Patients' Stories

Proper People focuses on the records relating to around 11,500 patient admissions which took place during the formative first half century of the Asylum’s history, 1818–1869.

For many their incarceration continued throughout the rest of that century with one man’s tale only ending in 1913. Research has involved trawling through some 48 patients’ casebooks containing an estimated 30,000 pages of handwritten doctors’ notes to find unusual cases which would make interesting reading.

It is important to recognise that the bulk of the material in the archives relates to the observations of those in authority, the doctors and poor law officials, rather than the patients themselves. Certainly some conversations with patients are reported and we have to trust that they represent what was actually said. Every so often there is a rare glimpse of what the patients themselves were thinking, recorded in their own words, perhaps through a letter they had written or, in one extraordinary case, through a needlework sampler that survives. A few letters from third parties, family members or other close associates also exist and dotted throughout the records are press cuttings which add significant extra background, representing what the public were being told regarding some of the “proper people”.

To give the potential reader the flavour of the material which will be found in Proper People here are eight thumbnails for a selection of patients who were admitted throughout the 50 years covered by the book.

  • John FIELD, a butcher from Rothwell, interpreted life through the curious use of cyphers and arithmetic. 
  • When Rose CLARK of High Bentham produced a baby boy in 1826 he became the first known Asylum birth and triggered his mother’s release just three weeks later.
  • Deaf mute Esther DYSON from Ecclesfield was put on trial for her life but was she insane?
  • Mary Frances HEATON from Doncaster produced intricate needlework samplers to communicate her thoughts. 
  • Frances BRETON had murdered his three year old daughter at their home in Weeton and would end his life in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum under bizarre circumstances. 
  • After a disastrous escape attempt Patrick GANNON from Huddersfield would spend 54 years in three of the West Riding asylums.
  • A photograph of William DENTON from Sheffield was one of a number sent to naturalist Charles Darwin while he was doing research for his latest book.
  • Townsend DANIEL from East Ardsley had fought as a cavalry officer throughout the US Civil War before returning home to England.