Female Friendships and Family Roles at Broadmoor

My previous post about friendships and family roles in relation to Broadmoor’s male patients got me thinking about the asylum’s female patients. Whilst in the end my thesis primarily focused on Broadmoor’s male patients, in the preliminary stages of my research I examined 100 female cases. These cases reveal much about the familial relationships and friendships forged and maintained by Broadmoor’s female patients, something I’m going to briefly discuss here.

Like in the cases of male patients, the incarceration of some of Broadmoor’s female patients appears to have caused anxiety and concern amongst their friends and relatives, many of whom continually wrote to the Superintendent and the patient enquiring after them. A number of mothers wrote to their daughters in the asylum to offer encouragement and support, and to also keep them up-to-date on the family news. One mother told her ‘dear daughter’:

your dear little Sarah Ann is very well and she grows a fine great deal and I hope you will not trouble yourself about her you must keep up your spirits and strive to improve and then I hope you will soon get home for Sarah Ann is alright with me […] your brothers and sisters are all well and myself […] we all join in kind love to you […] and hope you will write to me soon and let us know how you are and how you get on.

On another occasion she told her, ‘you are never out of my mind’, promised to send her some money, and told her much about the lives of her friends and husband. This mother, like some others, begged the Superintendent to ‘take pity on her poor aged mother that has been deprived of my dear daughter so many years I cannot express my heartfelt grief […] relieve me of this distress and restore my daughter to me again.’ Fathers, brothers, sisters and in-laws also petitioned for the release of their female relatives. The relationships husbands maintained with their incarcerated wives are revealing. Unlike the wives of some poor male patients whom had little choice but to file for divorce or commit adultery, husbands of Broadmoor’s female patients were seemingly a lot more willing and able to stand by their wives for the duration of their time at Broadmoor. Of course, there were men, including one ‘anxious father and husband’, who begged for the release of their wives because they had a number of young children to take care of and seemingly struggled with the burden of having to play both breadwinner and homemaker. The fate of young families was on the mind of other relatives also, with the mother of one patient asking the Superintendent, ‘do you think she will ever be able to manage her family anymore?’ Family life also played upon the minds of female patients, one of whom wrote to the Superintendent: ‘I feel so anxious to get back to my dear husband and darling children’.

Some of Broadmoor’s female patients fared no better than their male counterparts when it came to receiving visitors. One patient’s daughter, upon hearing her mother was deathly ill, told the Superintendent: ‘I write to thank you very kindly for all your kindness to my poor mother. I am very sorry I cannot come to see the last of her but work has been so bad this winter that I cannot afford to come.’ Perhaps in an attempt to combat the loneliness that occurred as a result of having no contact with their friends or family, some female patients formed close bonds with each other, just as their male counterparts did. Like Broadmoor’s male wards, the female wing had a dayroom where patients could go and enjoy a variety of activities, some slept in dormitories, and many worked alongside each other whilst doing the laundry or needlework. There was thus ample opportunity for friendships to develop. On occasion, the bonds formed at Broadmoor were seemingly long lasting. Two years following her release, one patient continued to think about a friend she had made in Broadmoor for whom she ‘had a sisterly regard’. She wrote to the Superintendent:

I am conscious to know if L.T. is still under your care, if so, will you give me some hope of her liberty. I have long neglected her, but now I have a home of my own and most freely will I share it with her, it is my husband’s wish that I should send to you about it, for he is most anxious that we should do our best for her, if such a thing were possible, she would have every opportunity of getting on, as I am well known in the town, and have plenty of work, Dear Sir, I can hardly expect you to give me an answer to my letter as I have been so negligent…I beg of you to give me some hopes for L.T., if she is still under your care, will you kindly remember me to all of them, and also to the officials. I am glad to tell you that I have excellent health, I trust that your lady and family are quite well.

It’s also clear, as implied in this letter, that some women formed close bonds with Broadmoor’s staff. Immediately following her discharge from the asylum in 1874 one woman wrote to one of Broadmoor’s matrons detailing her miserable life outside the asylum. She found her brother, with whom she lived, to be ‘a bad wicked man’, and discovered ‘my poor sister Jane’s children in the workhouse, their cruel father ran away and left them after the death of their mother.’ Four years later she wrote again, this time describing the ‘very sour circumstances’ she and her husband were in. She told the matron: ‘I should be very glad if you could assist me a little and I should be very much obliged if you could show this to Dr Orange and to Rev Burt as still feel that I have the same friends at [Broadmoor] as when I left’. Of course, there were female patients who didn’t make friends inside the asylum. One patient wrote to the Superintendent: ‘It is a great trial of my friends to know I am unhappy, there is nothing here to interest me […] I have got used to everything here. I have no friends that I can talk to neither’.

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