1861 Bristol Lunatic Asylum

Glenside Hospital Museum


BEFORE 1861

Between 1600 – 1800, the idea that ill people were being punished by God or possessed by demons was slowly rejected and gradually attitudes to mental illness shifted. 

Writer Arthur Ashley Sykes in 1737 published ‘An enquiry into the meaning of demonjacks in the New Testament’, which rejected any belief in the existence of demons. He and others, including Richard Mead physician to King George II, understood that those afflicted by demons referred simply to those suffering from a variety of illnesses including mental illness. Mead started prescribing treatments commonly used for physical illness such as bloodletting, emetics, purgatives, drugs, diet and exercise, to individuals suffering with mental illness.

In the 1700s, due to private madhouses treating patients in a harsh and inhuman manner, the British Parliament set up inquiries. They encouraged reform and alerted the public to the terrible conditions many vulnerable individuals faced. In 1796, William Tuke founded The York Retreat, minimising restraint, and rejecting torturous ‘treatments’. Tuke believed that rationality and moral strength could be fostered through the social environment and family-style ethos. Patients were also encouraged to undertake occupation. Bristol’s purpose-built 1861 Asylum was modeled on Tuke’s ideas of providing a therapeutic community.

By the 1800s, the mentally ill had started to be seen as ‘curable sufferers’. Psychiatry began to be thought of as a medical field. 

While scientific understanding of what physicians called ‘lunacy’ had increased little since 1600, there was a better understanding of how to support those who suffered. The sciences and religion were increasingly seen as separate and distinct. Charles Darwin’s theory that humans had evolved over time supported the subtle shift in attitudes; releasing people’s lot in life from the will of God.

This did not mean Victorians were not religious, but some used their faith to explore moral and social responsibility. French physician and writer Phillipe Pinel had pioneered ‘moral therapy’ – an approach which recognised the emotions and awareness of patients and placed an importance on social interactions.

The new route to provide sanctuary, moral therapy, and a daily regime was introduced in asylums across Europe. In England, Parliament set about dictating reform through a series of acts. The Country Asylums Act of 1808, encouraged Justices of the Peace in every county to build an asylum to look after the mentally ill paupers. When this did not have the desired results, further acts followed including one in 1845 which made it mandatory for every county to have a safe place for their mentally ill.

Bristol’s Lunatic Asylum 1861

Many of Bristol’s pauper mentally ill were in the workhouse in the centre of town; St Peters Hospital was not fit for purpose and very overcrowded. Bristol CorprationThey spent years deliberating where to build. The government stipulated recommendations. It needed to be away from the city. Fishponds was a rural location. Quarries for the stone needed to be within easy reach. The site was quarried land. Near local railway and branch line. Fishponds had both until its closure in the 1960’s. A plentiful supply of water. There is a spring-fed reservoir holding 1,000,000 gallons below the hospital lawns. They finally built a great pennant stone building that could not only accommodate the mentally ill but everything you needed to make it a self-sufficient community.  It opened in 1861 and the patients from St Peters were transferred.

They were transferred to a large purpose built hospital. A large central house with the administration rooms, many windowed wards, and all the out buildings and land needed to house a self=sufficient community.  There was a farm with pigs, chickens and fields for vegetables. An orchard, large green houses and a team of gardeners. Apart from nurses or male attendants, the medical superintendant and consultant psychiatrists, there were staff running the kitchen, laundry, and sewing room. There were  butchers, bakers, painters and decorators, engineers, carpenters, and stone masons.  Like many large houses it would be brimming with activity.