Posts Tagged 'archives'

Hospital Snapshots 10

Observable evidence was thought to be crucial in documenting changes and determining recovery so drawings and later photographs could be valuable tools. The case of Eliza Ash provides a good example of the type of noticeable change that might suggest progress. There are three drawings of her, made when she was a patient at Bethlem in the 1840s suffering from mania, with brief comments added by Alexander Morison. (see previous month)

Eliza Ash pic. 1

Though some details are similar, she does not look at the artist in any of the drawings for example, some change in Eliza is visible. On her admission she was said to be ‘violent and mischievous, with incoherence of speech’ and the first drawing was made when she was in this state. We have a clear view of her face; her head held at a slight angle so that she is looking down and off to the side. Her mouth is closed but her lips are not pressed together to denote any tension. Her oval face looks longer due to the cropped hair which sits close to her head, well off her forehead, cut round her ears so that both are visible. The overall impression is perhaps of someone lost in their own thoughts.

It is not clear if Eliza is standing or sitting but she has her arms raised and clasped loosely at chest height. Much of her dress is visible but, as is typical with the drawings, it is merely sketched in. It has a high scooped neck unadorned with any type of collar, quite a full skirt and full sleeves which are narrowed to a cuff at her wrist.

Eliza Ash pic. 2

In the second, Eliza is seen in a three-quarters profile. She appears at some distance from us. Her face is rounded and well filled out though the chin is quite defined. Both eyes are visible. She has short styled hair that partially covers the ear. Some, at the rear, appears to be longer or to have come loose and is trailing down her neck. Her mouth is closed. She appears open and relaxed, almost as if she is inwardly smiling, though perhaps at something only she is privy to.

Eliza is wearing a loose fitting dress, not much more than the scooped neckline visible. The impression is of someone sitting rather than standing, perhaps with her hands in her lap. Her posture betrays some tension, the shoulders a little hunched.

Eliza Ash, pic. 3

In the final picture, Eliza appears to be nearer to us, we see her more clearly. The three quarter profile is sharper; on the right only the eye lid and lashes are visible. Everything about the image is more defined; the face has lost some of its roundness, the eyes wider and clearer, the nose more shapely. Once again, the mouth is closed. Her hair, though similar to the first picture, is slightly shorter, revealing the whole ear. It is styled more elegantly, the line perfect.

Eliza’s dress appears more fitted, darts at the front are hinted at. It is trimmed with a narrow white band at the neck. Her body language gives her more of a dynamic air and the impression is one of someone standing with arms at their sides or perhaps loosely clasped in front. This final picture lends her more personality than the first, though arguably she conforms to the nineteenth century ideal of female normality. Everything in it seems to be pushing us towards the conclusion that we only have to look at her to see that she is convalescent.

UPDATE: If you want to help us to bring our photography collection into the 21st century then help us win the chance to work with acclaimed photographer, Rankin by voting here:  We want to use this as a chance to show that you cannot tell if someone has a mental health issue by their appearance.


Not Just for the Record: Enlivening Archives

A recent workshop at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explored the way in which historians and researchers use archives. While we might tend to view archives as providing “evidence”, there are many questions we should ask ourselves about their very existence. How has an archive been put together? Who has decided what to keep and what to discard over the years? Political, organisational and individual decisions might all contribute to the formation of an archive. Meanwhile, the historian is also necessarily selective, choosing which parts of an archive – or, indeed, which archive at all – to use to make his or her argument.

Piecing together a path through an archive can be a challenge for any researcher. Material may be entirely un-catalogued: Georgina Brewis and Anjelica Finnegan spoke about their use of documents from voluntary archives, crammed into un-labelled cardboard boxes. Thanks to their efforts, the material is now catalogued, and you can find out more about the archives of voluntary organisations, and listen to a podcast of their talk, on the website of the Voluntary Action History Society. In the archives of small organisations, other researchers had found that material was mis-filed, while Ross Macfarlane of the Wellcome Library commented on the opportunities for readers to find new information not listed on the catalogue even in a large organisation like the Wellcome Library, where letters or other material might be found pasted into books (as in our earlier blog post on Theo Hyslop’s Mental Physiology). Another useful resource Ross drew attention to was the Medical Archives and Manuscripts Survey, undertaken by the Library in the 1990s, in which over 100 archives in Greater London were surveyed to highlight items of medical interest.

Speakers also looked at the variety of ways in which archives might be interpreted.   The archives discussed varied considerably, although two presentations concentrated on archives and mental health. Paul Sherreard from the London Metropolitan Archives spoke about activities at the London Metropolitan Archives focusing on the Normansfield Hospital Collection. These activities centred around the newly-conserved archives of Normansfield, founded in 1868 by Dr John Langdon Down as a private institution for people with learning disabilities. The former hospital now houses the offices of the Down’s Syndrome Association, and a new Museum of Learning Disability, which will open regularly to the public from January 2012.

Stories Awaiting Discovery

Last year, when highlighting the inclusion of searchable text from the minutes of the Court of Governors of Bethlem and Bridewell Hospitals from 1689 to 1800 in London Lives, an electronic resource for the history of London, we also reminded blog readers of the online availability of digital page-by-page images of minutes dating from 1559 to 1792 on the Archives & Museum’s own website. Not everyone’s research is limited to the eighteenth century. Nor is everyone’s research limited to Bethlem Hospital.

Bridewell Hospital, which for most of its history functioned as a reformatory for petty offenders, vagrants and orphans, and with which Bethlem was twinned from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, is the subject of a great deal of scholarly interest in its own right. A recent post on a blog of King’s College London called Strandlines is a small example of this. The civic hypocrisy (and, perhaps, the connivance with Jacobean society’s gendered power relations) of the episode the post recounts – in which degrading punishments were meted out to Agnes Allowin and Mary Brookes, while no serious effort to find ‘Captain North’ seems to have been made – is almost as shocking as the cruelty involved.

This is just one of thousands of human stories that are waiting to be discovered (by anyone who is equal to the palaeographical challenge) in the early modern records of Bridewell and Bethlem Hospitals records.


Caption for image: Bridewell and Bethlem Court Book extract about Mary Brookes and Agnes Allowin, 1603.

In the Spotlight: Philip O’Connor

In last month’s In the Spotlight, we wrote of the oft-supposed link between ‘genius’ and ‘madness’ that “without ever coalescing into a testable hypothesis, …finds anecdotal support within both popular culture and academic discourse”. An example we might have cited is that of the bohemian writer and poet Philip O’Connor (1916-1998), who (in his autobiographical Memoirs of a Public Baby) admitted that at one time he had shared the “prevailing scientifically ignorant conception of neurosis as the unemployed, wasted part of imaginative talent”. O’Connor’s own experience of psychological imbalance and hospitalisation must have contributed to his eventual rejection of such an easy identification. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and admitted to the Maudsley Hospital at the age of twenty on 21 September 1936, declaring (according to his autobiography) that, whilst willing to be there, he had no hope of changing.


O’Connor despised his doctors: “I couldn’t believe them capable of understanding me, and certainly didn’t want them to…They appeared to me desperately on the outside of a world they’d give their world to enter; I treated them as unprivileged gate-crashers.” Yet of the Maudsley he wrote: “I liked the place very much, being allowed more or less to do as I pleased, painting, writing and not having to ‘work’; and certainly having my psyche seriously considered wasn’t, in a coarse way, unflattering”. The atmosphere on the ward he found “normal” but “heightened”. Of one memorable night, that of 30 November 1936, he wrote “I awoke as from a trance, and, in the glare of the Crystal Palace which was burning – we could see it from the veranda where we slept – I caught a snap-glimpse of other patients, some dressed, and felt them, from their clothes mostly, to be thrillingly contemporary, of today, absolutely, and I imagined an element of cure in this experience…”


O’Connor’s recovery, though sufficient to warrant his discharge on 20 March 1937, did not serve to lift his spirits. “I left…with the consciousness of having become a grubby, conventional ‘intellectual’; and that a thick glass pane, as is proper to such ‘intellectuals’, had been fixed between me and the world”. If the Maudsley was O’Connor’s university, he certainly rued his graduation. “I felt old, cynical, departmentalised, my mind in its sensory remove from the world working much harder and more consistently, but lacking the original spurts and ‘inspirations’, and on a thinner diet”.


Nevertheless, the Maudsley seems to have been the accidental crucible of O’Connor’s future career. On admission, his occupation was given as ‘painter’, and he is the one person included in this series of posts whose artistic work features in the collections of the Archives & Museum. As part of an experiment conducted by Drs Eric Guttman and Walter Maclay (which was recently the subject of a temporary exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery) O’Connor was given the drug mescaline and asked to represent its hallucinogenic effects in his art (an example of which is given below). Yet O’Connor’s first piece of published poetry was written while he was in hospital, and seeing his name in print set him on the literary course for which he subsequently became known.

There is more about Philip O’Connor in Andrew Barrow’s Quentin and Philip: A Double Portrait (MacMillan, 2002).

Lovely (2)

In the Spotlight: Dennis Lillie

In introducing this series of posts, we wrote that since mental distress is no respecter of persons, one would expect a small percentage of our historic hospital admissions to have been of those in the public eye. Into this statistical commonplace many have wanted to read a causal link: Isn’t there something about mental ill-health that gives rise to talent or celebrity, or perhaps vice versa? This type of speculation is expressed most persistently in terms of ‘madness’ and (often artistic) ‘creativity’. Without ever coalescing into a testable hypothesis, it finds anecdotal support within both popular culture and academic discourse.

There is a fresh version of this argument in extracts from Tom Griffiths’ Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica (Harvard UP, 2007) recently published in an Australian newspaper:

“At least three of the crew of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance were “mentally deranged” by their harrowing escape from the ice. Did Antarctica make these men “go mad” or did it attract people with a certain extremism in their personalities, not just looking for the edge but already near it? Whatever your state of mind, Antarctica can be destabilising, it can be life-changing.”1

One of these polar explorers was Dennis Gascoigne Lillie (1884-1963). Cambridge-educated Lillie (not to be confused with the similarly-named Australian cricketer of the 1970s) served with distinction as a marine biologist on Robert Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913. His observational studies on birds and whales, and his caricature sketches of fellow members of the expedition, were subsequently published and much sought after. Along with other expedition survivors, he was awarded the Polar Medal. He served as a military bacteriologist during the First World War, whilst objecting to combat duties on grounds of conscience.

Lillie’s mental health failed in 1918, and he was admitted depressed, delusional and suicidal to Bethlem Hospital in February of that year. The content of his medical notes suggests that the state of mind that brought him to hospital was entirely unrelated to his experiences of 1910-1913. Indeed, they report that “on the whole he felt better during this time”. In consideration of financial suppport given by the Captain Scott Memorial Fund, Bethlem waived its usual twelve-month limit on residence. Lillie was discharged recovered in January 1921, and commenced lecturing at Cambridge, but relapsed and was admitted to Buckinghamshire Mental Hospital in October of that year, before returning to Bethlem a month afterward. This time his equilibrium did not return, and in April 1924 he was transferred to Salisbury’s Old Manor Hospital. According to Tom Griffiths, Lillie “did not recover his sanity”1; but, pace Griffiths, he did not lose it in the Antarctic.

1 Tom Griffiths, ‘Madcap icecaps’, The Age, May 12, 2007.


Used with permission

Exercising the Brain

One of our volunteers has written the following reflection on her experience so far of working at the Archives & Museum:

“I am now into my sixth month as a volunteer archive assistant at Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives & Museum, and the assignment I am currently working on is an in-progress family history project entitled ‘Out of your Census’. The purpose of the project is to ascertain the identities of the patients at Bethlem Royal Hospital when the census returns of 1891, 1901 and 1911 were made. When these records were produced, the patients who inhabited Bethlem during these periods were identified by their initials only. Now that the returns are in the public domain and available online, they are an invaluable resource for family historians – but not in respect of patients of hospitals such as Bethlem. The project utilises historic archival data indices to identify the Bethlem patients whose initials appear in these census returns, with the aim of putting this data online in a searchable form.

“My time at Bethlem Archives & Museum has been rewarding on both a personal and an academic level. My MA was in Art History and I chose to concentrate part of my studies on art and mental health, so the work of Bethlem Museum is of particular interest to me. The research also allows me to utilise my academic knowledge and exercise my brain!  Due to the current economic climate, finding work in this field has been extremely difficult, so volunteering at the museum is a break from the monotony of working in a shop. However, juggling a job in customer service and volunteering is sometimes difficult, as I have to keep to full-time hours in my paid employment, yet my interest and passion lies in my voluntary work!

“I have found reading nineteenth-century handwriting challenging. Moreover, due to the content of the records it has been hard to read the words before me without sentiment due to their content. Though 120 years have passed since the making of the 1891 census, the memories of many of the individuals whose lives are documented in the leather bound records of this era will remain with me; they are an indelible part of Bethlem’s history. When finished, ‘Out of your Census’ will provide a unique means of bringing these ‘invisible’ individuals out of the shadows of history, and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to it.”

Nineteenth Century Society: Women, Madness & Marriage 4

Marriage breakdown could cause massive disruption in the lives of married women in the Victorian era. Even in cases where the termination of the marriage had been desired, such as that of Kate Marian Merriman, admitted as a patient of Bethlem Hospital in July 1891, the change in position might be hard to deal with. Suddenly returned to the care of her family after separation from her husband six years ago, 36 year old Merriman “had considerable trouble with her relations over family matters,” most of which seem to relate to her desire for independence for, like Grace Sapsford a decade later, she felt that “I surely have a perfect right at my age to choose my future.”

Kate Merriman told the medical officers a lengthy story of her admission, refuting or explaining most of the issues stated as delusions in her medical certificates. “The night before admission she stayed at a hotel at Henley by herself with no luggage but a travelling bag. She was much upset by the way she was treated there, she says with great want of respect. The people there mistook a razor in her bag for a suicidal instrument, whereas she always carried it to cut her corns. She says nothing in her conduct accounted for the rude way in which she was treated. This bother caused her so much annoyance that she refused her food.”

It is unclear whether the medical officers took the word of Kate’s brother (who connected her illness with her separation from her husband six years before) or herself – for they certainly commented on the lack of clear symptoms of insanity. Moreover, the conversational tone of the letter written by Mrs Merriman to Dr Hyslop after her discharge indicates that she felt he understood her: “as you know, I have not had anything to do with my relatives for some time.” However, as Kate was legally regarded as a dependent of her parents, the medical officers were in a difficult position: they would have to send her back to her parents’ home. This, she wrote, caused her to feel “isolated” in the Hospital, and: “While forgiving as one hopes to be forgiven, one cannot forget the past six & a half years of their life. … I have lived the quietest of lives in rooms with my children before, if necessary I can do it again, & be far happier there, than I could ever be with my own family.”

Ultimately, Kate Merriman managed to achieve her aims. Discharged cured in November 1891, her certificate was signed by a doctor in Penzance – where she had long claimed she wished to move with her children, well away from the family she disliked, in part due to their overbearing views on her marriage. This doctor, Humphry Davy, in fact disagreed with the diagnoses which had led to her certification in the first place. He declared that he had seen Mrs Merriman many times in the last four years and had never witnessed any symptom of insanity: as he saw it, her ideas of persecution at the hands of her family were entirely rational.