Garlands 1906

Garlands 1906

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Role of the Family

Often overlooked by many institutional histories of the Victorian lunatic asylum is the role of a patient's family in their admission, discharge and treatment whilst in such an establishment. In my latest chapter of my PhD I am attempting to redress this imbalance by recounting the stories of patients at the Garlands Asylum, Carlisle, to ascertain the role their families played. This blog post is going to examine one part of the family involvement by looking specifically at the admission process.

The Family as Primary Caregivers
In the first instance of an illness, be it mental or physical, the family have always been, and often remain, the primary caregivers for their relatives. For centuries prior to the introduction and expansion of the county lunatic asylum network in the Victorian era, the treatment of a mental condition was administered in the family home. As the asylum as an institution of care became increasingly commonplace, families became increasingly willing to admit their relatives. Thus, as Adair, Melling and Forsythe assert, the lunacy legislation of the nineteenth-century signalled an intervention into family life, as it allowed for the lunatic population to be shifted from the private to the public sphere. (R. Adair, B. Forsythe and J. Melling, ‘Families, Communities and the Legal Regulation of Lunacy in Victorian England: Assessments of Crime, Violence and Welfare in Admissions to the Devon Asylum, 1845-1914’, in Bartlett and Wright, Outside the Walls, p. 165.)

The decision to commit a relative to the asylum was often signalled by a deterioration in their behaviour. Violence and erratic behaviour were seen as disrupting the accepted boundaries in society and the domestic sphere. For instance, in 1887, Ann C described her husband's behaviour which led to her having him admitted to the Garlands Asylum:

he wanders about all day, and comes home generally very dirty and without his shoes and stockings…this morning a man fetched him home having found him in a midden [compost] heap…he has torn up his clothes…and has set fire to articles of value. 
(CACC, Reception Orders 1887, THOS 4/1/29).

Thus, her husband’s destructive and unmanageable behaviour had become too much for Ann to bear. The added worry that he had wandered off into the community and had to be returned by a stranger would also have been a great concern as his insanity was visible to the surrounding neighbourhood, which had a deep stigma attached.

Family as Causing Insanity
In this specific chapter of my PhD I will also explore a relatively un-researched aspect of insanity and its causes in this period. Some of the cases I have come across in the records in the nineteenth century are clearly caused by a disruptive home life, and directly by the family itself.

One example is that of Dinah L. She was admitted in June 1899 suffering from melancholia caused by ‘domestic trouble’ and ‘unpleasantness at home’. Four days before her admission, for reasons unstated in her admission records, she left home due to her inability to cope in the domestic setting and was found wandering barefoot in a friends garden by a neighbour. At the time, Dinah was living with her husband Thomas, and several of her ten children. Her last child, Edith, had been born in 1892 when she was 45. It was stated in her case notes that she had been feeling melancholic and frequently felt suicidal for the seven years since Edith’s birth. We cannot know for certain the exact trigger for Dinah leaving home which led to her admission, but in her notes she was described as having two black eyes and several bruises on her limbs. Along with the description of ‘unpleasantness at home’ and her injuries, we are led to assume that Dinah suffered some form of domestic abuse from either her husband or her children. Whatever the case, we can see from her asylum record that she was anxious to leave her home and in July 1899 in her Garlands case notes she was described as saying ‘she is very happy in the asylum…and has no desire to leave’.[1] She had been married to Thomas for 29 years, and since 1871 had given birth to 11 children, of whom 10 survived. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that the demands of what was clearly a hectic domestic life had taken their toll on Dinah. After receiving treatment in the asylum for some months, Dinah’s health improved and her suicidal thoughts subsided enough for her want to return home to her family. She was discharged recovered on 19 October 1899, and remained living with her husband in Kendal until her death in 1911, never returning to the Garlands with any further problems. Thus, the respite offered to her during those months in 1899 was enough to return her to her usual physical and mental health which had become so weak due to her domestic situation.

One additional example of the family causing insanity is that of Ruth A, who was admitted on 18 November 1891. Ruth’s insanity was caused by the death of her five month old baby. However, what is interesting about this case is that the passing of her child was caused by her administering a lethal dose of laudanum to the infant. To us in the twenty-first century this seems shocking, but in the 1890s laudanum, and various other derivatives of opium, were dispensed freely by pharmacists as a remedy to soothe a variety of illnesses in children, and also in adults. Riddled with the guilt that she had been the cause of her child’s death only one week previous to her admission, Ruth was described as being ‘a pale, depressed looking woman’. She had become very inattentive and neglectful of her other children as a result of her condition, and due to this depression, her husband, Robert thought it necessary to admit her to the Garlands for specialist treatment. Whilst in the asylum, Ruth told the doctors she thought she would be safer here because she was so afraid of herself. After three months of treatment, Ruth was deemed well enough to be returned home on 16 February 1892. Although, this did not last; and she was readmitted to Garlands on 8 April 1892, suffering from melancholia due to the ‘worry about the poisoning of her child’. Ruth’s mental health had clearly deteriorated, so much so that she felt suicidal and believed she would never be forgiven for the death of her youngest child. It seems that Ruth herself instigated her own readmission to Garlands as she did not trust herself and could not stay at home. I think that in her own mind, Ruth came to see the asylum as a place of refuge, similar to the previous case of Dinah L. In being incarcerated in Garlands she believed she was protected from being able to access the drugs she had once used recreationally and which had killed her child. Ruth remained in the asylum for three years, and was finally discharged as recovered on 17 December 1895.

These are just a small number of cases which I have come across in my PhD research into the Garlands Lunatic Asylum, Carlisle. My PhD aims to tell as many stories of the patients who underwent treatment at the Garlands during the latter half of the nineteenth-century. Please feel free to contact me ( if you require assistance in finding your ancestors who were in the Garlands during this period, or if you have any interesting family tales.

[1] CACC, Female Casebook, 1899-1902, THOS 8/4/40/5, admission no. 4754.