The Padded Cell Part 1

At Glenside Hospital Museum there is a replica of a padded cell, a small room with cushioned walls. One panel is thought to be from the late nineteenth century, you can see layers of colour as the room got repainted from pink, to blue and then pale yellow, another panel is the door from the 1930s with a small viewing slit for the nurses to check on the patient.

The word ‘cell’ is a misnomer as it implies punishment. While it may on occasion have been used in this way, it was intended to stop the patients from hurting themselves, to provide them with a safe place to thrash around. Stepping inside the atmosphere changes. The walls create a softness in your voice and muffle your hearing. Young children immediately relate to it as a soft play area and indents in the padding can be seen where they pounded it with their feet.

In the early nineteenth century, patients who were violent and some who were merely troublesome were often shackled in irons, but by 1861 – when Bristol’s Lunatic Asylum was built – this was thought to be barbaric. Many institutions abolished or severely limited the use of mechanical restraint, however secluding a patient or separating them in a small room was used.

Bristol Lunatic Asylum only used mechanical restraint on very rare occasions perhaps once or twice a year (mechanical restraint book, BRO 40513/C/14/1). A padded cell was built next to every ward but by the 1950s they had been removed. There were still side rooms for single occupancy. These were used when a patient needed to be removed from the large wards of 20 to 60 beds. This would be done for a variety of reasons; to ensure their safety, the need to provide seclusion, the safety of other patients at night or as in the case of Janet in the 1970s as a reward for good behaviour and hard work in the hairdressing salon. Retired nurses visiting the museum remember the last padded cell at Glenside Hospital in the 1960s. It was built especially in a side room for one female patient who on the birth of her third child had incurred brain damage and was prone to erratic fitting. This was to ensure she was protected from harming herself at night. When she died the padding was removed.

The debate about the efficacy of using both mechanical restraint and seclusion continues to this day. Roland Dix in his article Mechanical restraint and seclusion: earning a place at the debating table’ Journal of Psychiatric Intensive Care 2014, considers these two issues as one of the longest running debates in healthcare.’


Part 1: Padded Cells by Paul Tobia and Stella Man