Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - The Lunatic Asylum

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A FEW miles from the terminus of one of our metropolitan railways is an immense plot of buildings, looking more like a town than a single house. It is a stately pile, beautifully situated, and I doubt not many a care-worn Cockney, as he has been hurried past it by the rail, has often wished that he had a little niche in it where he could come of a night after the day's toil was over, and smell the sweet flowers and the fresh grass; yet the place is a lunatic asylum, and whilst I write there are in it fourteen hundred men and women bereft of reason, unaccountable for their actions, and shut up away from their fellows. Very often the number is much greater, and yet this does not contain all the pauper lunatics of the metropolitan county. There is another equally large on another line of railway, and there are Wandsworth, Bedlam, and others in London itself.
    It would do some of the noisy poor, who waste [-228-] their time in low pot-houses talking of their rights - when all that a man has a right to is what he can get - good to look over such a place as Colney Hatch. There are pauper lunatics lodged in a palace, waited on by skilful male and female attendants, living in light and airy galleries, as clean as wax-work, with four meals a day, and with every want supplied. I am sure every Englishman must confess that our asylums and hospitals are the glory of our laud. None can deny the active and practical character of the philanthropy of our days. You may depend upon it, nine-tenths of the men and women here were never so well fed, lodged, and cared for before. Their day commences at six, and terminates at eight. Such of them as can be usefully employed are, in cleaning the wards, and in various domestic duties; but they have plenty of spare time-the women for sewing or knitting, and the men for out-door exercise or reading. In one ward I found some good books on the table, such as Boswell's Johnson, Gibbon's Life, popular works on science, and Punch and several magazines. The only woman I saw reading was an old one, with a Bible before her. The women are by far more trouble-[-229-]some than the men. Directly I went into one ward, a middle-aged woman advanced towards me, with one arm uplifted, exclaiming, "Here comes my husband, King John." Another female, still plainer and more elderly, seemed inclined to address to me endearments of a still tenderer character. It was clear that they retained the instincts of their sex without its clearness. Yet there were some to whom the novelty of a stranger offered no excitement - who sat huddled up by the window, with scowling eyes and dishevelled hair, flesh-and-blood pictures of despair. This one had led a gay life - what a termination for a votary of pleasure! That one had become what she was by drinking; this one again by the grand passion, which underlies all history, past and present - all philosophy, objective or subjective - all religion, true or false. But, hark! it is a quarter to one, and that is the dinner bell. We enter the hall, a room capable of holding seven or eight hundred persons. Some enormous Yorkshire puddings, with some excellent beef, are borne by several eager assistants (patients) on to the tables in the middle of the room; they are immediately cut up, and each portion is enough for one person's dinner. When [-230-] the tables set apart for the women are served, the door opens, and in rush the poor creatures in a manner that shows they have not lost their relish for food. On the men's side similar preparations are made, and then in they rush; and when all are seated, a blessing is asked, and dinner commences: it does not last long. As soon as the patients have cut up their pudding, the knives and forks are carefully removed - and in a very few minutes a signal is made; they all rise - thanks are returned, and the meal is over - such as have not had enough generally managing to collar a bit of pudding as they march out. This is very short work, you say, but it is quite long enough. You will hear a woman screaming now and then, short as it is, and an attempt will be sure to be made to get over to the men's side before the meal is over. You see enough to sadden you, but the worst cases you do not see - they are wisely concealed from the curious eye; it is enough to know that they are humanely tended. Why should we care to look on such? Going down a stair-case, I saw through a glass door a poor creature suffering from suicidal monomania; night and day she had to be watched, and such had been the case for years. In her sad [-231-] face there was visible to the most superficial observer
                            "The settled gloom
            The fabled Hebrew wanderer bore."
    Well might she wish to lay down her life, that her crazed brain had rendered insupportable.
    It is a sad sight that of an assembly of insane men and women. At the asylum to which I refer they are very humane people, and very successful in their treatment of the distressing cases constantly occurring, and twice a year - at Christmas and Midsummer - they give an entertainment, at which the better-behaved lunatics attend, and seemingly enjoy themselves very much. I was recently at one, and when I arrived, found that a field adjoining the asylum had been set apart for the purpose. There were about five hundred lunatics, male and female, present, and besides there were several gentlemen and ladies present, spectators like myself. It was a lovely afternoon, and there was music and dancing, and playing cricket, and battledore and shuttlecock, and all the various enjoyments of out-door life; but in all these matters I found the attendants appeared to take the initiative; still the poor creatures seemed to [-232-] enjoy themselves much, and were happy in their way. Yet the pleasure-seeker will not go to such a spectacle again. I do not say the vulgar idea of the maniac was realized; on the contrary, the poor creatures seemed decent and very well behaved-but there was a pitiable want of fine physical development, there were in abundance crooked forms and stunted figures. You do not like to see what a poor thing is man when his reason is dethroned. Of course the refractory patients we do not see on such occasions, but, looking up at a window, I saw one woman's face - as she viewed the scene in which she might not participate - so wild in its anger and hopeless in its despair, that that face haunts me yet. It set me thinking how a woman could get into that state. Perhaps her father and mother, ignorant of physiological laws, had married, and she had been the result; or the ignorance of her friends, or her own ignorance - or the competition of modern life - or the wrongdoing of others-had precipitated a catastrophe which otherwise might never have occurred, and thus society pays indirectly for its ignorance far more than it would have to do for a genuine useful education. Think of what desolated homes [-233-] these poor creatures form a portion. Remember what a fearful cost it is to the respectable hard-working amongst us, who can barely manage to make two ends meet, to have to rear such palatial residences for our pauper lunatics. The asylum of which I write in its erection cost the county an enormous sum-in its maintenance it does ditto - and I hear it is now in an insecure state, firm as it looks, and that the county of' Middlesex will have to spend upon it some tens of thousands of pounds more.
    I once visited this place in the winter-time; a large hall was lighted up, and there were some very pretty dissolving views exhibited, and there was dancing and music and eating and drinking going on. The room was covered with laurels and flowers and banners, and, of course, there were many ladies and gentlemen present, and the place had a cheerful air; and all confessed it was a good thing to give the poor creatures a little innocent amusement. But only think of dancing with lunatics - and such ugly ones too - and being held by the buttonhole by some wild-eyed ancient mariner. Coleridge might have come here and written:
   [-234-] "He held him with his glistening eye,
        The wedding guest stood still,
        And listen'd like a child-
        The mariner has his will."
But if the wedding guest stays here long, he would not be in a fit state for the wedding-and still less would he be so if he goes over the building. What a contrast the present treatment of lunatics is to that which prevailed till lately! The exposure of the wretched system pursued at Bethlem, which took place in 1814, in consequence of the investigation of a parliamentary committee, appears to have been productive of great good. The visitors thus describe one of the women's galleries: "One of the side-rooms contained about ten patients, each chained by one arm or leg to the wall, the chain allowing them merely to stand up by the bench or form fixed to the wall, or sit down again. The nakedness of each patient was covered by a blanket gown only. The blanket gown is a blanket formed something like a dressing gown, with nothing to fasten it in parts. The feet even were naked." Many women were locked up in cells, naked and chained, on straw, with only one blanket for a covering; and the win-[-235-]dows being unglazed, the light in winter was shut out for the sake of warmth. In the men's rooms, their nakedness and their mode of confinement, continues the report from which we have already quoted, gave this room the appearance of a dog-kennel. At this period the committee for months together made no inspection of the inmates. The house surgeon was in an insane state himself, and still oftener drunk; and the keepers were often in the latter state; yet at this very time the governors spent 600 in opposing a bill for regulating mad-houses, and I dare say they cried out lustily, No centralization ! - no interference with vested interests! as enlightened Englishmen and parochial dignitaries are wont to do in our days.
    Could we not do without lunatic asylums, if society gave up its drinking customs? Not exactly; but their number might be very much decreased. Two-thirds of our lunatics become so through drink. "They are very bad at first, sir," said one of my informants to me, "but after a little while they get quieter, and perhaps they are cured in two or three months." And yet I find all these lunatics are supplied with beer. "They has two half-pints a day, sir, and [-236-] when they work they gets two half-pints more, and very good beer it is, sir," continued my informant, "as strong as any man need drink." Now is not this preposterous? Men who drink till they become lunatics should be taught to do without it; but they are allowed their beer even in the asylum, and when they go out they begin drinking again, and of course relapse. Thus we keep feeding our lunatic asylums, at the very time we profess to cure lunatics. I admit these places are in many respects well managed - that the buildings are commodious - that the attention is good - that the governors are humane, and the medical officers vigilant; but which is the truer humanity, to take, care of the man when in a lunatic asylum, or to keep him out of it altogether?