‘Life in a lunatic asylum’

Extracts from the book by patient and author John Weston.

In his book ‘Life in a lunatic asylum: an autobiographical sketch’ describes the Airing courts where the patient’s exercised, as he saw them in the 1860’s. These same Airing courts can still be seen today if you visit Glenside Hospital Museum, they are part of UWE’s Glenside Campus. The Airing courts he describes provide an insight into the vibrant side of asylum life and the variety of the types of patients:

‘A kind of carnival where the fast runner, the fool the flighty and the fop jostle each other and many an exciting scene is witnessed, some amusing, some causing pain and pity and some fierce indignation and distain. Here might be seen the self-elected king, the beggar, doctors, lawyers and parsons, merchants, painters and philosophers, along with rogues and vagabonds.’

Much of John’s book is about the patients and staff from his point of view. While he is complementary about the Superintendent, the head attendant and some of the attendants particularly on the female side, but he he also writes about what he considers as the coarseness, vile language, bullying and sometimes violence of certain male attendants.

His bête noir was an attendant he nicknamed ‘Bumble’. He describes several acts of cruelty or unkindness by him towards the patients in the infirmary ward. He notes that when feeding patients, who could not feed themselves, Bumble would ‘wrench open their mouths with the iron spoons and then toss the food down their throats as though shovelling it into a kennel and shouting ‘this is the way we cram turkeys’ .

He summed up his feelings about the attendants:

‘The manner of feeding the patients, the language used, the filthy allusions and obscene retorts- attendants vying with patients in exiting the loudest laughs; the attendants coarse bawl, the obstreperous shove, the stamping on the toes; the pitching about the ill, the unruly and helpless patients heedless of the results: these shameful scenes tended then to strengthen my preconceived impressions that I was accused of God. Surely such attendants are unfit for their posts’.

He describes the female wards and attendants in much more favourable terms and described the help the female head attendant gave him in glowing terms. Later the doctor remarked what ‘a great favourite I was in the women’s wards and the Mistress reiterated the compliment’.

A number of patients are described in John’s account, some of whom I can identify using my database. His descriptions may seem rather overblown but perhaps less so to anyone who has read Victorian novels. Typical is this description:

‘Tommy was about 20 years of age who had assumed, from some cause or other, an attitude of defence, by keeping his right arm raised as if to ward off a blow. He never spoke; but stood statue-like from morning to dusk, in the same position unless urged to move on. He would not dress or undress, nor even eat and his beautiful eyes had dimmed into the gloom of age; but when lighted up they would brighten with all the vivacity of intelligent youth. Poor Tommy was a shoemaker and had worked in the shop at his trade but there he was then in this state and there he soon died. His death left an impression on my mind that will never be effaced.’

Most of his descriptions of patients were kind but he could be judgemental. He describes one patient as a man who ‘had during his professional studies so misspent his time, wasted his substance, and injured himself with riotous living, that he was brought here a mere breathing log.’ This is most likely to have been a Josiah Winterbottom Thomas, a 25 years old medical student from Hanover Place in Clifton. He was discharged as ‘relieved’ shortly after Weston left.

(‘Relieved’ meant that they were discharged but not considered ‘recovered’, it could mean that the family took the patient away.)

John writes about how the Asylum tried to help patients get back on their feet by providing them with some occupation. His account of this begins ‘my doing something was spoken of ‘,’would I like to try?’ ‘Oh yes,’ I replied. ‘Anything. I could pick up stones or paint something.’ He found work in the asylum as a blessed distraction from the infirmary ward where he had been placed. He wrote, ‘I could only sweep, sweep, sweep and dust, dust, dust as a safety valve to my distracted thoughts’ and now ‘with my outdoor work I was now fully occupied from six in the morning till seven at night’. Thus work or occupation formed a major part of John’s experiences of the asylum. It appears as a skilled sign painter his ability was put to good use. The Superintendent regularly gave him work painting or re-painting signs on the ward. In the later chapters he complains of the length of time it took for him to be discharged and I wonder if this was because he had a needed skill?

Detective: Paul Tobia

For further information see Paul Tobia’s previous blog ‘Historians are like detectives; discovering John Weston’.