Dementia, Ticehurst Asylum and the ‘Created out of Mind’ project

Yesterday afternoon I attended a fascinating session run by a small group of dementia specialists as part of the ‘Created out of Mind’ project, a large-scale undertaking supported by the Wellcome Trust and aimed at tackling representations and public perception of dementia. This group are examining the problem from a historical perspective, working the some of the archive holdings at the Wellcome Trust to investigate ways in which dementia patients were viewed and treated during the nineteenth century. This is fascinating work, made tricky by the fact that modern-day definitions of ‘dementia’ were not established until much later. During the nineteenth century, dementia might be listed as a cause of mental illness, but was not associated with any particular age group. It might also be given as a manifestation of illness – describing someone’s actions or state, rather than the underlying medical condition.

The project has focussed around the archives associated with Ticehurst House, an exclusive private asylum used by the very upper echelons of society. In many ways, therefore, it is not particularly representative of asylum life and care during the period. However, the general features do bear much in common with some of the other asylums I have studied. Like the middle-class private and charitable institutions (such as the Holloway Sanitorium and Barnwood House near Gloucester), Ticehurst aimed to recreate the social experience of patients within a safe environment. Facilities were lavish, with lovely grounds, sporting opportunities, music and other leisure pursuits on offer. Patient numbers were small: usually around 40-50 in residence, so the ‘family’ atmosphere was cultivated among both patients and staff. As elsewhere, reports from visiting Commissioners, for example, commented on the availability of reading material. In one case from 1851, ten different newspapers and periodicals were circulated each day, far exceeding the provision in the county pauper asylums.

It was particularly interesting to see the archive collections through the eyes of practitioners – experts in some of the illnesses patients might be suffering, rather than their historical context. More generally, the Created out of Mind project has been working closely with a number of musicians to reflect the research they’ve undertaken into perceptions and experiences of dementia. With advances in medical understanding so clear, it’s sometimes difficult to see where historical research can add to current practice, but in raising awareness and opening up new conversations, it is clearly a useful and beneficial route to take.

The Ticehurst archives have been digitised. Readers might be particularly interested in a photograph album from the late 19th/ early 20th century, showing views of the exterior and interior of the house:

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