Writings about insanity

I have started to extend my research by looking into the writings of some of the characters who appeared in asylum archives during the nineteenth century, most particularly the Medical Superintendents who were responsible for patient care in each asylum. One important writing was William Ellis’s Treatise ‘on the nature, symptoms, causes, and treatment of insanity’, published in 1838. Ellis started his career at Wakefield asylum, one of my case studies, though by the time he wrote his treatise he was at Hanwell in Middlesex, an asylum famous for its early adoption of ‘non-restraint’ of patients. His treatise combines a lot of information on his understanding of mental illness, together with lots of examples from his personal experience. These show the effectiveness of using employment to rouse melancholy patients, as well as his own preference for blood-letting and other physical treatments.

Ellis_lithograph
Sir William Charles Ellis. Lithograph by W. L. Aldous.
The Wellcome Library, London / Universal Images Group

Ellis makes little mention of music or other entertainments as a core feature of the new pauper lunatic asylums. However, he does consider these kinds of provisions as essential for institutions intended for the middle- and upper-classes. ‘In a well-regulated institution’, he says, ‘every means ought to be invented for calling into exercise as many of the mental faculties as remained capable of employment. We must remember, that the happiness of man, whatever be his situation in life, consists in the proper and harmonious exercise of all his powers, moral, mental, and physical.’ Whereas pauper patients could be occupied by work in the farm, workshops or domestic duties, these would not be suitable for patients of a higher class. Ellis recommends ‘a mansion should be provided, with park, woods, lawns, hot-houses, gardens, and green-houses. It should be fitted, internally, with every convenience and luxury for the gratification of the taste. Science and the fine arts ought to be pressed into the service of stimulating the dormant faculties to healthy exercise.’ A music room, for daily use, together with weekly organised concerts, formed part of this plan.

Later on in his book Ellis reveals that music was not entirely absent from Hanwell, even at this relatively early stage. Patients and staff gathered each Sunday afternoon to practice singing for the evening’s service, and an organ had recently been purchased for use not only in he chapel, but also for weekly secular concerts.

The problem of occupying the higher classes, who were not suited to manual work, extended to the paupers on Sundays, and to many of the pauper female patients. As the success of employment became widely recognised, alternative occupations including music, reading and outside activities were more prevalent among the pauper inhabitants.

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