Broadmoor’s Men: Part One

Throughout the nineteenth century, the public school, universities, armed services, colonial administration, settlement houses and the Anglican celibate orders were all homo-social environments.[i] So too was the male division at Broadmoor, a space within which men in very different roles interacted with one another. This is the first of three blog posts introducing life in Victorian Broadmoor. It provides an overview of the men at the asylum, its staff and its patients, and briefly considers public perceptions of the type of man confined inside its walls.

a) Staff

Broadmoor had four Superintendents between 1863 and 1900: John Meyer (1863-1870), William Orange (1870-1886), David Nicolson (1886-1896) and Richard Brayn (1896-1910). It was the Superintendent’s job to classify the patients and examine them on arrival, and to make daily visits to all parts of the asylum as well as random night visits. He was required to keep records on all patients and their condition, and inspect patients’ incoming and outgoing letters.[ii] The Superintendent was assisted by a Deputy Medical Superintendent and an Assistant Medical Officer, and he worked closely with the chaplain, schoolmaster, servants and attendants.

Attendants were responsible for patients’ safety and had to report all ‘accidents, bruises, or scratches, however trivial […] to the medical officer on duty.’ They washed and clothed patients who were incapable of doing so themselves, shaved the male patients three times a week, and circulated newspapers, periodicals and books to patients. They also introduced draughts, chess and cards in the evenings.[iii] Broadmoor’s medical officers treated attendants’ families living on the estate, and if further medical assistance was required, financial assistance was available via an offertory fund.[iv] Attendants received one-day leave every ten days. Owing to the special need of Broadmoor’s patients, there were five patients to one attendant.

b) Patients

Studies of nineteenth-century county asylums have convincingly questioned the assumption that women outnumbered men in asylums.[v] It’s now generally understood that madness and femaleness were not correlated to the degree previously suggested. Given that criminal activity is overwhelmingly male, it is unsurprising that criminal lunacy was statistically male. A close examination of the admission registers reveals the extent to which men outnumbered women in Broadmoor. Other than in 1863 when only females were admitted and a slight dip in admissions in 1872, males always made up around 80% of the annual asylum admissions.

Press reports represented criminal lunatics as male. An examination of press reports from the 1860s and 1870s indicates that ideas of degeneration, which had entered British discussions on insanity and crime in the 1850s, informed some journalistic representations of Broadmoor.[vi] In 1865 ‘The Terrors of Broadmoor’ was published in the Penny Illustrated Paper. This was a report on the Strong Block (Block 1) where the most ‘fearful collection of patients’ resided. This included ‘G’, a man ‘not so much mad as irrevocably bad – a kind of modern Frankenstein, born apparently without a moral nature […] He alone possesses powers of combination and can gain over his dangerous associates to do his will’.[vii] The same year, The Times described Broadmoor’s patients using language similar to that employed by some British criminologists and European criminal anthropologists to differentiate the criminal from other men:

In the sitting-room, which is nearly always full, the first thing that strikes [you] on entrance is […] the criminal type of all the faces […] The low mental organisation which one always finds associated with crime in the common run of criminals, the small head, narrow and receding forehead, and restless furtive eyes are at Broadmoor intensified, and in most cases accompanied with a weakly, undersized physical development. Small ill-formed heads, narrow, stooping shoulders, weak limbs, and the shuffling hesitating gait, are the rule among them.[viii]

Representations of Broadmoor’s patients were not all negative. In 1867, the Illustrated London News published a complimentary report on the asylum’s regime, alongside which were images of an orderly female dormitory, a male patient playing the violin in his clean, single room, and male patients sitting in a day room enjoying a variety of activities and amusements surrounded by artwork.[ix] Such reports distinguished life in Broadmoor from the zoo-like depictions of Bethlem made by the press ten years previously, and countered reports which appeared in the Penny Illustrated and The Times.

An examination of letters found in patient case files suggests that the fearful image presented in press reports entered the minds of some laymen,[x] thus lending support to the argument put forth by some historians that ‘There is ample evidence from Victorian letters, diaries and autobiographies that upper and middle class families feared asylums […] and had low expectations of the kind of care their relatives might receive.’[xi] At Broadmoor, the fears of the middle class appear in part to have been borne out of class prejudice and the desire of the better-off to differentiate themselves from the working classes.[xii] In 1879, the friend of one patient’s wife expressed her concern to Orange that the woman wanted to visit her husband at the insistence of her ‘pig-headed old mother-in-law’ who had arranged a trip to Broadmoor ‘as a sort of holiday jaunt.’ She could only imagine one reason why she wanted to visit the asylum: ‘I believe the lower classes as a rule like a feast of horrors.’[xiii] Such opinions might suggest, as Bethlem’s Superintendent W. D. Hood feared would happen, that Broadmoor came to be viewed ‘in the light of a Bastille […] desecrated by […] popular odium.’[xiv] Negative perceptions of Broadmoor were not shared by all. The correspondence of poor families with the Superintendent suggests that not all members of the public feared the asylum, at least after they had come into contact with it. The vast number of letters inquiring into the mental and physical health of incarcerated relatives suggests that family members viewed Broadmoor as a place of recovery. It was a place where their son, husband or father would recover his senses thus leading to his discharge enabling him to resume his role as breadwinner, carer or confidant. The parent of one patient, for example, told David Nicolson: ‘I am his father and am getting old and if I could only obtain his liberty he would be of great assistance to me’.

An examination of the social class of Broadmoor’s patients and of the crimes committed suggests a different picture to that presented in newspapers such as The Times and the ideas some members of the public appear to have entertained about the asylum’s patients. In 1882, The Departmental Commission on Criminal Lunacy for England and Wales reported little difference between pauper and criminal lunatics:

pauper lunatics are largely drawn from the lowest and worst classes of the community, that is from the same classes which yield largely the inmates of prisons, thieves, prostitutes, drunkards, the idle and dissipated, persons leading turbulent lives and given to violence, persons unrestrained either by intelligence or morality.[xv]

The research I undertook for my PhD thesis suggests that the majority of Broadmoor’s patients were not drawn from the worst classes. In his ‘Responsibility in Criminal Cases’ (1878) David Nicolson described Queen’s pleasure patients:

They do not belong to the higher or middle classes of the community; nor (before their offence) do they belong to the pauper class. Remembering that insanity spares neither the rich nor the poor, is it not strange that one of the most unpleasant phases of it should limit itself, for the most part, to one (what may be called the “poorer”) social region, and avoid the two extremes?[xvi]

The explanation he suggested was that unlike wealthy men who could pay for their care or had friends to care for them when insane, or insane paupers who were committed to an asylum, ‘The bread-winning father of a family cannot afford to give up work and lie by or a seek a change in time, he struggles on for the sake of the “little ones;” or in other cases, the relations do not take heed in time.’[xvii] The struggling individual eventually commits a criminal act thus indicating the dangerous nature of their insanity and qualifying them as a criminal lunatic.

The term ‘criminal lunatic’ conjures a picture of a dangerous person who is out of control but when Broadmoor patients’ crimes and motivations are examined this image becomes slightly blurred. In 1905 psychiatrist Charles Mercier wrote:

The homicidal act of an insane person is usually an isolated act, done in a mood of intense exasperation, and not likely to be repeated. Were it otherwise, it is obvious that Broadmoor, in which so many lunatics who have perpetrated homicide find a permanent home, would be a pandemonium of perpetual uproar. It is nothing of the kind. There we see scores of murderers, peacefully and tranquilly pursuing industrial avocations, and giving their custodians no apprehension of renewal of assault.[xviii]

Mercier’s description of peaceful industry inside Broadmoor can be juxtaposed with the failure to cope with the demand for masculine industrious productivity in the outside world which brought some men, by their own and medical accounts, to the asylum. It might even be that the ideology of work subscribed to by the middle classes, which was promoted in working-class newspapers and by trade unions, played a role in the creation of criminal lunatics through the formation of an ideal of economic productivity that was impossible for some men to meet. Once within Broadmoor, these men had the opportunity to live out a fantasy version of productive labour, cushioned from the fears and hardships of, and the competition for, work.

[i] John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006), p. 114.[ii] Rules for the Guidance of the Officers of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum (London: George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode, 1863), p. 3.
[iii] Rules for the Guidance of Officers, Attendants, and Servants of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum (London: Ford and Tilt, 1869), pp. 3-5.
[iv] Ibid., pp. 7-8.
[v] Joan Busfield, ‘The Female Malady?: Men, Women, and Madness in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Sociology, 28 (1994), 259-77; Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in Historical Perspective (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 267-79; Pamela Michael, ‘Class, Gender and Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Ireland’, in Sex and Seclusion, Class and Custody: Perspectives on Gender and Class in the History of British and Irish Psychiatry, ed. by Jonathan Andrews and Anne Digby (New York: Rodopi, 2004), pp. 95-122; Joseph Melling, ‘Sex and Sensibility in Cultural History: The English Governess and the Lunatic Asylum, 1845-1914’, in Sex and Seclusion, ed. by Andrews and Digby, pp. 177-222; Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Virago Press, 1987), p. 17.
[vi] Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, 1848-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 178.[vii] ‘Criminal Lunatics at Broadmoor’, Penny Illustrated Paper, 21 January 1865, p. 3.
[viii] ‘A Visit to the Criminal Lunatic Asylum’, The Times, 13 January 1865, p. 10.
[ix] ‘The Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum’, Illustrated London News, 24 August 1867, p. 208.
[x] Deborah Weiner, ‘“This Coy and Secluded Dwelling”: Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane’, in Madness, Architecture and the Built Environment, ed. by Leslie Topp, James E. Moran and Jonathan Andrews (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 131-148.
[xi] Charlotte Mackenzie, ‘A Family Asylum: A History of the Private Asylum at Ticehurst in Sussex, 1792-1917’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London, 1986), p. 278. Also, Andrew Scull, The Insanity of Place, The Place of Insanity: Essays on the History of Psychiatry (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 23.
[xii] Dan Bivona and Roger B. Henkle, The Imagination of Class: Masculinity and the Victorian Urban Poor (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006), p. 6.
[xiii] D/H14/D2/2/1/918/17, letter to Orange.
[xiv] Hood quoted in David Nicolson, ‘A Chapter in the History of Criminal Lunacy in England’, Journal of Mental Science, 23 (July 1877), 165-185 (p. 176).
[xv] Quoted in Ibid.
[xvi] David Nicolson, ‘The Measure of Individual and Social Responsibility in Criminal Cases’, Journal of Mental Science, 24 (July 1878), 249-273 (p. 272).
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Charles Mercier, Criminal Responsibility (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), pp. 123-124.

One thought on “Broadmoor’s Men: Part One

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    locating it but, I’d like to shoot you an email. I’ve got some ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing.

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