The York Lunatic Asylum Scandal




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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


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
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

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