‘A Visit to Broadmoor’: The Victorian Press and the Asylum

The first of a two-part documentary about twenty-first century Broadmoor will be aired on ITV tonight and there has been much press over the past few days about the hospital opening its doors ‘for the first time‘. 2014 certainly marks the first time that TV cameras have been allowed inside Broadmoor, but it won’t be the first time since the institution opened in 1863 that the public will be privy to information regarding life inside the institution. Between 1863 and 1900, the governing body of Victorian Broadmoor (Council of Supervision) and its Superintendents, invited many journalists to visit the asylum and report on asylum life. Some reports were highly sensational and probably terrified readers, and others were sympathetic, presenting a positive view of life in England’s first criminal lunatic asylum (as it was then known). This post provides a glimpse of what some Victorians would have read about Broadmoor.

The final of the first three extracts suggests that ideas of degeneration, which had entered British discussions on insanity and crime in the 1850s, informed some journalistic representations of the asylum.

Extracts from ‘A Visit to the Criminal Lunatic Asylum’ (1865):

1865. 1 1865. 2

1865. 3

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.

ILN 1867

Some journalists created atmospheric accounts of their visit to the asylum.

Extracts from ‘A Visit to Broadmoor: A Day Among Murderers’ (1886):

A Visit to Broadmoor. 1886. A visit to BM 2

Some patients’ letters landed in the hands of journalists, thus offering the public an alternative, and perhaps surprising perspective of life at Broadmoor.

‘Life in a Criminal Lunatic Asylum’ (1898):

A Murderers Life in BM 1898

Some journalists blasted Broadmoor for its lenient treatment of criminals.

‘Startling Scandals at the “Murderer’s Paradise” Broadmoor’ (1898)

Murderers Paradise

The fearful image of Broadmoor and its patients presented in some press reports entered the minds of some laymen. In 1879, a friend of the wife of one patient expressed her concern 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.’  At some county asylums patients undertook regular walks and excursions from the asylum into the local area. At Broadmoor this was not allowed and thus, until the late 1890s when outside entertainers were employed, the asylum lacked links with the local community. This may be why an air of mystery and fear surrounded the type of individual incarcerated in the asylum. It may also explain why Broadmoor’s governing body and Superintendents wished to open the doors of the asylum to journalists – whilst some reports were sensational, most represented  the asylum, its staff, and patients positively, and could only serve to improve the institution’s reputation as a place of care.

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