My mother worked in one of London’s many psychiatric asylums that were all closed at the end of the 1980s. She was a nurse at Claybury Hospital in north east London. The Victorian complex of buildings was set in beautiful grounds with two big churches, a cinema and other facilities. There was a combination of locked wards and open wards. I remember as a child seeing patients roaming round outside in their dressing gowns dosed up to the eyeballs with lithium.
By the late nineteenth century, Britain had begun a long journey of trying to understand mental illness and treat it with compassion as opposed to fear and hatred. Up until the mid-1800s, mental patients were pretty much classified as prisoners. Bethlem Hospital was where the city’s insane ended up. Chained to walls or restrained in other ways. Even as early as 1598, a committee appointed to look at the workings of Bethlem damned the place as loathsome.
Always eager to raise money, Bethlem used to charge members of the public to come and gawp at its inmates. By the eighteenth century, it was making about £400 a year from letting anybody in who fancied a laugh at the expense of the insane. One observer, Ned Ward, said people visited Bethlem much as they’d go and see lions in the zoo. Even those who had family or friends at Bethlem had to pay the same amount as inquisitive strangers to see them.
One of the people who admitted to popping in for a look around wrote a damning account:
One of the side-rooms contained about ten patients, each chained by one arm or leg to the wall, the chain allowing them merely to stand up by the bench or form fixed to the wall or to sit down again. The nakedness of each patient was covered by a blanket-gown only.
Things came to a head when members of the public saw one particular man, William Norris, restrained with iron bands to a wall – and apparently kept like this for years. The year was 1814 and attitudes were slowly starting to change. Norris found himself being quizzed by members of parliament who dropped in to see this pathetic sight. So incensed were parliamentarians that they set about freeing Norris and reforming the system. However, the governors of Bethlem put up a spirited fight against these external meddlers in their affairs spending an eye-watering £600 to oppose the bill for regulating asylums.