Friday 10 October 2014

The York Lunatic Asylum Scandal

Examples of early nineteenth century restraints for use with insane

The York Lunatic Asylum opened in 1777, at a time when little was understood about mental illness. Without organised institutional care available, families were left to deal with the mentally ill at home as well as they could. It was usual to chain lunatics to the walls and to leave them naked (it was not thought possible for mentally ill people to feel cold) and alone. Madness turned people into animals.

William Tuke, 1732-1822
 Although there were grand ideals when it was first conceived of providing 'relief to those unhappy sufferers who are the objects of terror and compassion to all around them', York Lunatic Asylum soon fell onto a darker path. In 1790 a Quaker woman called Hannah Mills died at the York Asylum. No Friends had been allowed to see her during her six-week residence, to support her faith or to see the conditions in which she was being held. This led William Tuke to encourage the foundation of the Retreat in York, an institution built upon the Quaker idea that everyone should be treated kindly, and as an equal.

Concerns about the York Asylum continued to grow. After William Vickers was badly treated by the staff at the asylum, a Justice of the Peace for the West Riding called Godfrey Higgins interested himself in the case. Vickers had been released from the hospital bruised, lousy, dirty and so weak he could hardly stand. Other poorly-treated patients were discovered: Reverend Schorey who had been kicked down the stairs by his keeper, and Martha Kidd whose hip was dislocated during her stay. A meeting was called to examine Higgins' accusations and nearly 40 local gentlemen (including members of the Tuke family and a number of their friends) took advantage of an old rule and paid £20 in order to qualify as governors of the asylum and effect change.

Miniature of Godfrey Higgins
Investigations discovered that the number of patients at the Asylum had been growing, but poor financial management meant that the institution was struggling and conditions for the patients were poor. This should have caused a higher death rate but the figures published in the Asylum's annual reports did not reflect this. Closer examination of the steward's books made it clear that deaths had been concealed. In addition, it was discovered that the physicians at the Asylum had misappropriated significant sums of money from the institution. Before further assessments could be made, a fire began which destroyed one wing of the asylum and all of its early records. Four patients died. Rumours said it had been set by the steward deliberately to conceal the truth but this was never proven. Dr Best was never charged for his fraud but was forced to resign due to ill health.
Affluent patients at the Asylum were generally well treated. It was the poor who suffered. On a surprise inspection in March 1814, Godfrey Higgins insisted that the staff opened locked doors near the kitchen. When the key could not be found he threatened to break open the doors with a poker. Finally he gained entrance and found 'a number of secret cells in a state of filth, horrible beyond description', full of female patients, 'the most miserable objects I ever beheld'. Elsewhere, 'you might see more than 100 poor creatures shut up together, unattended and uninspected by anyone'.

The Retreat, c.1812
 In August 1814 at the governors' annual court, new rules were made and the officers of the asylum were all dismissed. The staff were replaced with help from the Retreat Hospital.

In the aftermath, there was a full parliamentary enquiry to which Godfrey Higgins, Samuel Tuke and others contributed. The report was published in 1815 and can be read for free via GoogleBooks

Alexandra Medcalf, Archives Assistant


You can read more about the Retreat here and more about the Tuke family here here and here

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