The Lancaster County Lunatic Asylum

Although the following is not a book blog as such, it does bring in one of my favourite authors and a terrific book.

A personal matter took me to Lancaster on Monday and what a delightful trip it proved to be. My destination was on Quernmore Road, below Knots Wood overlooking Morecombe Bay and the views were breathtaking (see Photograph). In the distance you can just make out the dark shape of what looks like some kind of institution and a little research on the Internet confirmed it was Lancaster Moor Hospital (formerly known as The County Lunatic Asylum).

During the nineteenth century Lancaster became a provincial centre for the treatment of mental illness. In 1809 it was decided that the proposed County Lunatic Asylum would be built at Lancaster; a recognition of Lancaster’s status as the county town.

Lancaster Moor Hospital was Lancashire’s first County Lunatic Asylum. The decision to build it was taken in 1809, one year after the permissive County Asylums Act, 1808. The hospital opened in 1816 as the ‘County Lunatic Asylum for the County Palatine of Lancaster’. It was only the fourth asylum to be built under the terms of the Act in the country. It was extended in 1824 and 1883, and by 1891 it accommodated 1833 patients. In that year its administration was transferred to the new Lancashire Asylums Board of Lancashire County Council. Additional buildings, known as Ridge Lea, on the ‘villa’ principle were added in 1907, 1909, 1912, 1916 and 1938. These buildings were chiefly to accommodate private patients.

The Asylum is a stately quadrangular building of stone, with a handsome front, relieved by pillars of the Doric order, and at one time could hold up to 3,200 patients. The annexe completed in 1882 at a cost of £125,000, occupies a site comprising an area of about 41 acres. The buildings are constructed of stone; in the centre of the block over the main entrance is a clock tower about 100 feet in height, and there are smaller ones at the front extremity of each wing. The main part has been listed as Grade II and the whole building itself is in excellent condition. The owners English Partnerships are currently deciding on what to do with the building.

But beneath the veneer of these simple facts and statistics lies anther story of Lancashire’s first County Lunatic Asylum which is as dark as its blackened exterior.

Large Victorian public asylums haunt the history of psychiatry. They were once hailed as places of refuge for some of society’s supposedly most vulnerable men and women but they soon earned a reputation as dehumanising, prison-like institutions. It’s impossible to say what treatments and restraints were used at the Lancaster County Lunatic Asylum as secrecy and discretion was pervasive and surviving records were very selective and changed over time. Rumours and hearsay about leg-irons and manacles being used and patients sleeping in their own excrement on straw were rife.

We do know patients lived within the confines of the hospital and privacy was minimal. Wards were able to house up to 50 patients, in very close proximity and with little personal space. The daily regime was strictly regimented, with little room for variation and often under the watchful eye of staff. During the early years of the Asylums, wards were locked and security was kept high. Angry, violent or suicidal patients were housed within the wards, and often locked within a padded cell. Treatments included drugs, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Lobotomies. It goes without saying that some regimes were better than others and I offer no evidence that Lancaster was better or worse than other Asylums.

But I have found an articulate voice that has described visiting his mother in Lancaster Moor Hospital and it makes harrowing reading.

In A Life Like Other People’s the famous playwright and author Alan Bennett relates the story of when his father committed his mother to the Hospital in 1966 and then both visit her a few hours later.

…We flung open the door on Bedlam, a scene of unimagined wretchedness. What hit you first was the noise. The hospitals I had been in previously were calm and unhurried; voices were hushed; sickness, during visiting hours at least, went hand in hand with decorum. Not here. Crammed with wild and distracted women, lying or lurching about in all the wanton disarray of a Hogarth print, it was a place of terrible tumult.

Some of the grey-gowned wild-eyed creatures were weeping, others shouting, while one demented wretch shrieked at short and regular intervals like some tropical bird. Almost worse was a big dull-eyed woman who sat bolt upright on her bed, oblivious to the surrounding tumult, as silent and unmoving as a stone deity.

Obviously, I thought, we have strayed into the wrong ward, much as Elizabeth Taylor did in the film of Suddenly Last Summer. Mam was not ill like this. She had nothing to do with the distracted creature who sat by the nearest bed, her gown hitched high above her knees, banging her spoon on a tray. But as I turned to go, I saw that Dad was walking on down the ward.

We had left Mam at the hospital that morning looking, even after weeks of illness, not much different from her usual self: weeping and distraught, it’s true, but still plump and pretty, clutching her everlasting handbag and still somehow managing to face the world. As I followed my father down the ward, I wondered why we were bothering: there was no such person here.

He stopped at the bed of a sad, shrunken woman with wild hair, who cringed back against the pillows.

‘Here’s your Mam,’ he said.

This was in 1966…


2 thoughts on “The Lancaster County Lunatic Asylum

  1. Pingback: An Eventful Jaunt to the Lunatic Asylum: 1855 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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