Sunday, 23 July 2017
Rethinking the Institution Conference, July 2017
Recently, I attended the “Rethinking the Institution” conference at Liverpool John Moores University. At the conference, I gave a paper detailing some of the research I have been undertaking for my wider PhD thesis on the Garlands Lunatic Asylum. The focus of the conference was to view the nineteenth century institutions that came to dominate so much of the Victorian landscape in a new light. I hoped to present the county lunatic asylum in a different way to which we seem to consider it in our contemporary mindsets. Through this blog post I will set out some of the main points from my paper in rethinking the way in which the asylum was run, and how the pauper patients responded to it.
Through my research of the pauper patients of the Garlands lunatic asylum, it has become apparent that the common view of the institution – i.e, that it was incarcerating, repressive, and an all round awful place – is one that was not borne out in practice. Following the work of Jane Hamlett, it is clear from asylum records that these institutions attempted to emulate the domestic framework of the family home. This was an attempt to bring order to patients whose mental faculties were particularly disordered at the time of committal.
Asylum construction was particularly accelerated during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Legislation enacted in 1845 made it mandatory for each county and borough in England and Wales to have its own lunatic institution for pauper patients. Prior to this, the main receptacle of care for the mentally unwell was the family home. With the advent of a network of county asylums, a great shift occurred from where was considered “best” to treat a mentally ill relative. Therefore, it is no great surprise that the domestic rituals in the family home were also transferred over to the new county institutions. Creating a familiar, calming environment in which to conduct treatment, was key to the recovery of an individual’s mental affliction.
The regimes set out in these establishments followed the rhetoric of “moral treatment”, a practice set out earlier in the century by the Quaker run York Retreat, and by pioneering figures such as John Connolly from Hastwell Asylum. Garlands was no different. Built in 1862 to house 200 paupers, it followed the moral treatment regime. Central was advocating a routine of exercise, a good diet, recreational activities, religion and useful employment. Naturally, patients could respond well to this. Dr Clouston, on of the early medical superintendents, reinforced the value of a regime that was free of locks and restraint. It was important the patients did not feel like prisoners, and were regularly encouraged to walk in the open countryside beyond the asylum boundary, albeit with attendant supervision. IN some cases, patients were so comforted by the domestic environment and curative regime in the asylum that they were unwilling to return to their former lives. Dr Campbell noted in the 1887 Garlands annual report; “the disinclination many patients have shown to leave the asylum, shows that the efforts made to treat the inmates justly and kindly, and to render their life here pleasant and enjoyable, have been successful’.
The lunatic asylum was also physically modelled on the family framework. The medical superintendent was the head of the institution, and played a patriarchal role in the regime. Thus, the patients took on the submissive role of the ‘children’. Underpinning this was the fact that the superintendent resided in the asylum grounds full time, often alongside his wife and children. The asylum as a whole functioned as a domestic ‘whole’, as everyone had a vested interest in its upkeep. As mentioned earlier, useful employment of the patients was an element involved in moral treatment. The patients were assigned work-based tasks around the asylum according to their gender. Typically, men carried out manual jobs, cultivating farm land and building items to be used within the institution. Women were employed in the domestic jobs of the asylum, carrying out laundry, cleaning, cooking, sewing and knitting. Occupying the patients in such a way was believed to be beneficial in distracting them from their various conditions. The products ascertained from the work of the patients were vital in easing the ‘financial burden’ they placed on the poor law rates. In several of the Garlands annual reports, the doctors noted how the commodities of the patients were used in the establishment. For instance, in 1863; “all the carpenter work required in the house has been done by ourselves”, and in 1866; “one of the dormitories in the female division was entirely papered by the women themselves”. Thus, everyone was instrumental in the maintenance of the asylum, just as all the members of a family had a vested interest in the survival of the domestic unit.
The furnishing of the asylum was also modelled on the family home. They were keen to emulate the setting of the Victorian middle-class home in an attempt to extol some of the Victorian middle-class values on the patients whilst in recovery. The importance of domestic decoration was frequently referred to in the Garlands annual reports. In 1894 Dr Campbell stated that: “The wards have been kept clean, bright, and well decorated with flowers, and the airing courts while the weather allowed of it, were lovely with well trimmed grass, and beds of tastefully assorted flowers”.
Interestingly, what led patients to be admitted to the asylum in the first place was often a disruption to the family home. Destructive behaviour in the domestic environment can be linked to the indications of insanity provided on a patient’s admission documents. For example, Jacob C’s wife stated on admission that 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 heap…he has torn up his clothes…and has set fire to articles of value.”
Similarly, patients who attacked the homely furnishings of the asylum during bouts of violence, associated with several mental conditions, were seen as attacking the structure of the asylum and resisting its restraints it placed upon them. One example is Sarah F, who throughout her treatment in Garlands during the 1890s was continually described as destructive and violent. She frequently struck out at other patients and destroyed the furnishings of the asylum. In September 1893 it was stated that she was “very destructive to her clothes and plants”; and in June 1894 that she, “often strikes and interferes with other patients, breaks glass and is very unruly”. However, it was noted that on occasion Sarah could respond well to the moral regime, as in April 1894 it was stated that she was more settled and had begun to work in the laundry, where she “does fairly well”. This interchangeable behaviour continued throughout Sarah’s treatment, and she remained in Garlands until her death in May 1911.
The asylum could also offer a familial context to those who otherwise lacked a supportive network of relatives on which to depend for care. Mentally ill patients often fell into the asylum system, not due to a lack of family support, but due to a lack of relatives with the finance to support them outside of the institution. One example is Mary M, who came to rely on Garlands due to an absence of family members willing and able to care for her. Mary was first admitted to Garlands in April 1883, aged 20, suffering with congenital imbecility. She was transferred from Fusehill workhouse in Carlisle, where she had been resident for the previous seven years, since the age of thirteen, due to the death of both of her parents. Her case notes described her as having an imperfect education, and that whilst in the workhouse she was allowed to grow up as a “street waif”. Mary was stated as being “weak-minded and silly” since birth, but her condition had been manageable in the workhouse until the three months preceding her admission. Interestingly, an aunt is named on her reception order as her next of kin, but as Mary was institutionalised for such a long period, we can assume that she was either unwilling or financially unable to care for Mary. She remained in Garlands for the rest of her life, until her death in April 1922. The presence of a familial framework in the asylum was important in stabilising Mary’s condition, even if a recovery was not possible, the convalescence of such patients was valuable to the curative environment of such institutions.
Viewing the asylum as providing a domestic, ritualised regime of care which, in some cases, sought to act as a surrogate family environment, is important in dispelling the myths of contemporary opinion of the Victorian lunatic asylum. Looking back through the patient records, it is apparent that they adapted to life in the asylum, helped in part through its domestic routine.
This blog post is part of a wider PhD thesis based on the patient records of the Garlands lunatic asylum Carlisle, which will seek to recount history from the perspective of those who experienced it first hand. Any stories, memories or any questions you may have relating to the Cumbrian institution, please do not hesitate to get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org