Thursday 12 May 2016

Review of "Early Asylum Life" presentation to Wakefield and District FHS

At the beginning of April I was delighted to deliver my presentation "Early Asylum Life" to fellow members of Wakefield and District Family History Society. As usual I managed to over-run my allotted hour but this was with the blessing of the chairman, Chris, and the audience who seemed fascinated to hear what I had found in the records.

May's edition of the society's journal The Wakefield Kinsman carries a review of my presentation which I am reproducing here with the kind permission of Secretary, Ron Pullan.

At our April meeting David Scrimgeour gave an illustrated talk based on his recently published book, Proper People, which is an account of lives of some of the patients admitted to the West Yorkshire Pauper Lunatic Asylum between 1818 and 1869. This institution was built in Wakefield and later became known as Stanley Royd Hospital.
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David’s interest in mental health developed while researching his family history when he learned that his great-grandmother died in an asylum in Scotland in 1919. Living in Wakefield and passing the hospital many times his interest in the subject of mental health grew. He learned that there was a wealth of material on the subject that could be accessed at the West Yorkshire Archives in Wakefield. Using case notes from the hospital’s ledgers David gave examples of the reasons why people were committed, how they were treated and the outcome.

One of several examples given was that of Hannah Brierley who was arrested for receiving stolen goods. She was acquitted on the grounds of insanity because it was discovered that she had previously tried to destroy herself. Hannah was admitted into the asylum but the staff there became convinced that she was in fact sane. She was given a position of trust as a nurse and was released four months later.
Early treatment for mental illness was relatively new and bizarrely included clamping an individual on a chair which was then raised from the ground and caused to spin rapidly, causing dizziness and vomiting to the patient. Electric shock was also used but purging by using various emetics such as rhubarb was thought to help and widely used. William Winter, an inmate, suffered from constipation and it is recorded that upon receiving a warm bath he parted with a stool measuring 4ft 5ins! The length of time a patient spent in the asylum varied but one inmate spent 49 years there.

David showed great sympathy and understanding throughout his talk which was very well received and appreciated.   

To book David to give a talk to your society please email