Broadmoor Revealed: The Victorian Asylum

Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens, County Archivist for Berkshire with access to the early Broadmoor archives set the background for his recent Henley Archaeological and Historical Group talk by describing the changes in moral attitudes to the mentally ill and changes to the law that predated the establishment of Broadmoor. He gave a most interesting insight into life as a patient there and then presented fascinating stories of some of the patients.

18th century mental asylums, such as the Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam), notably illustrated by William Hogarth, were dreadful places. The patients were frequently chained, hungry and dirty. Visitors were often welcomed as if to a zoo. Appalled by conditions in the York Lunatic Asylum, William Tuke and the Society of Friends (Quakers) founded in 1796 “The York Retreat” with the aim of providing humane care for the mentally ill. This attitude to mental illness became increasingly accepted. An Act of 1808 empowered, but not compelled, the building of hospitals in every County town. The 1815 Parliamentary Committee on Madhouses further consolidated this caring attitude rather the inhumanity of Bethlem Hospital which was rebuilt at Southwark and opened in that year.

It was, however, not until 1863 that Broadmoor was opened. The site at Crowthorne was chosen as near London (but not too close) on elevated ground, a light airy location with the advantage that as Crown Land it was free.

Mr Stevens next described some high profile incidents that led to changes in the way that insanity was regarded in law.

In 1800, James Hadfield, attempted the assassination of George III. Hadfield led a normal family life, but an ex-soldier who had suffered severe head injuries, having been struck eight times with a sabre. He had a specific delusion that the second coming of Christ would result from his death by order of the British Government. The assassination attempt was simply a means to bring about his execution. His trial was halted by the judge who declared the verdict “was clearly an acquittal” but “the prisoner, for his own sake, and for the sake of society at large, must not be discharged”. Parliament speedily passed the Criminal Lunatics Act 1800 to provide for the indefinite detention of insane defendants and Hadfield was detained until “His Majesty’s pleasure be known” i.e. indefinitely, in Bethlem Royal Hospital.

In 1840, Edward Oxford fired two pistols at Queen Victoria (who was pregnant with her first child). He was charged with treason, but acquitted by a jury declaring him to be “not guilty by reason of insanity”. Queen Victoria was not amused and privately believed that his hanging would have deterred the seven assailants who subsequently attempted to assassinate her.
In 1843 Daniel M’Naghten (or McNaughton) shot Edward Drummond, the Private Secretary to Sir Robert Peel, the Tory Prime Minister who had been M’Naghten’s intended victim. Drummond died, but M’Naghten was acquitted, using the defence of insanity leading to a public uproar. A panel of judges was requested to establish the principles to be applied to mentally disordered defendants. The rules established, usually referred to as the M’Naghten Rules have been adopted in many parts of the world and allow for the accused to be adjudged “not guilty by reason of insanity” or “guilty but insane” and the sentence may be a mandatory or discretionary period of treatment in a secure hospital facility. These rules have been modified since with the introduction of the concept of “diminished responsibility”.

Mr Stevens then returned to his main theme of Broadmoor
On 27th May 1863, the first patients, eight women arrived, the women’s block having been completed first. One petty thief, one had stabbed her husband and the other six had all killed or wounded their children. These six would now probably be diagnosed as suffering from post-natal depression. The men’s block was opened in February 1864. The inmates, most of whom were murderers, all came through the criminal justice system from a wide range of social status and age. The youngest, William Giles, was just 10 when admitted to Broadmoor and died there aged 87. The eldest, George Pursall, 78 on admission, lived with his wife for 60 years before killing her with an iron bar.

The patients’ day began early, with breakfast of bread and butter and tea, followed by optional prayers. Lunch was usually bread and cheese, the evening meal was usually meat and vegetables with 3/4 pint of very weak beer and a further serving of bread and butter for supper. Patients were encouraged to occupy themselves with work or a hobby. In some respects Victorian Broadmoor was a self sufficient village with patients undertaking chores.

Mr Stevens showed a photograph of male staff around 1885, probably marking the retirement of the second medical superintendent, Dr William Orange. Attacks by patients on staff were frequent and staff turnover was initially high, nearly 50% annually. Also staff discipline was a serious problem, the reasons for dismissal were reported as dishonesty, incompetence, drunkenness, sleeping on night duty, using abusive language and letting patients escape. There were 26 escapes in the first 10 years, leading to the raising of the boundary wall and stronger window bars.
Mr Stevens told interesting stories of some of the escapees. One, Richard Walker, escaped in his nightshirt and was returned to Broadmoor in time for lunch. Another, James Kelly, was sentenced to death in 1883 for the murder of his wife, Sarah, but just before he was due to be hanged he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and admitted to Broadmoor. In 1888 he escaped using a key he and another patient had made. In 1896 a man told the British Consul in New Orleans that he had escaped from Broadmoor and would like to return. When his story was confirmed arrangements were made for him to be put on a ship to Liverpool. Broadmoor staff arranged to meet the ship, but this arrived early. Kelly waited a while but then set off and disappeared. In 1927, thirty nine years after his escape, aged and sick, Kelly returned to Broadmoor and asked to be re-admitted! It has been suggested that Kelly might have committed the murders attributed to “Jack the Ripper”.

Mr Stevens continued with fascinating stories of other patients, including:

  • William Chester Minor, a surgeon who served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He became insane, attributed in part to his horrific war-time experiences. He was admitted to a mental hospital in Washington but subsequently discharged and travelled to England in 1871. His deluded mind believed that men entered his room at night and abused him. One night he woke up and chased the man he imagined in his room. Reaching the street a killed a man on his way to work. Sent to Broadmoor, his army pension and his family allowed him to collect a substantial library which was housed in a second room in addition to his bedroom. Becoming aware of the need for volunteers to help with the production of the Oxford English Dictionary he used his library to provide quotations that illustrated the use of words, becoming the most effective volunteer contributor to the dictionary. His delusions became more extreme and he was returned to the care of his family in America where he died in 1920.
  • Richard Dadd, an English painter of the Victorian era, noted for his depictions of fairies and other supernatural subjects, rendered with obsessively minuscule detail. On a Grand Tour of ancient classical sites he became convinced that he was controlled by Osiris, the Egyptian God. Sent home, his family chose to look after him, rather than commit him to an asylum. Obeying his perceived wishes of Osiris he killed his father. He was found by the courts to be insane and in 1844 sent to the criminal lunatic ward of Bethlem and became one of the first group to be sent to Broadmoor. Most of the works for which he is best known were created while he was a patient at Broadmoor.
  • Christina Edmunds who became known as The Chocolate Cream Killer after poisoning several people with strychnine in chocolate creams, killing one.

Mr Stevens spoke about several more interesting patients. These can all be found in fascinating detail in Mr Stevens’ book Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum, now in a second edition.
This was the last lecture of the 2015/16 season. The next will be on 4th October, 2016 when Margaret Simons will talk about “Looking after the Masses: Health-Care and Housing in Early 20th Century Berkshire”.


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