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.

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.


Public talk at Bethlem

It was great to have a large and appreciative audience for my talk at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind on Saturday 1 July. There were a number of interesting questions, including some comments about the comparison between Victorian approaches to mental health care and modern-day structures. I’ll definitely aim to follow up how music was used during the first half of the twentieth century, before ‘music therapy’ became established and theorized after the second world war. I’m also planning to work more closely with music therapists to investigate the two systems side-by-side and look at a comparison in detail.

If you attended the talk and would like to make a comment, or have any further questions, please do comment on this blog or drop me an email – I am always keen to hear from anyone interested in the project.

Bethlem talk

Asylum music and the Listening Experience Database

Yesterday I gave a conference presentation as part of a panel together with my colleagues from the Open University, Helen Barlow, Martin Clarke, Trevor Herbert and David Rowland. All four of my co-presenters are working on a project known as the ‘Listening Experience Database’, an attempt to collect together thousands of records of personal experiences of listening to music from across the centuries, including diaries, letters and memoirs. We challenged ourselves to sift for evidence of listening by the ‘lower orders’, who traditionally have left very little behind in terms of written documents. I joined them to talk about the evidence I have found about lower class engagement in music from my work on music in asylums, and particularly the large, state-run pauper asylums that form the core of my work at the moment.

It was something of a challenge to tease out the real evidence for listening from among the small mountains of records I’ve now extracted from asylum archives. So much of my work has been about uncovering the types of music performed, when, where and by whom, but what had I actually found out about the experiences of those listening to the music? The answer was precious little. I have found almost nothing about individual patients’ reactions to music, and no records from patients themselves about the music they heard. But what I did have was quite a lot of bits and pieces about the intended effect of music – the ideal ‘listening experience’ – of the patients in pauper asylums. In the Superintendents’ Annual Reports and elsewhere there are snippets that suggest music’s use as a therapeutic tool, and the ways in which, for some patients, the effect of music were remarkably beneficial.

As it turned out, most of the evidence we could muster between us was similarly recorded by writers of the middle and upper classes, by outsiders or onlookers, potentially skewing their views with the need to make a particular argument or create a certain impression. By piecing together evidence like the documents I have found in the asylum archives, we can build up quite a picture about the types of music the lower classes might have heard, and the contexts in which they themselves participated in music making. We can even gain a sense of the purpose behind some of the musical experiences, particularly when these were provided or encouraged by the (more-or-less) benevolent upper classes, who had their own agendas and ideas about how the workers should be spending their time and money. All these help to give a sense of working class musical experience, despite the frustrating elusiveness of their own testimony.

The LED project website can be found here: http://led.kmi.open.ac.uk/


Bethlem is one of the more substantial privately-run asylums I have investigated, providing a contrast with the large County pauper asylums. Like the York Retreat, Bethlem was a charitable institution. It had been founded as part of the work of a Priory in Bishopsgate, which took in and cared for the insane from the fourteenth century. In 1815 the Hospital found new, purpose-built accommodation in St George’s Fields in Southwark. While at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Bethlem was a similar size to other private asylums and the first of the new state-run asylums, the growth of pauper asylums meant Bethlem did not expand to the same extent during the nineteenth century, and it moved towards catering for the poor educated class, who were not counted as paupers, but could not afford private care.

Bethlem’s arrangements and size meant music did not develop along the same lines as in larger institutions. The institution lacked the funds to build a large recreation hall until the 1890s, and staff numbers were insufficient to support a band or large-scale entertainments. However, the Hospital boasted numerous supporters who provided amateur music making and theatricals, tickets to the theatre or funds for visiting performers. Bethlem’s situation in London also meant a wide variety of entertainment opportunities were available. Middle-class patients meant many were trained in music, and the women’s galleries hosted small parties on a regular basis. In the 1880s an influx of musically-talented Medical Officers, particularly successive Medical Superintendents R. Percy Smith and Theo B. Hyslop, brought with them friends and colleagues which made frequent concerts and musical gatherings possible.

A Report in the Hospital Magazine Under the Dome from 1898 gives a flavour of the kinds of entertainment on offer by the end of the century:

On December 2nd we all had a great treat at the Musical Evening. The Recreation Hall was turned into a huge drawing room, and looked in every way worthy of our great institution. Dr. Hyslop must be congratulated upon having obtained the services of a number of really good artistes, and all the professional performers kindly gave their services free. Miss M. Chatterton again gave us two charming solos upon the harp. The bell-ringing by Mr. Hopkins was also a great success. The songs by Miss A. Kinnison, Mr Hofler, Dr. Rice, and Mr. Lane were all well received.’

Talk at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind

I’m currently preparing a talk which I will be giving at the Museum of the Mind in Beckenham, south London, on Saturday 25 March. Entitled ‘Music as Therapy in the Nineteenth-Century Asylum’, the talk will cover all aspects of my project, drawing on archives from across the country. Entry is free but places are limited: see http://museumofthemind.org.uk/whats-on/event-info/music-as-therapy-in-the-nineteenth-century-asylum for details.

Bethlem logo

Bedlam at the Wellcome Collection

Back in January I caught the last few days of the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition on the mental asylum, seen through various prisms including a contemporary art installation, historical documents, videos and sculpture and a modern re-imagining of asylum space. The exhibition highlighted a number of key points where music was considered in relation to madness. Robert Burton’s 1629 Anatomy of Melancholy, for example, recommended music along with drugs, bloodletting, prayer, exercise, diet, friendships and occupation as potential treatments for particular forms of mental illness. The following century, Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica was invented with the intention of soothing distress, but was considered by many to be overstimulating and a possible cause of madness.

FRANKLIN: ARMONICA, 1761. – Musical instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin, 1761. Fine Art. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest.

The final part of the exhibition focussed on a series of workshops and interviews in which the idea of a modern asylum had been investigated. The resulting artworks, models and displays considered the five senses alongside more practical elements of an ‘ideal’ asylum space in which mental health could be nurtured and healed. Rather than assimilating patients to the social norms of the nineteenth century, where participating in large-group activity was valued, here it was the individual needs that were being attended to. Yet I wondered how nineteenth-century practices might fit into the modern asylum being mooted. Would patients be invited to attend an asylum night club, where social anxieties and inhibitions could be faced (with or without the assistance of mood-altering substances)? Perhaps an upbeat asylum radio station offering performance and DJ-ing opportunities, or a resident samba band with visiting Strictly Come Dancing stars to accompany picnics and excursions? And what might modern health professionals think to being expected to join the band or the theatre group, or coach the football team? Music and dance are common practice in therapeutic treatment today, but transplanting nineteenth-century ideas into the modern conception of asylum certainly gives some food for thought.