Garlands 1906

Garlands 1906

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Letter Writing in the Asylum, 1897-1900

As a rule, historians of the lunatic asylums of the Victorian era work with sources which were written by the medical men in charge of a mentally ill patient’s care. Comments about the nature and cause of a patient’s insanity was therefore a second-hand account and a real sense of the malady escapes us. However, in my research of the Garlands lunatic asylum, Carlisle, I have come across a number of letters written by the patients themselves. In this blog post I shall give a sample of these letters which give a fascinating insight into their state of mind at the time of writing. These few letters were photographed from the male patient case book for the period April 1897- March 1900. The letters are an extremely piecemeal collection, slotted into the casebook alongside the patient’s details. Often they survive as single documents, and it is unclear why these certain letters were kept as opposed to others which they will have written.

Letters Portraying Patient Delusions
One theory I have is that the letters were kept as indications of their insanity. The delusions experienced by the mentally ill were often portrayed in letters they wrote. For example, one patient admitted in November 1898 was under the delusion that he was a meteorological observer and he wrote frequent reports – in the form of letters – to Queen Victoria. The case notes reflect this as they commented that; ‘he says the Queen has appointed him to take charge of the meteorological stations in this district and that he has to send daily reports to Sir Robert Scott’, and also that he was ‘constantly going to the window to make “observations” as to the state of the weather etc. He sees “lightening” and hears “thunder” nearly every day.’ Along with this letter to Queen Victoria there is also a drawing of plans for a royal Indian palace. The drawing is extremely detailed and includes architectural dimensions with accurate measurements. Thus, as well as portraying his delusions, the letter and accompanying drawing displays his intelligence and that he was able to maintain rational thought whilst labouring under irrational fantasies.
Another patient also displayed his delusions through letter writing as he wrote letters to ‘Sergeant Instructor Prince’ requesting he bring his uniform to the asylum so that they ‘can show the foreign table of nationalities how they can be reformed.’ He signed the letter ‘Private I Wills’, when in fact he was an eighteen year old draper’s apprentice from Wigton. His attack of mania was however only short lived, and after an eight week stay at Garlands he was discharged recovered.

Heartfelt Letters to Loved ones
Some of the letters I have come across in the patient case notes display the patient’s anguish at being confined and being absent from their family and friends. One example is a patient writing to his father: ‘Father of my tenderest care. I write to you...hoping you are surviving.’ The letter is extremely long, includes many long, rambling sentences and is clearly from a person who is missing his usual surroundings accompanied by loved ones. From the tone in which the letter is written, the patient is worried about his father’s health and would like more than anything to see him, but his health is preventing him from doing so:

I ‘acknowledge all the many gifts you gave me and for all your great many kindnesses and kindness you have held the post of your present abode. Steadfast and steady I long you cling with all your might...I conclude by giving you my best favours with every utmost skill, be sure and receive my answer and I believe in you so faithful until death. Reflections sore and sweet.’

Letters of Protest
Part of many patients’ maladies was the failure to understand their mental illness. This resulted in many protests of sanity and outcries against their incarceration. Often these protests were in the form of letters. The first example was of a patient, F. Penrice, suffering from mania, who wrote to the Earl of Carlisle:

‘Having been wrongfully detained here not having any explanation of the meaning of this, I solicit your assistance in this case...C. Wedgwood may have some information. He having decoyed me from the station leading me to expect I was accompanying him to another place altogether. I consider I have been here much too long.’

He was recorded as expressing ‘absurd delusions’, such as that all his insides had been bored out of him several years previously, and that he is the Duke of Cumberland.
The second example is from a patient who continually wrote to the superintendent of the asylum to notify him of the (false) cruel treatment he received from the asylum attendants, calling them ‘liars’ and ‘scoundrels’. He accused the head attendant of failing to report these supposed instances and covering them up. He told superintendent Dr Farquharson; 

‘if I was you I should open my eyes...it should not take you long to see him in his true light...he is the slimiest sneak that I have had the misfortune to be in company with and have come across.’

These protestations, I believe, are evidence of the patients’ unwillingness, and more likely their inability, to come to understand their removal to the asylum due to their weakened mental states. The unfamiliarity of their surroundings caused them to invent stories of abuse, and to protest against their confinement in order to return to a place they feel comfortable in.  


These letters are a rare glimpse into the mental affliction of pauper patients of the Victorian lunatic asylum. This forms just one part of my ongoing PhD research into the Garlands Asylum, Carlisle. I am fascinated in writing history from below and bring the voices of the asylum back into contemporary consciousness. Any questions, queries, or stories you have of the Garlands I would love to hear them. I also assistant those researching their ancestors in the asylum, if you require my help please do not hesitate to contact me at caradobbing@gmail.com