Posts Tagged 'visits'

A Tour of the Former West Riding Asylum: 1818 – 1995

The former West Riding Asylum in Wakefield, Yorkshire, was the site of the Asylum Science conference, about which we recently blogged. As has been the case with so many other old asylums, the grand architecture of the impressive 1818 buildings encouraged the developers to move in, and the West Riding site has now been converted into flats. The Colney Hatch Asylum (and later Friern Hospital) in north London has undergone a similar fate: the website for the Princess Park Manor development proudly proclaims the building to be a “Victorian masterpiece”, while erasing any mention of the site’s former use.


Yet the tour of the former Stanley Royd Hospital, on the West Riding site, led by Mike Finn from the University of Leeds, revealed many elements of the original asylum design. Most fascinating were the octagonal stairway towers, situated on either side of the central block (one can be seen to the right in the image above). These are reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” design, which aimed to enable total surveillance of the surrounding area with a limited number of staff. Yet, as Mike pointed out, the West Riding towers are so positioned as to offer no view of the site whatsoever! Bentham had suggested that the simplicity of the design lay in the fact that, ultimately, no one need supervise at all, for those in view of the panopticon would never know whether they were being watched or not. In Wakefield, however, the structure seems to have been purely a stylistic feature: would it still have served Bentham’s purpose?

The large window on the left hand side of the photograph looked out from the superintendent’s office, although how often he would have been in here is debatable. The huge size of county asylums by the later nineteenth century certainly made huge demands on the time of physicians and, at West Riding, so did the laboratory and opportunities for experimentation. During the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, physicians lived on the asylum site, although probably at a greater distance from the main ward blocks.

The strangest sight of the day was a rare opportunity to see inside the former padded cells, situated in the basement of the building, and now a bicycle store for residents. Divided into tiny rooms, the miserable state of these today should not lead us to assume this is what they would have been like for patients. Cells were generally padded, to prevent inmates from injuring themselves, and efforts were made to limit the amount of time spent in such an environment. The panels from a later padded room are on display in the nearby Stephen Beaumont Museum of mental health. The rooms may also have been larger – it seems probable that the floor has been raised at some point, for easy access to a window was not usual, when broken glass was a frequent source of injury (and a problem for the maintenance budget) in asylums at this time. Keep an eye on the Asylum Science website for blog posts and information about the history of the West Riding Asylum, one of the most famous psychiatric institutions of the Victorian period.



Bedlam in the Old Vic Tunnels

Two artists associated with the Archives and Museum are currently exhibiting in a new show at the Old Vic Tunnels. Bedlam is described as the third and final meeting of minds between Lazarides Gallery and the Old Vic Tunnels, creatively exploring the history of the institution. Like Nell Leyshon’s play at the Globe Theatre two years ago (and as we blogged at that time), the event seeks to explore the parallels between the hospital itself and a “world gone mad”, using the institution’s history as part of a more general critique of society, art, madness and genius.

Much of the work included reflects the interests of Lazarides Ltd, who pride themselves on their popularisation of urban and non-traditional art. The dark, cavernous space of the Old Vic Tunnels suits the material well, lending a haunting quality to the spray-painted canvases and muted video installations. From the near-total darkness of the entry-way, the artworks slowly emerge from the space, the lighting and context lending an uneasy fragility to some of the material, such as Tessa Farmer’s glass and taxidermy sculptures or the ominous presence of Doug Foster and Nachev’s Lidless – a huge weather balloon on which footage of an eye, staring and blinking, is projected.

We were particularly excited, however, by the opportunity to see work by Jane Fradgley and War Boutique. Jane’s striking photographs of the museum’s collection of strong clothing will soon be on display at Guy’s Hospital. Here, however, the large-scale projections emerge with slow beauty on the dark brick walls: ghostly, exquisite and unsettling all at once. These haunting images of late nineteenth and early twentieth century garments of restraint offer a much more complex perspective on mental health care and experiences past and present than the usual stereotypes that fall under the “Bedlam” tag. Jane’s own exhibition, Held, will open in Atrium 2, Guy’s Hospital, on 9 November.

War Boutique’s practice examines forms of conflict – whether physical, psychological or emotional. For Bedlam, he has produced The Noosphere (literally meaning “sphere of the mind”). The sculpture combines Victorian crinoline construction with modern military fabrics, and is based on ideas of rotational therapy for mental illness, which date back to Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia of 1801. The Archives and Museum collection contains a model centrifuge, seemingly made in Bethlem’s workshop at a later date and for unknown reasons. The Noosphere even offers visitors a chance to experience the spinning chair, perhaps providing a new visual perspective on the world beyond it.

Bedlam runs until 21 October at the Old Vic Tunnels, Station Approach Road, London SE1 8SW. Book your free tickets online here.

Normansfield: Past, Present, Future

On Saturday 5 May, the new Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability hosted a conference focused on the Normansfield Hospital. Founded in 1868 by John Langdon Down – the physician after whom Down’s Syndrome is named – the Hospital remained superintended by the Down family for over 100 years. Originally a private home “for the backward and feeble minded”, Normansfield was incorporated into the NHS in 1951, and eventually closed in 1997. The building is now home to the Down’s Syndrome Association.

The day provided a wide variety of papers around the topic of Normansfield: from medical and local history, to personal reminiscence and theatrical display. Held in the beautiful original entertainment hall (pictured below), the morning focused directly on the Hospital. Professor Conor Ward, author of Dr John Langdon Down and Normansfield, talked about Dr Langdon Down and his work at Normansfield and Earlswood – focusing on his relationship with James Henry Pullen (1835 – 1916), whose Ships of Reality and the Imagination will form the subject of a new exhibition. Brian Rix then focused on twentieth century Normansfield, through memories of his daughter Shelley, who came to live at Normansfield in 1956, sparking his own involvement in Down’s Syndrome campaigning. Finally, Jan Pimblett from the London Metropolitan Archives told the audience about the Normansfield archiving project: shedding some light on the fascinating array of materials in the collection.

In the afternoon, topics ranged a little wider. Medical historian Sarah Chaney portrayed Normansfield as part of a wider context, by looking at the way in which nineteenth century asylums of all kinds focused on occupation, entertainment and environment. These were regarded as having direct medical and general psychological and social benefits, as well as being a means of maintaining order: distinguishing between the three is often impossible. Local historian Ray Elmitt then examined Normansfield in relation to the local community; during the late nineteenth century, the Hospital formed the biggest single grouping of people within Hampton Wick and South Teddington. Surprisingly, however, it seems to have had little impact on the local area, operating as a fairly closed community. One audience member, who worked at Normansfield a century later, noted that such continued to be the case, with staff having to be recruited hundreds of miles away: perhaps because of local hostility to the site. Finally, theatre historian David Wilmore related the story of the Gilbert and Sullivan Ruddigore portraits lining the walls of the theatre, speculating as to whether these had ever been used for a performance at Normansfield, and concluding that it is almost certain that these paintings were six of the original portraits from the 1888 Savoy Theatre production.

While clearer involvement with people with learning disabilities would have been appreciated – something that was raised in discussion and seems to be planned for future events, in particular an oral history project – overall the conference provided a wide range of perspectives on an interesting and often ignored topic. Ground-breaking events continue at Normansfield in the near future: this Saturday 26 May, the Blue Apple Theatre Company’s new production of Hamlet will take place in the theatre. This company, which includes performers with and without learning disabilities, was formed to challenge pre-conceptions and raise the ceiling of expectation for learning disabled performers. The Pullen exhibition, featuring the artefacts made by “the Genius of Earlswood Asylum”, opens in July.

Normansfield Theatre

Under the Dome: Notes on the Chapel

The recent Open House London weekend saw us once more ‘under the dome’ at the Imperial War Museum, where we welcomed a record 142 visitors on seven very crowded tours of the former dome chapel (later museum reading room) and board room. There was also a rare opportunity to see some of the original hospital fittings – a small amount of office space still contains the distinctive ceilings and windows of Victorian Bethlem, most of which were destroyed during the Blitz.

Open House 2011 3

Visitors who have heard about the history of the Chapel, and the oft-mentioned partition dividing male and female patients, might be interested in the following extract from the Hospital magazine, Under the Dome, written by the Chaplain in 1895:

“But what was this partition, of which officials and attendants know nothing? There was nothing for it but to interview the oldest inhabitants on both sides, and some very interesting reminiscences I gathered from their lips. Some of our friends can remember the building of the dome (services were then held at the schools), and the use of part of the hospital as a Broadmoor.

“But as to the partition, which has disappeared from these notes as completely as from the chapel, we have still with us three or four who remember it running from the grating under the gallery, down the centre aisle, till it came within a foot or so of the communion rails. It stood so high, that the ladies could never see over it; and indeed, when it was removed for some Sundays many of the gentlemen refused to go to church, on the ground that their wall of protection had been taken away, and they didn’t know what might happen to them now! In those days we had two classes of patients, and accordingly on each side of the partition there were two divisions of men and women. How should we have managed one of our surpliced processions with such prison-like arrangements?”

The partition must have been removed before the early 1880s, when Superintendent R. Percy Smith joined the Hospital as Assistant Physician, a fact which might surprise anyone who assumes the segregation of the sexes to have been a feature of late Victorian life.

Open House 2011 2BedlamFemaleCorridor

Two photos, taken a hundred years apart:

the distinctive ridged ceiling can be seen in both images.

A Former ‘Madhouse’: The Museum Boerhaave

Earlier this month, our Friends’ Secretary paid a short visit to Holland to attend biennial conference of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, on the topic ‘Body and Mind’. The weekend included a fascinating visit and guided tour of the Museum Boerhaave (the Dutch National Museum for the History of Science and Medicine) in Leiden. The building in which the museum is housed has a long and complicated history: built as a nunnery in the early 15th century, shortly before 1600 it became a ‘plague hospital and madhouse’ (not the most obvious combination from a modern viewpoint!). Still, as the museum’s collection illustrates, many connections have been made historically between physical and mental illness. During the seventeenth century, standard medical practices were based on humoral theory, in which mental illness (often regarded as due to an excess of black bile in the body) was generally treated by the same techniques as diseases like plague: for example bloodletting, purging and vomiting. The Boerhaave, like other medical collections, has numerous instruments for such practices.

Brugmans Skull

Anatomy is also well-represented in the collection, and a late eighteenth century collection of skulls illustrates the way in which doctors of the time tried to learn about the mind by studying the physical body. One cabinet contains a collection of skulls prepared by Sebald Justinus Brugmans (1763 – 1819), Professor of Medicine at Leiden from 1795 (further indicating the fluid nature of boundaries in the period, Brugmans had previously been a Professor of Physics and Mathematics, and also of Botany). Brugmans’ teaching specimens include animals preserved in alcohol, used for comparative anatomy, as well as human and animal skulls. The image above shows one skull listed by Brugmans as “the skull of a maniac.” During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was thought by many that examining the skull could inform the physician about the brain and mental state of the individual. This idea informed anatomist Franz Joseph Gall’s system of phrenology, developed in 1796 and popular well into the nineteenth century. The Bethlem collection contains several phrenology heads (one of which is pictured below), designed to show the “organs” of the brain, which were supposed to correspond directly to human faculties such as capacity for language, affection or pride.

The Museum Boerhaave is currently under threat of closure, with a major fundraising campaign to raise 700,000 Euros by the end of 2011 underway. To find out more, visit Save Museum Boerhaave. As previously mentioned on this blog, the exhibition ‘The Weighty Body (previously at the Museum Dr Guislain), which includes Elise Warriner’s The Anger Within from the Bethlem Art Collection, will open at the Boerhaave in 2012.

Phrenology Head

Victorian Bedlam at the Imperial War Museum

Here are the final details for our involvement in the Imperial War Museum’s event for Open House London on Saturday September 17. These free tours of parts of the Imperial War Museum usually only accessible to staff will open up Victorian Bethlem. The building housed the Bethlem Royal Hospital from 1815 until 1930

General access with tours on the hour on museum history, with admission to the Dome (formerly the Reading Room and Hospital Chapel) and the Board Room (the only room in the building still used for its original purpose). Staff from Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive and Museum will be present, with historical casebook material and photographs of 19th century Bedlam.

Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, SE1 6HZ, tube: Waterloo/Lambeth North

Satursday 17 September, 10am-6pm. Admission free. Tours on the hour, starting at 11am, with the last tour beginning at 5pm. Pre-book tours by email (stating preferred time) to or sign-up on the day at the info desk. Tours will start from the info desk.


Back Under the Dome

Members of the Archives & Museum’s staff recently returned to the Imperial War Museum’s Dome, formerly Bethlem Hospital’s chapel, to see a site-specific production on particular moments in the history of the building which had been devised and performed by students at London’s famous Brit School for Performing Arts and Technology. A large part of the students’ inspiration had come from material available on the Archives & Museum’s website. Images from the collection of lantern slides formerly used by Geoffrey O’Donoghue, Hospital chaplain from 1892 to 1930, and stories of real Victorian-era patients gleaned from its historic casebooks were weaved into the production. One young actor took the guise of Revd. O’Donoghue leading a chapel service in 1844 with remarkable aplomb, while four others played the part of named patients with seriousness and dignity.

It may seem churlish to point out that neither O’Donoghue nor any of the patients would have been born in the chosen date of 1844, that the hymn that was sung as part of the ‘service’ was only written some twenty years later, and that the tune to which it was set was composed in the 1980s. None of these facts spoilt the appreciation of the invited audience for the students’ efforts, notwithstanding the presence of at least one pedantic archivist within their midst. We understand that this is the first of several outputs of an innovative collaborative effort between the Brit School and the Imperial War Museum. We wish both parties every success in their joint endeavour, and will be keeping an eye out for the talented performers whose work we were privileged to see. As previously noted, and as advised in the most recent issue of our quarterly email newsletter, we expect to be back under the Dome in September to assist with the Museum’s 2011 Open House Weekend efforts. For further details, keep an eye on this blog, and to subscribe to our newsletter, email your request to

Dome (2) Brit School

Photo by Ta’Kara Grant-Nguyen (The BRIT School)