Broadmoor’s Men, Part Three: Family Roles and Male Friendships

I. Family Relationships

An examination of letters sent to the Superintendent from some patients’ wives suggests that the committal of their husbands to Broadmoor generated a fear of starvation and poverty, the same emotional (and practical) responses historian Julie-Marie Strange found sometimes followed the death of a breadwinner.[i] In some cases, even though men had murdered their child(ren) or had attempted to murder their wives, their spouse begged for their discharge because they feared destitution (and the workhouse) without them. According to a medical report, the wife of paternal child-murderer E. A. ‘is very anxious that he should be discharged in order to support her and their surviving children.’ Other wives, perhaps unable to forgive their husbands for the miserable state they had left their families in, were seemingly happy to forget them. J. C.’s wife wrote to him:

I […] trust you will never write to me again nor anyone else as it makes me ill from all the sorrow I have gone through […] And ask God to forgive you as I have had a struggling time of it [these] last 25 years it has brought me down to a poor old woman and your children have quite forgot you and never think anything of you and no one never mentions your name.

In some cases wives had no choice but to leave their incarcerated husbands; some obtained a divorce and others committed adultery. W. B.’s wife, for example, gave birth to another child ‘at a date when it was impossible that he could have been the father of it.’ And J. B.’s wife had four children whilst he was in Broadmoor. In some cases, a patient’s relationship with their family deteriorated the longer they were in the asylum. When he was first admitted into Broadmoor, H. D.’s wife regularly wrote to the Superintendent to enquire about her husband’s progress and arrange visits, which she undertook with their children or friends. Despite her dedication, H. D. became increasingly suspicious and accusatory of her: he believed she was stopping their children from visiting and condemned her for ‘dar[ing] to end her letters ‘Your affectionate wife.’ He wrote to her:

I consider a woman a good and true woman on whose word you can depend. You promised to help me in affection and sickness and you have done all in your power to keep me here and to prevent those who could get me out. In time [the children] […] will […] find out that you are a base dishonourable woman through whom they have lost their father, their home and their livelihood.

H. D.’s accusations against his wife progressively worsened: he accused her of infidelity with a man who had hitherto tried to help him gain his liberation from Broadmoor, and criticised her abilities as a mother.

Of course, not all patients had fraught relationships with their relatives. An examination of the letters received by patients and the Superintendents indicates the desire of their friends/family members to care for their incarcerated loved one. Some patients’ children wrote to the Superintendent to inquire about the mental and physical condition of their fathers and expressed anxiety if there was any indication of ill health. Others sought to provide comfort to their fathers; upon hearing his father was ‘depressed’ the son of A.O. wrote him ‘cheering’ letters. Patients’ parents also assumed a role. Possibly to feel as though they were doing their parental duty, J. B.’s ‘anxious’ parents asked the Superintendent to move him to another ward for his comfort and asked if he could spend more time outside because ‘he is very fond of gardening.’ M. H.’s father wrote to check if he was eating properly, as did his brother. It may be that sending such letters, alongside petitioning the Home Secretary for their relatives’ release, travelling to Broadmoor to visit their loved ones, and continually checking up on their condition, all became a means of survival for patients’ families.

II. The Surrogate Family

Some patients had no contact with their families because they were illiterate. In addition, some patients’ families could not visit the asylum because the distance and the cost of travelling to Broadmoor were too great. The wife of one patient told the Superintendent: ‘it grieves me very much not to be able to come and see him, poor man, but having such a little family to provide for I find […] the journey to [sic] expensive’. On occasions when families did visit Broadmoor exchanges between them and the patient sometimes turned abusive, and it’s possible that a fear of acrimonious exchanges deterred potential visitors. Patients with little contact with the outside world looked to the Superintendent, attendants and their fellow patients for support and companionship.

Warmark, a Broadmoor patient in the 1920s, wrote that the Superintendent ‘stands out in a tragic period of my life as the best friend I had.’ In the nineteenth century, some patients also appear to have relied upon the kindness and support offered to them by the Superintendent, and William Orange and David Nicolson feature most prominently in the letters of patients and their families in this regard. An examination of some patients’ letters to the Superintendent suggests that he assumed a paternal role; they asked for his advice and help in matters ranging from visiting their fellow patients, relations with their families and the acquisition of stamps. Some patients also formed close bonds with the attendants. In 1864 John Sydney Philpot, a second-class attendant, formed such a close relationship with patient G. H. that he encouraged and assisted his escape from the asylum, and offered him advice on where he could find employment.

Much attention has been paid to the question of who taught men about manliness. Scholars have pointed towards the public school and the importance of parents, with particular emphasis placed on ‘moral motherhood’.[ii] Analyses of the domestication of insanity have sometimes focussed on the asylum’s staff as a surrogate family: the Superintendent being a surrogate father and the attendants brothers to the patients.[iii] Some of Broadmoor’s patients considered the Superintendent (particularly Orange and Nicolson) to be a friend and a father. Along with the chaplain and schoolmaster, it was the Superintendent’s job to inculcate in male patients industriousness, morality, and self-government, just as it was a father’s job to ‘train up his sons to carry themselves like men in the world […] to carry a proper manliness of bearing and character.’[iv] The Superintendent rewarded patients when they behaved and acted in a proper manner (in the form of extra food, monetary payment or complimentary medical reports) and punished them when they did not, either through seclusion or the refusal to recommend his discharge to the Home Secretary. This idea of rewards and punishments was linked by contemporaries to the notion that the asylum resembled a nursery. In an Address to the British Medical Association, Orange declared, ‘The discipline of the insane in an asylum, so far as the question of rewards and punishments is concerned, is very much like the discipline of the nursery.’ Comparisons between children and the insane were popular during the nineteenth century. It was presumed by some psychiatrists that a male patient’s behaviour, attitudes and physiognomy were on par with a child’s.[v] In Broadmoor some patients were described as being ‘childish’ or ‘childlike’, as also happened in ordinary asylums.[vi] The paternal role of the Superintendent abated with the onset of psychiatric pessimism and increasing numbers of patients. This occurred at Broadmoor in 1896 when Richard Brayn became Superintendent, a man whom seemingly considered himself to be a custodian rather than a friend or father.

III. Friendship in the Asylum

A number of Broadmoor’s patients formed emotional bonds with one another. Some explicitly referred to each other as ‘friends’. In 1891, J. C. sent a letter to the Superintendent. He was illiterate and so another patient wrote the letter on his behalf and noted at the bottom, ‘written for him by a friend’. Other patients shared intimate thoughts and feelings. A.O. spent time talking to W. M. about ‘his soul’ and H. D. wrote letters to another patient detailing his grievances and describing his sadness. He complained that he rarely saw his children: ‘I feel very sadly again this morning’ and ‘so unwell and deserted by all.’ The letters he sent to another patient suggests that feelings of neglect exacerbated his ill-health:

Last Sunday Morning about 5oclock I was taken with another of those giddy attacks, which are brought on through great grief. I think that I did not become insensible but I am not sure. I lay in bed all day […] I feel better today, but during the week I have been very queer; so giddy; obliged to hold the wall when I come down the stairs to prevent myself from falling down […] I find that I am deceived and detested by all my children. It is an awful blow. I thought that the younger girl and my 2nd boy were faithful to me. I am very glad and cheered when I hear the flute. I have no one to talk with. I now get no letters, and it is useless to write any, as not one of my children will send an answer.

For H. D., writing to other patients appears to have been a means by which he could share his feelings of sadness and frustration, and perhaps in turn receive support and companionship to relieve his feelings of desertion. For other patients, Broadmoor appears to have taken the place of the club or the public house as a place where they could talk to their fellow men about their families and lives, and within which they could share interests.[vii] Broadmoor’s communal spaces were vital in this respect. The time patients spent at work or in the dayrooms (where they would play games, read books and newspapers) gave them the opportunity to interact. After receiving no correspondence from his family, P. D. presumed they had given up on him: ‘to them I am probably long sensed lapsed [sic] into too hopeless imbecility or insanity to maintain a correspondence.’ He asked Nicolson if he could visit another patient in a different part of the asylum, presumably after meeting him at work or in the chapel. Before he was transferred back to prison, convict H. B. requested that his perishable items, including Vaseline, milk, cigars, cocoa, ham and mustard, were given to patient I. F., suggesting the two had formed a close bond. There are numerous examples of camaraderie occurring in the asylum. Some patients looked out for one another and others bonded together to form sinister plans. In 1864 a number of patients constructed an elaborate plan to liberate themselves; they diverted an attendant by asking him to fetch a piece of pie, put stones in a number of keyholes, and tied their handkerchiefs and neckerchiefs together to construct a rope to climb out of a window. The plot was foiled at the last minute after the chaplain ‘saw the men descending outside one of the windows of the room where he was reading prayers’ and raised the alarm.

Until the 1880s friendships between men were ‘enthusiastically endorsed’ by the ‘godliness and good learning’ brigade, which included men such as the novelist Thomas Hughes.[viii] Until 1896 this also appears to have been the case at Broadmoor. In contrast to the approach of his predecessors, it was Superintendent Brayn’s ‘policy […] to regulate patients lives in every detail, allow them few opportunities to band together, discourage any feeling of common humanity between them and the staff, and confine them under the closest surveillance.’[ix] Such a change in regime was in part the result of Brayn’s previous experience of working with (sane) criminals in prisons, and partly because of rapidly increasing patient numbers at Broadmoor.

Through an examination of letters to and from the asylum, it is possible to gauge some sense of patients’ relationships with their family members, including their wives, siblings, and parents. Some women had no choice but to commit adultery or bigamy or file for divorce following their husband’s committal to Broadmoor because they could not support themselves or their children alone. Such evidence supports the literature on nineteenth-century women that portrays wives as ‘dependent creatures’ who, when their husbands failed to provide, were effectively forced out of their marriage.[x] On the other hand, the Broadmoor cases also reveal supportive and caring wives who waited indefinitely for their husbands’ discharge. There’s also evidence of patients’ children sending them upbeat letters in an attempt to relieve their sadness, of patients’ parents trying to provide them comfort and support from outside the asylum, and of patients being sent Christmas cards, perhaps in an effort to make them feel as though they were still part of the family. My research suggests that being made to feel as though they were still part of their family and the emotional support provided by their relatives, was vital to some patients’ survival in the asylum, and when this emotional support was lacking and they felt ‘deserted’, they looked elsewhere for companionship and advice.


[i] Julie-Marie Strange, Death, Grief and Poverty, p. 194.

[ii] John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities, p. 48

[iii] Elaine Showalter, Female Malady, p. 28.

[iv] Tosh, A Man’s Place, p. 136.

[v] George Henry Savage, Insanity and Allied Neurosis: Practical and Clinical (London: Cassell and Company Ltd., 1884).

[vi] Anne Digby, Madness, Morality and Medicine.

[vii] For camaraderie in nineteenth-century public houses and clubs, Stearns, Be A Man!, pp. 83. 115.

[viii] Richards, ‘Passing the Love of Women’, in Manliness and Morality, ed. by Mangan and Walvin, pp. 100. 104.

[ix] Ralph Partridge, Broadmoor: A History of Criminal Lunacy and its Problems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1953), p. 91.

[x] Ginger Frost, Living in Sin, p. 79.

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