Letters tell of life inside Victorian mental asylum
HER plea is from the heart, poignant and pitiful. When the 22-year-old woman sat down to write to her parents, it was a letter full of despair, a cry to her mother and father to save her from daily, mind-bending torture.
“I feel I cannot stand this place a minute longer and soon I shall lose the brains I had,” she woefully declared.
“The monotony and routine simply drives me wild . . . I feel I shall go on degenerating in this environment into an animal.”
It was January 21, 1898, three weeks after the gentlewoman who signed herself Edilla was admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum in Morningside.
If she wasn’t at her wits’ end before she stepped through the intimidating doors of the hospital for lunatics, it appears she felt she was certainly well on her way once inside.
Her provocative letter is one of more than 1000 written by patients between 1873 and 1908, a 35-year-era at the asylum overseen by physician superintendant Dr Thomas Clouston, a highly-regarded psychiatrist who imposed a strict approach of running the hospital under an ethos of “discipline, order, a life under medical rule”.
The letters, usually to family members and often protesting their perfect mental state, some desperately sad and others surprisingly amusing, have been revisited by psychiatrist Dr Allan Beveridge.
His research, which will form part of a series of events to mark the hospital’s 200th anniversary, has shed a fascinating – and at times unexpected – spotlight on day-to-day life in a Victorian mental institution.
“I was struck by these letters,” says Dr Beveridge, who will discuss details of his findings in a talk titled Voices of the Mad next month.
“People have written about what was happening in Victorian asylums through looking at case notes, but while it’s interesting to hear the patients’ perspective, that is quite hard to get. So these letters are a real treasure trove.”
Hundreds of letters by patients at the hospital were penned, often in the vain hope they would help lead to release, but were never delivered. Instead, they were intercepted by staff who read them and decided whether they were suitable for posting.
Those deemed inappropriate or unsuitable, were kept and are stored within the Lothian Health Services archive.
Interestingly, while some of the letters throw into sharp focus the anguish felt by many patients, others conjure up a refreshing image of a diverse hospital community where patients enjoyed dances and entertainment, flirted with the opposite sex, kept busy pursuing trades and were well nourished.
However, first for many was the shock of finding themselves behind the firmly shut doors of the Morningside asylum.
“I have only just realised that I am actually in a lunatic asylum,” wrote 23-year-old law student James B, clearly aghast. “Who on earth ordered the cabman to drive me here?”
According to Dr Beveridge, it was perhaps not that unusual that the patients should express such surprise, for most arrived having been certified under the Scottish Lunacy Act, an indication that they were there against their will.
That often involved relatives and friends using devious means to get them to Morningside. Such as in the case of James L, a 37-year-old optician, who raged: “They told me this was a very nice place to live at. I was under the impression that I was going to the Hydropathic House at Craiglockhart. You may imagine my horror when I found it was a lunatic house – filled with perfectly insane men and women. I am not insane.”
Another, James K, wrote of how his shopping trip was rudely interrupted: “Instead of me going to Edinburgh to purchase a new publication treating on the laws and the adulteration of food, also to purchase a suit of clothes for myself, here does the two crafty devils, son and nephew, get me decoyed away until they landed me in Morningside asylum.”
While it might sound that many patients were victims of scheming relatives hoping to simply to get rid of them, Dr Beveridge insists that was not the case.
“The case notes show people were admitted with severe mental illnesses, brain conditions, psychosis. I didn’t come across people just stuck in there because they were regarded as a threat to society or because people wanted rid of them.
“Unfortunately, the nature of some mental illness is that people don’t recognise they are unwell.”
Once at the Royal Edinburgh, patients were expected to follow Dr Clouston’s theory that routine and strict rule enforcement were the perfect therapy for an unravelling mind.
It meant a set pattern of early rises, walks around the grounds and early to bed, accompanied by his Gospel of Fatness – a theory that stoutness was conducive to mental health.
While that prompted some to write despairingly about the hospital food – such as a 26-year-old clerk who described the porridge, bread and cheese, broth and mutton meals as “of the very coarsest” – the theory, says Dr Beveridge, was well intentioned.
“In partial defence, a lot of patients came from poor backgrounds and were malnourished. Just feeding them had a good and positive impact on their mental health.”
Patient Miss D was less enthusiastic: “I am suffering the most awful agonies inwardly by being forced to swallow unlimited quantities of every kind of food and liquids every few hours,” she wrote.
And Robert C made a similar complaint to Dr Clouston: “I assure you my life here has been one of exceptional horror, forced to eat large quantities of coarse food which I could not digest.”
But while some bemoaned treatment at the hands of staff, others revealed a surprising flipside, with patients praising the staff’s efforts and thanking them.
James B, a 23-year-old law student, was certainly not among the latter. “Fancy a fellow of my age being thrashed with a walking stick and dragged off suddenly of a morning and pitched headforemost into a bath and held down.
“A bath does one good but to be kicked like a wet cloth is too much of a good thing,” he complained.
However George B, a 49-year-old traveller, declared: “I am proud that I am an inmate of this Royal Institution, Tipperlin Road, Morningside. It has done me a world of good. I never felt so comfortable and well in all my life.
“I am taken great care of here.”
Others, meanwhile, like Louis G wrote graphically of their fellow inmates as “poor unfortunates, vile and filthy only a shade removed from the beasts of the field”.
He added: “Old codgers in every stage of decay share the table with me and have long beards – a circumstance that don’t contribute to neatness. You see the beasts with their beards reeking of soup and broth and as we have no napkins at breakfast or supper the poor devils take their hands and wipe off the bits of vegetable and meat and use the tablecoth, for further final cleansing of their hands.”
Dr Beveridge says the letters show a side to life in a Victorian asylum often at odds with popular perceptions. “There were many positive sides.
“There were a lot of activities, sport events, dances, outings and the staff participated in a lot of that. People would come and give lectures to the patients.
“The great range of asylum letters available should militate against painting too crude a picture of Momingside,” he adds.
“For one, many patients spoke warmly of the asylum and its staff.
“To use the writings by patients’ merely as ammunition in an attack on the asylum, is to greatly simplify their testimony.
“A much more complex picture of Morningside emerges in their accounts, which finds room for coercion but also for humanity.”
• Dr Allan Beveridge will discuss Voices of the Mad, on Wednesday, March, 20, 5.30pm – 6.20pm at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, Kennedy Tower, Jordanburn Lecture Theatre. Lothian Health Services archive is looking for donations of photographs, letters, books or objects dating from the 18th century to now, to supplement and complement NHS Lothian’s existing archive, and in particular material relating to the Royal Edinburgh. Contact the archive by e-mail at or firstname.lastname@example.org on 0131 650-3392.
Better than Bedlam
BEFORE the Royal Edinburgh Hospital came Bedlam, a chaotic “madhouse” run by the Edinburgh Charity Workhouse on a site behind modern-day Teviot Place.
Patients were treated like prisoners, locked up and left to sleep on stone floors with hay for a bed.
The death of poet Robert Fergusson in Bedlam prompted his medical attendant, Dr Andrew Duncan, to campaign for better facilities for the mentally ill.
He launched an appeal for funds in 1792. In 1806 Parliament contributed £2000 from funds forfeited from estates following the Jacobite Rising.
A villa and grounds in Morningside were purchased and the Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum opened in 1813.
Initially, only paying patients were admitted but in 1842 an extension known as West House opened to accept pauper patients, including the inmates of Bedlam.
The hospital was run by a Physician Superintendant. In 1873, Dr Thomas Clouston took over, extending the hospital with the purchase of an impressive Victorian country house, Craig House – known as the Thomas Clouston Clinic.
The asylum was renamed the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders in 1922.
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