Asylum life

Life in the asylum was, by modern standards, pretty unpleasant. Even by contemporary standards the regime of a large institution meant strict rules, lack of privacy, little independence and an uninspiring diet. The dangers of fire and disease were always close, with threats from poor sanitary conditions, unreliable supplies of water, cheap food, buildings in poor condition, and other patients. Enormous stigma was attached to insanity, so younger patients were often not admitted until they could no longer be kept at home. On the other hand, asylums were often used for elderly patients whose maintenance was beyond the means of friends and families. Paupers and charitable cases were maintained at the cost of their parish or subscribers, so conditions were kept as basic as possible.
Notwithstanding financial constraints, however, asylum officers took pains to make their wards as comfortable as possible. Regular work and recreation were seen as key parts of the therapeutic process. For paupers, occupation not only offered a connection to their lives in the outside world, and an opportunity for meaningful engagement, but also helped to defray the expenses of the asylum. In many asylums, large farms were cultivated, and patients contributed to all aspects of asylum life: laundry, cooking, baking and brewing, making furniture, clothes and shoes, maintenance and, for the convalescent, tending to other patients or administrative roles.
In the early part of the nineteenth century recreational activities were provided as an equivalent for wealthy, private patients: also providing continuity with ‘home’ life. Gradually this was extended to all patients, and wards and day rooms were provided with books, newspapers and games, with organised activities such as dances, walks and sport. Wards were decorated with pictures, plants and paint.
The chapel was another important feature of the asylum, with regular services as well as individual attention; some Chaplains took their roles as carers for spiritual and mental needs of the patients very seriously. For some patients, religion was an essential part of recovery, while for others it provided a diversion, opportunity for change in company or self-expression.