West London asylums in 19th century literature
In the nineteenth century, the asylum moved west.
William Ayres House, which moved from Kensington to Hackney, was
moving against the flow.
In terms of the numbers
of inmates, this was mainly because large county asylums were opened at
Friern, to provide an alternative to the large
pauper asylums in
Hoxton and Bethnal Green. But there was also a
development of west of London private asylums.
Two asylums -
Bethlem and the
Tuke's asylum - actually
moved from the east to the west.
the table below I am
attempting to look at the development of the west London asylums through
the lives and writings of
Mary and Charles Lamb -
Harriet Martineau -
Thomas Noon Talfourd -
Wilkie Collins -
Charles Reade - and
Rosina Bulwer Lytton
Mary Lamb (with her brother Charles) was one of the best known
nineteenth century children's literature. She was also the kind "aunt" to
several real children. After her death it was revealed that she was also a
lunatic. She had murdered her own mother and spent the rest of her life in
community or asylum care. Her brother, who cared for her, also had a
history of insanity. In the later part of her life, both the asylum and
community care for Mary appear to have been coordinated by another writer,
Thomas Noon Talfourd, the son of the proprietor of an asylum in Fulham.
The social writings of Harriet Martineau also include stories for
But her writings are serious factual contributions. She popularised the
principles of the new poor law in the 1830s but this hard side to her
social philosophy was offset by a benign understanding of the new moral
treatment of those who cannot help themselves in the new Middlesex pauper
lunatic asylum at Hanwell.
Whilst Mary Lamb was a lunatic, Rosina Bulwer Lytton believed she
was only an alleged lunatic. The daughter of the pioneer feminist Anna
Wheeler, she married the novelist and Liberal politician, Edward Bulwer-
Lytton. In her book A Blighted Life (1880) she claims that she was
confined in a Brentford asylum in 1858 because she was an embarrassment to
her husband's political career. Her writings are linked to the madhouse
novels of Wilkie Collins (A Woman in White - 1860) and Charles
Reade's (Hard Cash - 1863) through their connection with the
Victorian "Lunacy Commission". This, as well as regulating asylums,
provided salaried work for several literary figures of the nineteenth
1860: The Woman in White
We can begin by thinking of that scene in Willkie Collins'
The Woman in White where the story-teller first meets the
mysterious woman on a lonely road north of London, the road west from
London is the combined cities of London and Westminster, south
of the heath. Country roads stretch south to the start of the city and
north and west, deeper into rural Middlesex. The story-teller is walking
back to London, the woman he encounters has escaped from a nearby private
madhouse and in my imagination I see her coming from the west, finding
herself at a crossroads, and waylaying the first passing stranger for
In this picture, the countryside north and west of London is where
secretive madhouses have been established in redundant country houses where
the friends and relatives of those who can afford to pay are spirited away.
The Woman in White is a sensational novel by the inventor of the
detective story, but its dedication to Bryan Waller Procter, one of the
legal commissioners who visited asylums, reminds us that Wilkie Collins,
like his friend Charles Reade, had inside sources. And long before he
became a Lunacy Commissioner, Bryan Waller Procter was the close friend of
Charles and Mary Lamb, both of whom were, at times inmates in private
asylums. He was also the friend of another of their other biographers,
Thomas Noon Talfourd, who was the son of the proprietors of one of those
West London asylums.
Geography of the private asylums
There was a substantial development of West of London private asylums in
the 19th century but, in two areas, West of London private asylums have a
There is a series of asylums that begins with
Irish's in Guidford, Surrey in 1700 and concludes with
Stilwell's in Hayes, Middlesex in the mid ninteenth century. At times, the
location of these asylums may have been related to the Royal Court at
Windsor. They are (certainly at times) asylums for the very rich.
Irish's makes the West of London madhouses almost as old as the East of
London ones, such as
, where Charles and Mary Lamb were confined. The
East London Houses, however were on a much larger scale and included the
poor as well as the rich.
The Chelsea madhouse date
back to before 1743. They appear to have migrated north to Kensington in
the nineteenth century. These madhouses are related to the West London
medical profession and have connections with the madhouses of the West of
England, on the London to Bath road.
In the early 19th century, a group of private asylums developed in
Fulham. At the time, Fulham was the market garden area
London and "contained many handsome villas and country seats".
appears to have opened by 1801 -
Normand House by
There is a group of private asylums in, around, or associated with Hanwell.
The first is probably
Ann Pope's, which may have opened in 1804.
Elm Grove was open by
1833 and was related to the superintendents of the
Hanwell County Asylum which opened in 1831. The retired
superintendent opened Southall
Park in 1838.
The Shrubbery, Southall was associated with this.
Turnham Green Terrace may have included a small private
Manor House, Chiswick
an asylum in 1833.
Three houses - Earls Court House Old Brompton -
Wyke House, Sion Hll,
Inverness Lodge, Brentford - are inter-related in that
were operated, at some time, by Robert Gardiner Hill, one of the
originators of the non-restraint system.
We have very few lists of the patients in London asylums before the
census of 1841. The rest of England abd Wales has a Register (to
1828) in the care of the Royal College of Physicians. The London Register
of the Royal College of Physicians was lost because it passed to a
government agency in 1828.
There is, however,
a register of all London's private asylums for the years
1829/1830. In this, Mary Lamb, brother of Charles Lamb, is recorded as a
patient at Normand House in Fulham.
The life of Mary Lamb illustrates many of the features of mental health
care in the early 19th centry that the local historian will look for.
Her brother, Charles Lamb, was a patient in
Hoxton House, east London, in
1795 and Mary was also a patient there, later. This was a large asylum with
a gentleman proprietor who had his private house next to the asylum. The
asylum itself had separate departments. The pauper department received
people on benefit from the City parishes, from west London, and from
counties all around London and elsewhere. The private department received
private patients of a middling income. Further up the road was an elite
house that received the relatives of the rich and powerful. Hoxton House
also had a department for naval lunatics.
In the 1820s and 1830s, Hoxton House made an annual profit of £4,000
a year. The state of the art county asylum opened at Springfield in 1841
cost £85,000 - So just over 20 years profits from Hoxton House could
paid for it. The private asylum trade could be big business.
Or it could be a small domestic industry. At Turnham Green Terrace,
Turnham Green, for example, John and Mary Jackson took in
Poynder on 3.3.1818 and four years later found room for William Hill. The
same two men were living with them and a man and woman servant in 1841, and
"Jackson's Lunatic Asylum" continued until the late 1840s.
Mary Lamb murdered her mother on 22.9.1796. She was spirited away to a
madhouse in Islington, where she was kindly treated.
Discharged, by her brother, from the asylum in
April 1797, I believe she was maintained for some years in
single houses. These were unregistered asylums where one lunatic was looked
after by a family. A stay in such an asylum could be arranged by the same
physician who arranged a stay in an asylum, or it might be arranged by the
proprietor of an asylum. Mary's first single house was in Hackney.
April 1799, Mary's father died. There appears to be a general
agreement that, after this, her brother Charles took her into his own care
at his home in Islington.
This famous account of Mary's relapses may relate back to this period
"Whenever the approach of one of her fits of insanity was announced, by
some irritability or change of manner, Lamb would take her, under his arm,
to Hoxton Asylum. It was very affecting to encounter the young brother and
his sister walking together (weeping together) on this painful errand; Mary
herself, although sad, very conscious of the necessity for temporary
separation from her only friend. They used to carry a strait jacket with
These were very uncomfortable times for lunatics and their relatives. The
attempted assasination of George 3rd, by a lunatic, in 1800, made life
particularly difficult. Charles and Mary removed themselves from Islington
to the relative anonymity of the inner city.
had a nurse,
Sarah James, who had been a nurse in a private asylum
Charles Lamb met
Thomas Noon Talfourd in 1815. At the time, Mary was
in an asylum in east London. Talfourd was the son of the proprietors of
Normand House, Fulham and I think it highly likely that Mary became
patient there between 1815 and 1829, when we have a register entry for her.
In 1814, Edward Wakefield commissioned an artist to draw
William Norris in
Bethlem. The picture is famous as one of the extreme constraint
of a violent patient an a run-down asylum.
Compare this with
Edward Wakefield's description of Normand House, where Mary Lamb
Talfourd's was one of the few private asylums in which conditions were
good, as far as Edward Wakefield could tell. There were many, including
Hoxton House, to which he was refused admission.
Wakefield's good opinion of Normand House is echoed in the reports of the
visiting commisioners at the time Mary Lamb was a patient:
25.7.1829: "The establishment is in excellent order. Religious service is
regularly performed every Sunday evening to such patients as are capable of
17.11.1830: "This house is in a very creditable state, but the
commissioners would recommend that a larger room be appropriated to the
worst class of patients"
23.3.1831: "This house appears in very good order. The suggestion made in
the last Report has been attended to in the removal of the worst class of
patients into a larger room"
A Hanwell visit
contrasts the treatment of rich patients in private
asylums unfavourably with that of pauper patients in the Hanwell Lunatic
At the time she was writing, Tuke's elite asylum at Manor House,
was only just developing, so I do not think she could be thinking of that.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare Martineau's evaluation of
Hanwell with the evaluation of Manor House given by its historian, Pamela
Pamela Bater writes that "most people had no choice but to consign mentally
ill relatives to one of the big county asylums".
People with money, however, could send their mad relatives to places where
they were "treated as individuals" and "entertainments were laid on and
patients were taken on outings".
Martineau's argument is that because the rich were so anxious to secure the
secrecy and privacy of their insane associations, the public treatment of
paupers in the new county asylum turned out to be better and more
therapeutic than the treatment the rich paid so much for !
The proportion of
Hanwell was low, but this, Harriet argues, is because it is not receiving
patients early enough in their illness.
The internal workings of the
asylum and its
garden were focused on finding paients
therapeutic occupation and opportunities to seek reward in activities were
they are appreciated.
local community was not willing to make a positive response to lunatics
becoming normal people. Harriet describes a
popular horror at the
they visited Brentford or the local parish church.
Observation of Hanwell casts light on what goes on in the world. Gin
drinking is the main cause of women being admitted and bad treatment had
made patients chronic:
"The malady of the
greater number was
brought on by gin-drinking, and rendered irremediable by a long infliction
of chains and idleness"
The cause of gin-
drinking is hinted at by an inmate who tells a visitor
You are a delusive
man. Men delude women and women resort to gin and gin reduces
women to insanity and bad treatment keeps them insane.
The system at Hanwell appeared to depend on Dr and Mrs Ellis. If it was to
be established, Harriet thought that governors and servants would need training.
Throughout Harriet Martineau's description, the figure of Mrs Ellis is
larger than that of her husband, Dr Ellis and Harriet concludes by
discussing "the equal
participation of a