Revisiting the asylum, 2016


ASYLUM? We were wondering quite what to expect! What Dr Steve Cherry gave us was a scholarly examination of how, for the last two hundred years, society has chosen to handle those people whose mental disturbance led them to be labelled as “mad” in the 18th Century, “insane” in the 19th and “mentally ill” in the 20th. A potentially harrowing subject, presented in a manner that occasionally shocked, gradually reassured and sometimes even amused. Our audience of over 50 listened intently, and then enthusiastically joined in a half-hour question and answer session.

The Norfolk Asylum in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, was opened in 1814. It followed the example of the large medical hospitals, which treated physical illness.  In the 18th Century there was no proper care for those who were mentally ill. Many were put in the workhouses.


Others went to privately run asylums or stayed with their families as long as possible. But anyone was entitled to care for a lunatic – so-called “friends” could receive a few shillings a week to cover costs and, in many cases, make a tidy profit by simply locking-up and neglecting their charges. There was no doubt that St Andrews was fundamentally needed.


Was it a frightening place? Well, for a start there was no high brick wall. The day room of the least difficult residents opened onto a pleasant garden which ran down to a railing fence overlooking the main road. Patients were not all hidden away from society. There were arrangements for people who were doing well to be allowed home on leave. There were allotments, pets were allowed and there was even a patients’ choir.


But there were other wards that were described as grim and fearful places, where the more difficult patients were subject to restraint and control and to forms of treatment that cannot be repeated here. There was even a theory that mad people were on the same level as animals and could thus be treated and trained as animals.


Fortunately the 19th Century was a period of reform. By the 1880s it was said that the “dismal madhouse has become a hospital for mental illness”. By the 20th Century, restraint and control were being replaced by care and the notion that insanity (a brain that has gone wrong) could be cured. There is a question as to how effective and humane were the treatments, often drug- and even operation-based. However, staff were better trained and essentially caring. They communicated more with patients and it has been suggested that the influence of a healthy person’s mind is the best form of therapy.













St Andrews closed in the 1990s, as did many others, and all that is left you can see above and below. Care of the mentally ill was largely moved out into the community. Whether this is working is another issue and a matter of some debate.











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