This fascinating little book reveals the Victorian attitude towards the ‘insane’ and how they were housed and treated. Its emphasis, however, is on the architectural features of the buildings used for the purpose. Their imposing exteriors, which were often set in grand parklands, belied the buildings’ interiors in all their stark reality (similar to the interior of our hospitals today—crammed beds, no privacy, overworked staff, and “fend for yourself” attitudes.) The Victorians meant well. They just didn’t know what they were dealing with and how to treat the patients’ problems.
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In the book’s introduction the author explains the terminology in use from the mid-1800s. An ‘asylum’ was an institution devoted to housing children and adults who were classified as ‘lunatics’, ‘insane’, and ‘idiots’. Unlike the days of Bethlem (Bedlam) with its gross mistreatment of those unlucky enough to be incarcerated there, the Victorians believed fresh air, exercise, adequate clothing and diet and, most of all, a work program would benefit and help cure those in their care. Mistreatment of patients was supposed to be reported and called for instant dismissal of the perpetrator.
Thus the buildings were designed to accommodate these beliefs of the patients’ needs, with many having ‘airing courts’, allotments or home farms. Large grounds were fenced or walled to insure inmates remained until ‘cured’. The majority of the 120 or more asylum buildings in England and Wales no longer exist. Some were turned into hospitals (until the 1980s), others were demolished, and some still exist as private apartments.
The book includes a list of places to visit that have small museums displaying objects from, or related to, the subject. The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Rd, London, is housed in the third Bethlem building.
Author Sarah Rutherford is a Kew-trained horticulturist who obtained an MA in the conservation of historic parks and gardens at York University. She later worked for English Heritage assessing sites across England for the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens and became Head of the Register. During this time she researched and completed her doctoral thesis on the landscapes of nineteenth-century lunatic asylums and visited many before they were closed and redeveloped. She is now an enthusiastic freelance consultant researching and writes conservation plans for parks and gardens.
The Victorian Asylum
By Sarah Rutherford
ISBN: 978 0 74780 669 1 / Shire Library SLI 461
56 pages, photographs, sketches, drawings
Available from Amazon and Shire