Life in a Victorian Asylum 2: Clerks and Governesses

While certainly connected to moral treatment, improvements at Bethlem were presumably also related to the changing patient profile: throughout the nineteenth century the Hospital became increasingly middle class – by the 1860s, the majority of patients tended to come from lower middle and “educated” working class backgrounds. As Hood lamented in 1854, “The records of all Asylums show how liable are clergymen, authors, artists, governesses, professors and similar persons to be attacked by this terrible calamity. None are more subject to this visitation, none are less able in a pecuniary point of view, to struggle through the trial of such an affliction, yet none are less cared for by the many charitable institutions of our country.” This changing patient profile is indicated in the admissions: 10% of male admissions to Bethlem in 1845-55 were clerks (compared to just 0.01% of the population), while 7% of female admissions were governesses or school mistresses (again, just 0.01% of all women were governesses).

In reflection of this changing class of patient, the Hospital’s wards increasingly came to resemble the Victorian domestic ideal: as the Illustrated London News put it, “that which was once a prison-cell has now become a cheery, domestic room,” while Freeman’s Journal later described photographs of the late nineteenth century hospital as “luxurious” and of “hotel-like magnificence.” This was in line with similar changes described at St Luke’s by Charles Dickens, in his article A Curious Dance Round a Curious Tree. Nonetheless, most contemporary observers were aware that these changes might be little consolation for many patients. As the correspondent from the Illustrated London News concluded: “I thought of the luxuries and the comforts, the plants and the pet animals, the books and the periodicals, the billiard and the ball room, the skill and tenderness of the physician; but all these, to my mind, would not fill up the vast abyss of human mental misery yawning beneath the lofty dome in St George’s fields…”

female ward


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