There were some very moving stories in last week’s episode 1 of ITV’s Secrets from the Asylum with three celebrities uncovering the records of their ancestors who all became patients in lunatic asylums. Aside from some slight over-reactions from the participants, the programme did succeed in showing how people with senile dementia, post-natal depression and general paralysis of the insane (the last stage of syphilis) were treated in Victorian times.
The concluding episode airs on Wednesday and I will be interested to see which other mental conditions are covered. To tie in with this and with Kate Tyte’s excellent recent guest post on this blog, I’d like to share part of an article from Living London about a journalist’s visit to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in 1900.
He described “grimy, forbidding St Luke’s” as essentially “the twin sister of Bethlem; not so comfortable, perhaps, not with such fine grounds, but broadly a replica of the famous cure house. It receives the same class of patients, has pretty much the same rules, and has the same system of wards.”
Both St Luke’s and Bethlem looked after patients who were generally from the educated and professional classes, and art, music and literature was actively encouraged. At St Luke’s in a room housing the worst female cases were “two attendants of neat, nurse-like appearance. In one corner a woman is to be seen standing like a pillar; in another a lunatic is in the attitude of prayer – outwardly, a rapt devotee; and close by a poor deluded creature is kneeling before a box of paints, some of which she has been sucking.”
The journalist described the contrast of a middle-aged woman “sitting in listless vacuity, her head drooping, her hands clasped in her lap, fit model for Melancholia” with another in the middle of the room “striding to and fro with regular steps over a fixed course – so many forward, so many back – muttering unintelligibly and raising her arms aloft with machine-like regularity.”
He went on to note, “How truly painful it is to study the faces of the patients in this and other rooms! The knitted brow of acute melancholia, the grotesque indications of delusion – here perplexity, misery and fear, there dignity and exaltation – the fixed look of weariness indicative of the reaction that follows acute mania, are all present, with many other characteristic expressions.”
On red-letter days such as St Luke’s Day and on festival days like Christmas, there were frequent dramatic and musical entertainments, occasional dances, billiards and other games, as well as ample reading facilities. According to the journalist, “Everything possible is done to rouse and amuse patients, and that in this the officials succeed is attested by the high percentage of cures – a percentage which, happily, increases every year.”
Lunatic patients at Bethlem and St Luke’s were the lucky ones; they were of a more superior class to those housed in county lunatic asylums and their mental conditions were such that there was always hope they would be cured and discharged.
Pauper lunatics were not so lucky. They were admitted to the workhouse to the ‘mental’ wards, which had padded rooms where the most violent cases were housed for their own safety. The journalist described the newest of these rooms as being “about three feet wide and seven feet high, and lined throughout – top, bottom, sides, and door – with perfectly smooth padded rubber, more yielding than a pneumatic tyre inflated for a lady’s weight.”
If the mental state of pauper lunatics was too serious to be treated in the workhouse, they were transferred to a county lunatic asylum. Although conditions in these institutions had improved by 1900, they were frequently overcrowded and understaffed, and their patients were too often deemed to be ‘hopeless cases’. These were the men and women who were destined to die in the asylum. Then, as now, mental illness was a tragedy not just for the patients, but for their families too.