Sunday, 24 November 2013

Mental Illness and 'Lunatic' Asylums

 Mental Illness and ‘Lunatic’ Asylums

During the mid-Victorian period there became an increasing awareness concerning the concept of mental illness. Inhumane, cruel treatments which were previously seen as the only way to cure 'lunacy' were being eradicated. It was in some ways, a time of enlightenment, where moral treatments became the way forward and traditional torturing methods began to disappear from institutions such as 'lunatic' asylums. A significant number of asylums were built during the 19th century to shelter the increasing number of people labelled ‘mad’ by society, therefore mental illness can be seen as an increasingly large part of Victorian culture.

Since the previously taboo concept of mental illness now began to dominate a large part of Victorian life, it is no wonder that many writers during this period felt drawn to creating characters suffering from some type of mental disturbance. For example in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton (1848).

Mary Barton

What led me on to first thinking about the concept of mental illness was the character John Barton. In the second half of the novel, John starts exhibiting signs of severe mental distress. We, as today’s readers, can see that John is mentally ill. The cause of which being his guilt at becoming a murderer. Gaskell describes John’s evident lack of mental and physical energy as “retreat[ing] inwards…there to do battle against the Destroyer, Conscience” (354). Therefore she is implying that his mental equilibrium has collapsed because of how guilty he feels in consequence of committing such a dreadful crime. This powerful battle of emotion has overwhelmed John and left him defeated and in medical terms, depressed. Gaskell then proceeds to portray some general physical symptoms of depression, by stating that “He had answered her questions…by monosyllables, and…Mary heard [his] groans of agony” (356). The emphasis placed on John who was very visibly suffering from depression, which was caused indirectly from his being heartbreakingly poor, implies the prominence of mental illness during the 1800’s, when such a large proportion of the British population were suffering from poverty.
Mental Asylums

Asylum - “A benevolent institution affording shelter and support to some class of the afflicted, the unfortunate, or destitute; e.g. an asylum for the mentally ill (formerly ‘lunatic asylum’), to which the term is sometimes popularly restricted.” (OED)

This definition is of an extremely ironic nature when considering the fact that the asylums I am about to discuss were in no way “benevolent” for the majority of the 1800’s. That is unless you count being restrained by leather and metal manacles and beaten if you didn’t comply with the asylum wardens’ orders, benevolent actions.

                                                                         Heritage, J. Broadmoor Asylum
On channel 5 a couple of months ago, I watched a documentary called Inside Broadmoor which delved into the history of the famous mental asylum and looked at how the inmates came to be placed in such a terrible place. One particularly striking case was that of the Oaks family, where the husband and wife “poisoned their son and tried to commit suicide” (Inside Broadmoor) so were court ordered to reside the rest of their lives in Broadmoor mental asylum. However, the reason that “they were not hanged for these crimes” (Inside Broadmoor) was because insanity caused by the extreme social issue of poverty, was a recognised cause for insanity during the Victorian period.

The moment in this documentary when poverty is discussed in relation to insanity can be seen at 23:40.

Another prominent mental institution seen during the Victorian period was that of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, better known as Bedlam. Although this hospital has since been moved to its present location in Beckenham, the central building of the old Bedlam asylum now houses artefacts for the Imperial War Museum in London.  The Bethlem Royal Hospital was housed in this building from 1815 to 1930.

                               Bethlem Royal Hospital/ Bedlam.

Bedlam was, and still is, one of the most famous ‘lunatic asylums’ in Britain. It was one of the first public asylums to be created, because previously the mentally ill, if wealthy enough, were confined to private ‘madhouses’. Therefore the change from private to public confinement may be a representation of society’s changing views on insanity. Madness had not become an acceptable or tolerated form of behaviour, yet it was beginning to be better understood and classed as a legitimate illness.

                                                                                     Hudson, K. Photo of the Imperial War Museum/Bedlam

Treatments of insanity

Early 1800’s:

The Asylums, although being improved during the 19th Century, were still prison like in their regimes and treatments. Many patients were subjected to violence by the hands of the wardens, or more commonly were stopped committing harm to themselves or others, by being manacled or restrained in some way. These medieval techniques, which seem very brutal, were a large part of control in asylums, especially before the concept of ‘moral treatment’ was introduced.

Replica of an iron wrist restrainer, England, 1850-1920                                          Replica of a 19th-century restraint harness, England, 1930-1940                                                     
The two images here are just a couple of the many mechanical restraints designed for the purpose of subduing raving patients who were likely to cause physical harm. We have to remember though at this point there was no notion of anti-psychotic drugs to control patient’s symptoms; therefore from their perspective physical control was the best way of dealing with patients in the absence of a dependable treatment.
A personal case of physical restraint that lasted for an agonizingly long period and which caused major asylum reform was that of James Norris. This man’s unjust suffering in Bedlam, where he was chained up by himself for over ten years “was instrumental in the creation of the Mad House Act of 1828, which sought to license and regulate asylums for the insane, and to improve the treatment of the insane.” (Mathew, L.  James Norris – An insane American)
Mathew, L. James Norris - An insane American
Such improvements were:
  • Large, open recreation grounds
  • Moral Treatment (non-physical) instead of using mechanical restraints
  • Partitions removed that divided male and female patients
Late 1800’s/ Early 1900’s:
By the end of the 1800’s, asylums were becoming seriously overcrowded and less and less patients were being released back into the community. Old fashioned treatments such as straitjackets and solitary confinement were being reintroduced. This was a staggering step back in the progressive attitudes previously expressed by Victorians towards mental illness. Jan Marsh explains that asylums were
“Regarded at the time as progressive and humane [but] now seem almost as cruel as the earlier punitive regimes. By the end of the era therapeutic hopes of restoring patients to sanity were largely replaced by programmes of control, where best practice was judged by inmates' docility.” (V&A)
The British Medical Journal states that “The present building [of the Bethlem Royal Hospital] was erected over a century ago, when the idea was to provide an institution for the care and maintenance of insane persons. Now large grounds with facilities for recreation and occupation have come to be considered necessary for the treatment of mental disorders” (849). Therefore the change from a prison like institution, which did not permit freedom to any of the patients, to a larger facility which allows some form of enjoyment, suggests that views on mental illness had greatly changed during the 19th century. This is most probably due to the fact that with so many asylums being built; Doctors could observe and better understand mentally ill patients. Stigmas, which previously blinded society to the pain suffered by the mentally ill, were slowly being removed by the scientific evidence produced by such observations. Doctors realised that to improve mental health, you had to be physically healthy as well, therefore exercise and recreation was a necessary step in order to treat patients.
The Woman in White
A novel, whose entire plot centres around the theme of madness and asylums, is Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859). This novel, which we will be studying next term, begins with a woman “dressed from head to foot in white garments” (15) escaping from an asylum in Hampshire. I do not want to spoil the mysterious twists which occur in this novel, but mental illness is a key theme which is constantly present.
On a visit to the Tate Britain I saw this amazing painting of The Woman in White. What I found particularly interesting was Walker’s presentation of the moment where Anne escapes from the mental asylum that she has so cruelly and unfairly been trapped in. The juxtaposition of the confinement of the asylum with freedom and nature, illustrated by the starry sky, emphasises the horrors patients in asylums were subjected to, particularly at the beginning of the Victorian period, when torturing equipment was used to subdue enlivened patients.
The narrator remarks that Laura whilst being in the asylum had been “under restraint…her sanity, from first to last, practically denied…Faculties less delicately balanced…must have suffered under such an ordeal as this. No man could have gone through it, and come out of it unchanged.”  (386) The fact that Collins states that “No man” (386) , who would have had less delicate sensibilities than a woman, could remain the same after being in an asylum, implies just how terrifying they truly were, especially if you were confined under false pretences. If you did not go in mad, you would certainly come out so.
                                                Walker, F. The Woman in White (1871) Tate Britain.
Bedlam and other asylums have left a great impression on today’s society. This can be seen particularly through the word bedlam itself which has become a figurative adjective that describes “A scene of mad confusion or uproar” (OED). Just as the Bethlem Royal Hospital itself has adapted and changed throughout the years, the word Bedlam has too.
Works Cited
·       Channel 5. “Inside Broadmoor”. Online video clip. Demand 5. Channel 5, 30 September 2013. Web. 20 November 2013.
·       Collins, W. The Woman in White. London: Marshall Cavendish Ltd, 1987.
·       Gaskell, E. Mary Barton. London: Penguin Group, 1848.
·       Heritage, J. Broadmoor Hospital Archives. Berkshire Family Historian, 24 June 2002. Web. 23 November 2013. <>
·       Hudson, K. “An American Monster Geek in London”. Blogspot. September 2011. Web. 23 November 2013. <>
·       Marsh, J. “Health & Medicine in the 19th Century”. Web. 20 November 2013. <>
·       Mathew, L. “James Norris – an insane American”. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: Curator’s choice, 2008. Web. 23 November 2013. <>
·      Science Museum. “Mental Health and Illness”. Web. 22 November 2013. <>
·     The British Medical Journal. “Bethlem Royal Hospital”. The British Medical Journal. Vol.1 No 3461 (1927): 849.
·     Walker, F. The Woman in White. 1871. Tate Britain, London. Tate. Web. 20 November 2013.
  • Whittaker, R. Explore Bethlem: inside a nineteenth-century psychiatric hospital. Bethlem Royal Hospital, Archives & Museum. <>Web. 20 November 2013.


  1. When reading this, I really agreed with what you said about Victorian writers wanting to create characters with mental disturbances. It really makes sense with Wuthering Heights that Emily Bronte's characters are/ or all share some form of a mental disturbance. This is shown especially within Heathcliff's/ Catherine's characterisation. Very informative post, :)

  2. It is interesting to see how the treatment of the mentally ill has developed during the Victorian Era. The photographs of the restraints are a great example of how patients were treated. Mental health is a very interesting topic as even in today's society there remains stereotypes and stigma attached to the label. I hadn't considered the role of mental illness in the novels we have studied, Amra's point about mental disturbance in Wuthering Heights explains a lot about the characters and perhaps the Brontes'!