Historians are like a detectives: discovering John Weston

A couple of years ago I was in the Welcome Institute Library, (which is very pleasant) looking up stuff about the Bristol Asylum. I came across a small book of 104 pages entitled ‘Life in a lunatic asylum: an autobiographical sketch’. It was written anonymously and published in London, by Houlston & Wright in 1867. It did not name the asylum so I only took a passing interest until I read this passage:


‘On a mound at some distance, on the opposite side of the stream commanding a very extensive prospect over the neighbouring city stands an ancient palatial looking mansion, looking down upon and as it were presiding over not only this asylum but also an adjoining edifice of much meaner pretentions- the Union workhouse.’

For those with a knowledge of Bristol in the nineteenth century, the Dower House, Stoke Park (still to be seen from the M32 motorway) can be described as ‘an ancient palatial looking mansion’, furthermore Bristol Asylum did adjoin a workhouse. A bit more detective work confirmed this book was about our asylum.

I was able to identify the author as John Weston, by using the extensive database I have compiled of all the nineteenth century admissions to Bristol Lunatic Asylum. He was admitted on the 17th of June 1864 and discharged on the 1st of June 1866.

Unlike the other patients, where most of what we know about them is from the medical notes, John’s time in the asylum are in his own words. His book provides an intimate human portrayal of life in the asylum, which is missing from the official documents.

The nest question for the historical detective is ‘what else can we find out about the author John Weston’?

I found nothing about his early life, but his admission form states he was a commercial traveller. In his book he states he was a sign writer, and indeed we can confirm he did a lot of painting and sign writing whilst in the Asylum. (John admission form BRO 40513/R/1/2.)

John and his wife lived at Hillridge Parade, Bedminster. The book which would detail his admission is lost, but we do have the admission notes of his wife who was also a patient at the asylum. (Admission book BRO 40513/C/2/3, 213.) At the time of her admission just three months before John, she was both physically and mentally unwell. She could hardly walk and was described as suffering from chronic mania. John had told the Asylum that she had experienced similar problems 14 years ago. Both her notes and John’s book confirm she had a longstanding drink problem which John describes as ‘an unnatural craving’.

The admission seems to have badly affected John, in his own words ‘I sank under the pressure, and at last could neither eat, work or rest. I had in fact been driven out of my mind’. This led him to present himself to the Relieving Officer and he was admitted to the asylum for a period of twenty months.

We can deduce from his book that John Weston was well educated. Looking at his medical notes his mental health problems do not seem to have been that serious. He sounds a bit pompous and I was not sure I liked him, but that does not detract from the value of his book; his account gives us a real and lively insight into what it was like to be a patient.

For further information see Paul Tobia’s blog ‘Extracts from Life in a lunatic asylum’ by John Weston