacant and sometimes won’t answer but remains silent, she has religious misconceptions and that she is going to die and that she is lost; she is restless and difficult to keep quiet; the least noise terrifies her and she is painfully nervous – will not keep in bed late gets out creeps under the bed and tries to get out of the window – mothers direction, Sarah C, Duke St Carlisle.’

For us reading this in the twenty-first century, it appears that the ‘suppression of menstruation’ had very little impact on her mental health. The burden of being one of the main wage earners, in the absence of her father, of a large family, would have laid heavily on a young woman. The pressure to survive in such poor and desperate circumstances, clearly led to her worry and caused her restlessness. In the absence of talking therapy in this era, asylum doctors strove to look for physical symptoms of illness (or significant events, as with Ann above), and could overlook the fact that poverty and overwork could contribute to an individual’s melancholia. 

Sarah remained in the asylum for nine months. After showing little improvement, she was removed by her mother in March 1863, presumably has her wage earning capacity was being missed by her family. The realisation that asylum treatment was having no effect, but while in Garlands Sarah was capable of doing needlework, would have been a signal that she could still function in a manual work. I have so far not found any further trace of Sarah in Garlands, but it would be interesting to find if she was able to cope with life on the outside.

These two brief patient examples highlight an additional importance of asylum case books. Primarily intended to be a medical record of a patient’s history, symptoms, diagnosis, physical health, and reaction to treatment whilst in the asylum, these documents can also contain fleeting moments of emotion which the patients experienced. A degree of estimation and ‘reading-between-the-lines’, backed up by cross-referencing these records with census/birth/marriage/death material, can lead to fascinating patient histories emerging. This further humanises these clinical documents, and allows us to empathise with those who experienced mental health care in the nineteenth century asylum.

[i] A. Scull, Hysteria: The disturbing history (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 47.