The West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum Wakefield

by Jennifer Cox

Built in 1818, the West Riding Asylum in Wakefield was one of the first asylums to cater for the insane poor.[1] Although the word ‘insane’ would be heavily criticised now, it was very much the normality in the 19th century. Before the asylum opened there was little treatment for those who were considered poor and mentally ill, working class people were incarcerated in workhouses and prisons. The asylum’s purpose in the Victorian period was to provide a place where devoted care and moral treatment could be given to the poor mentally ill.[2] Although it was intended to provide better treatment, and it did in comparison with the poor living conditions of the work houses, the treatments patients were given would not be considered ethical in today’s society. Nevertheless, this asylum was different, it denounced abuse and encouraged moral treatment of patients, the people who managed and directed the asylum genuinely wanted to improve the welfare of the patients from what they previously had suffered.

In 1808, the County Asylum act was passed for there to be better care of ‘lunatics’ and ‘paupers’[3]. It was then in 1816 that building began of the new asylum in Stanley, Wakefield, as prior there was not a direct mental institute in the West Riding area for the mentally ill poor.[4] For most of the 19th century the Wakefield asylum was controlled by the magistrates and totalled costs were £36,448 to build.[5]

The first director of the asylum was Sir William Charles Ellis, he was director from 1818-1831. Ellis was strongly religious and believed that moral therapy and humane treatment should be applied to the patients.[6]  He referred to the staff and patients as ‘family’, the asylum to him was a community and he sought for patients to feel like they had a home and that they were not imprisoned.[7]  When he first opened the asylum it only catered for 150 people, most of the patients who lived in the asylum, if capable, were given small jobs.  Rewards were then given to patients such as tobacco or tea, therefore they would feel that they had something to work for.

In addition to this, Wakefield Asylum was the first asylum to implement an aftercare scheme for the patients. Ellis and others were concerned that the unfortunate patients would return to their ‘lunacy’ when discharged. It was in 1825 that Joseph Harrison who was once of Wakefield, left £1000 to the Wakefield Asylum, with other charitable donations, these funds were there to aid the patients after they had been discharged, for example, to clear debts or to provide new working tools in order to prevent relapse.[8] This displays that there was a new optimistic attitude towards the mentally ill in the Victorian period.

‘The Spinning Chair’
An illustration of what the Spinning Chair would have looked like. The image portrays a patient sat in a chair with restraints; they then would have been spun around. The archives of patients show that the chair was not used much after the 1820’s. This was one of the earliest Victorian methods to treat patients. (Image from Wakefield Mental Health Museum by Jennifer Cox)

However, the asylum required expansion, there was an increasing need for more room at asylums. Dr Corsellis, director of the Wakefield Asylum from 1831 to1853 recognised this and added an additional wing. Procedures used on the patients to treat their ‘sicknesses’ were interesting to say the least and very unusual. The Spinning Chair was used numerous times during the early part of the 19th century. The patient would sit down or lay down and be spun until they would often throw up and suffer severe nausea. It was thought that this would help the patient as they would often be ready for a rest/sleep after being spun around for long periods of time. But, the usage of this chair decreased in the 1820’s. In addition to this was the use of the restraint chair, which was used to confine patients if they were deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Although the asylum was based upon moral treatment, the chair was used many times especially in the 1830’s.[9]

Under Corsellis’s administration there was an outbreak of Cholera, although Cholera had badly affected the country in the 30’s, it was in 1849 that 106 patients out of the 620 patients died between October and December.[10] Although in September 1849, thirty-seven-year-old Elizabeth Fenton was admitted in to the asylum from a workhouse. On arrival she suffered from diarrhoea, one of the symptoms of Cholera and the night before she was admitted into the asylum, two people from the workhouse had died from Cholera.[11] David Scrimgeour stated ‘if knowledge of the two fatalities had been properly communicated to the medical staff of the asylum, Elizabeth wouldn’t have been admitted.’[12] This demonstrates that communication between work houses and asylums was unsuccessful in sharing vital information of patient’s symptoms. If this had occurred in the 21st century the patient would have been isolated from the public and treated, which shows the lack of precaution taken to prevent the spread of disease.

James Crichton-Browne, director of the asylum in the later part of the 19th century, ‘brought a new vision and new energy to the institution.’[13] Brown was recognised for his intellect as he was top of the class in his mental disease lecture and qualified at Edinburgh Medical school. He brought a new innovative way of learning to the asylum, he set up space in the asylum for him and his medical staff to carry out research. He also carried out lectures for Leeds medical students about mental health. As a result of this hard work two of his medical staff who succeeded him later provided the country with global contributions to Brain Histology. Fascinatingly Browne was the first director to issue clinical photographs of patients, some of his photos were sent to the evolutionist Charles Darwin for his writing ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872.’[14] This exhibits that Wakefield Asylum was a very significant one in its time, not only did it provide a safe haven for the poor mentally ill, the asylum continued to progress and advance in medical research.

Man, in Restraint Chair, by H. Clarke, 1869, Wikipedia https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This image was taken in 1869 during Browne’s directorship. The image depicts a gloomy life for mentally ill patients who were put into restraints.

Man, in Restraint Chair, by H. Clarke, 1869, Wikipedia https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This image was taken in 1869 during Browne’s directorship. The image depicts a gloomy life for mentally ill patients who were put into restraints.

The West Riding Lunatic Reports

James Crichton Brown was only 26 years of age when he became director of Wakefield Mental Asylum in 1866. In his time at Wakefield he was responsible for the publishing of the Annual Medical Reports from 1871-1876. The reports prove fascinating as before Browne was director, most reports were full of statistics and stereotypical diagnosis such as ‘mania’. Browne and his neuroscience juniors and colleagues brought a whole new light to asylums. There were six volumes all together, in each volume he had one article, his staff and medical researchers also published their research. The reports were very significant in the Victorian Era, his articles in his first two volumes focused upon ‘cranio-cerebral trauma’ and how this trauma is caused. [15] This was a new discovery as it parted with the common diagnosis such as ‘depression’ or ‘mania.’ His reports also consisted of renowned neurologists and professor of forensic medicine David Ferrier who used the research laboratory in Wakefield asylum to experiment on animals.[16] He conversed in his articles brain physiology as well as attempting numerous clinic pathological research.[17] A lot of the focus was on Neuropathology and the brain which confirms that huge medical advancements were done in the grounds of Wakefield Asylum.

The images and video clip were taken by Jennifer Cox at Wakefield Mental Health Museum situated in the grounds of Fieldhead Hospital. The voiceover is by Jennifer Cox and music is by Uniq, ‘Art of Silence- Dramatic/Cinematic [No Copyright, Royalty Free]’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3V-pYCGx0C4)

The first part of the film shows a replica of a Padding Room. The room would hold patients who were deemed most dangerous to themselves or others. A small air vent, little light and the walls cushioned with padding, this room was a secluded and used also as punishment. Objects from Wakefield Asylum are also exhibited in glass cabinets such as the Coping Stone which has ‘1817 engraved on it. The Restraint Shirt and Restraint Belt which would have been worn by patients are shown. Locked in a glass cabinet is the Magneto electric therapy machine. Electric shocks were a popular treatment method, patients would either hold the brass cylinder handles or have them placed on body parts. The uniforms worn by the nurses, male attendants and medical researchers and doctors are displayed in the next part of the footage. The next two images show the 1890 Lunacy Act document and ‘potions’ bottles which were used to treat patients. The final footage shows an illustration of the Victorian Asylum done by a patient. The footage zooms in to show a clearer picture of how big the asylum was and how incredible and accurate the drawing is.

Guide to further sources

West Yorkshire Archives Service: Catalogue search for West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield http://www.catalogue.wyjs.org.uk/calmview/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=WRD1%2f5%2f1%2f1&pos=1

http://www.wakefieldasylum.co.uk/   – Website dedicated to Stanley Royd Hospital formerly known as Wakefield Pauper Lunatic Asylum in the Victorian Era. The website gives a brief insight into what the asylum was like from it’s opening in 1816.

http://northernlifemagazine.co.uk/tales-from-west-riding-pauper-lunatic-asylum/ – This article led me to find Scrimgeour, D. (2015). Proper People Early Asylum Life In The Words Of Those Who Were There. Layerthorpe: Yor Publishing Services Ltd. The book which proved vital to my research about treatments and methods used in the asylum. The article sheds light on the a few patient cases while also exhibiting some of my Scrimgeour findings.

http://museumofthemind.org.uk/blog/post/a-tour-of-the-former-west-riding-asylum-1818-1995 – This blog provides a recent tour of the buildings which once held thousands of patients, now rebuilt into houses the old windows and octagonal stairway towers remain the same. The image of the remains of the old padded cell prove interesting as they were situated in the basement of the building.

http://www.bshs.org.uk/travel-guide/west-riding-lunatic-asylum-wakefield – This website gives you a guide to scientific sites, it gives a great brief insight into the most prominent events which occurred at the asylum such as James Crichton Browne’s findings.

http://www.southwestyorkshire.nhs.uk/quality-innovation/mental-health-museum/ – This webpage gives you the following opening times of the Mental Health Museum situated in Fieldhead Hospital which is dedicated to the Wakefield Asylum, the museum is a great way to see the treatments and methods up-close.

Notes

[1] Stanley Royd Hospital Digital Archives http://www.wakefieldasylum.co.uk/

[2] West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum http://northernlifemagazine.co.uk/tales-from-west-riding-pauper-lunatic-asylum/

[3] Foss, A. & Trick, K. (1989). St. Andrew’s Hospital Northampton the First Hundred And Fifty Years (1838-1988) Cambridge: Granta Editions p.11.

[4] Cherry, S. (2003). Mental Health Care in Modern England: The Norfolk Lunatic Asylum/ St Andrews Hospital C. 1810-1998. Suffolk: Boydell Press p.9. http://www.wakefieldasylum.co.uk/

[5] Davis, M. (2013). West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum through time. Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing p.9.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Charles_Ellis

[7] Davis, M. (2013). West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum through time. Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing p.9.

[8] Smith, L. (1999). Cure, Comfort and Safe Custody: Public Lunatic Asylums in the Early Nineteenth Century. London: Leicester University Press p.213; Davis, M. (2013). West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum through time. Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing. p.9.

[9] Scrimgeour, D. (2015). Proper People Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There. Layerthorpe: Yor Publishing Services Ltd. p.3513.

[10] Marland, H. (1987). Medicine and Society in Wakefield and Huddersfield 1780-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.87.

[11] Scrimgeour, D. (2015). Proper People Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There. Layerthorpe: Yor Publishing Services Ltd. p.367.

[12] Scrimgeour, D. (2015). Proper People Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There. Layerthorpe: Yor Publishing Services Ltd. p.367.

[13] Rollin, H. & Reynolds, E. (2018). Yorkshire’s influence on the understanding on the understanding and treatment of mental diseases in Victorian Britain: The Golden Triad of York, Wakefield, and Leeds. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 27 (1), 74-81. doi: https://doi-org.libaccess.hud.ac.uk/10.1080/0964704X.2017.1370801.

[14] Scrimgeour, D. (2015). Proper People Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There. Layerthorpe: Yor Publishing Services Ltd. p.6337.

[15] Jellinek, E. (2005). Sir James Crichton-Brown (1840-1938): Pioneer Neurologist and Scientific Drop-out. Journal of The Royal Society Of Medicine, 9 (98), 428-430. Doi: 10.1258/jrsm.98.9.428.

[16] West Riding lunatic Asylum http://www.bshs.org.uk/travel-guide/west-riding-lunatic-asylum-wakefield

[17] Jellinek, E. (2005). Sir James Crichton-Brown (1840-1938): Pioneer Neurologist and Scientific Drop-out. Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine, 9 (98), 428-430. Doi: 10.1258/jrsm.98.9.428.

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