‘…it is strange he was not found insane at the trial’

In 1883 Broadmoor Superintendent William Orange delivered his Presidential Address before the Medico- Psychological Association. Referring to insane convicts he declared, ‘Many of […] [Broadmoor’s] patients were really lunatics at the time of being sentenced.’[i] In 1890 the Home Office commented on the case of attempted murderer O. R. who had been sentenced to twenty years penal servitude. O.R. was ‘Apparently a very dangerous mad man […] He had been previously in an asylum, and it is strange he was not found insane at the trial.’ Such cases were not unusual. The question of why such men were not found insane thus arises.

The decisions to find some defendants sane were sometimes obscure and the reasons not always straightforward. An examination of the evidence highlights a number of reasons why a verdict of insanity was not reached. The reason defendants were not found insane when tried for petty crime was, according to Broadmoor Deputy Superintendent John Baker, straightforward. He attributed the large number of insane male convicts in Broadmoor to failings in the legal process:

there is room for improvement in the legal procedure connected in with the administration of justice in the case of minor offences […] When cases are summarily dealt with, the question of insanity is rarely raised, no interest is felt in the accused, and fines or imprisonment follow as a matter of course [ii]

Explanations why prisoners had not been found insane were sometimes provided. In 1868 T. M. was convicted of arson. At his trial he declared that he was possessed by the devil but was not taken seriously because, as the chaplain of the prison where he had been held reported, ‘as no particular symptoms of insanity had been seen during his imprisonment – these words were treated as an attempt to sham insanity.’ In 1868 W. B. was sentenced to death alongside R. S. for the murder of a man. Following the sentence, W. B. took full responsibility for the murder. R. S. was exonerated and W.B.’s sentence commuted to penal servitude for life. W. B. was incarcerated at Taunton Prison where the Prison Medical Officer quickly questioned his sanity. Consequently, the Chief Constable of Somersetshire was ordered by the Home Office to conduct an inquiry. He reported that W. B. was an illegitimate child and had been insufficiently fed and clothed, and he was also of weak health and intellect. Furthermore, he alleged that W. B. suffered from fits brought on by seeing a man killed by a falling stone in a coal pit. After hearing this evidence, the Home Secretary, Henry Bruce, commuted W. B.’s sentence because he was ‘satisfied that he really was not morally responsible for his actions.’ It was reported in the press:

At the trial [W.B] was defended only by a counsel assigned to him at last minute by the Judge; and nothing was put to evidence but the events on the night on which the murder was committed. But the facts since brought to light tally in a remarkable manner with the absence, noticed at the trial, of any motive in [W.B.] for the commission of the murder, and with its special circumstances, and they are not less consistent with the insanity which is now proved to exist.

It was implied that had the defence not been brought in at the last minute, and had all of the facts been put forward, then W.B. would have been found insane when tried.

In some cases there was clear evidence of premeditation. Prior to the attempted murder of his wife, J.W. had been in prison from where he reportedly wrote to a friend asking him to tell her ‘to prepare to meet her God, as it would be the last chance she would have.’ J.W.’s previous imprisonment may also have worked against him. Indeed, previous convictions seem to have made some judges and juries less likely to consider whether defendants were insane. G. M., for instance, had been sentenced forty-three times for violent assault.

Two final reasons why an insanity verdict was not reached are related to the nature of the crimes committed. Cases of manslaughter or attempted murder were not punishable by death and thus there was no need to save defendants from the gallows.[iii] Finally, attitudes towards the type of crime committed appear to have had some bearing on the verdict. An examination of cases involving the rape of women suggests an uneven application of medical diagnosis in the courtroom. J. S. was convicted of rape. It emerged at his trial that he had previously been imprisoned and whilst serving his sentence was transferred to Bicton Lunatic Asylum. The judge remarked that it was ‘one of the worst cases of the kind that had ever come before his notice in an experience of nearly half a century’ and recalled a time when Smith would have hanged for the crime.[iv] He decided against charging J. S. with the robbery that had occurred alongside the rape because it was ‘perfectly true that at one period of his life the prisoner had been in a lunatic asylum.’ However, ‘Whether, being in gaol at the time, he had shammed madness he did not know […] In any case, it appeared from the statement which had been made to him by the medical men […] that he was discharged perfectly cured and perfectly responsible for his actions.’ In her study of sexual crime in the early-nineteenth century, Anna Clark shows that ‘experts’ (judges and alienists) ‘viewed rape as a moral problem which tainted the victim more than her assailant.’[v] The case of J.S. lends support to historians who have found that as the century progressed, rape was increasingly viewed by judges and juries as a despicable and violent crime.[vi] When passing his sentence the judge told the courtroom: ‘Young women must be protected from outrage by marauders like him, and in the interests of justice, and in order that it might act as a warning to prevent a repetition of so hideous a crime, he sentenced him to be kept in penal servitude for 25 years.’ The heinous nature of Smith’s crime seemingly overrode what in other cases may have been acceptable evidence of a predisposition to madness. Moreover, the case itself is an interesting example of judicial impatience with medical excuses when it came to certain crimes.

[i] William Orange, ‘Presidential Address, delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Medico-Psychological Association, held at the Royal College of Physicians, London, July 27, 1883’, Journal of Mental Science, 29 (October 1883), 329-354.

[ii] John Baker, ‘Epilepsy and Crime’, Journal of Mental Science, 47 (1901), 260-277.

[iii] Following the Criminal Law Consolidation Acts (1861) murder was almost the only capital offence remaining. As the nineteenth century progressed there was growing unease towards capital punishment. V.A.C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[iv] When rape was a capital offence defendants were unlikely to hang. In her Women’s Silence, Men’s Violence: Sexual Assault in England 1770-1854 (London and New York: Pandora, 1987), Anna Clark shows that ‘The death penalty for rape was thought to prevent juries from reaching guilty verdicts; when it was finally amended to transportation for life in 1841, the conviction rate increased from 10 per cent between 1836 and 1840 to 33 per cent between 1841 and 1845.’

[v] Clark, Women’s Silence, p. 74

[vi] For example, Joanna Bourke, Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present Day (London: Virago, 2007); Martin Wiener, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).


‘You need not run: you are done for’: A Case of Attempted Wife Murder and Victorian Broadmoor

In the spring of 1879, A.T, a boilermaker from Hull, was convicted of the attempted murder of his wife, R. According to press reports, R. had lived a ‘miserable’ life since she married her husband the previous year: he ‘ill-used’ her and was intemperate. R. had threatened to leave A.T on a number of occasions, after which he would always promise to reform his ways. Towards the end of 1878 A.T suggested a fresh start – he proposed that he and R. should move to Bolton to be near his relatives. R. agreed, found the money to pay the railway fare, and gave it to her husband to buy the tickets. Instead of buying tickets to Bolton, however, A.T bought tickets to a town near Hull – R. refused to go with him, and so he spent the rest of the money on drink, and over the coming weeks visited a number of towns throughout the North. Whilst travelling, he wrote a number of letters to R. begging her to come and live with him. She refused, and began to work as a general servant. A.T returned to Hull and continued to pester R. On the evening of 1 February, he accompanied her into town to do some shopping. As they walked, A.T begged R. to live with him: she refused to do so until he was sober, and had a home for them to go to. On the walk home, A.T reportedly became increasingly frustrated with R.’s position: ‘he said she should never move from that spot again. He then put his hand to his coat pocket, took out a razor, and deliberately cut her throat from the right ear to the windpipe.’ R. struggled and ‘promised to go home with him if he let her alone’. A. T took no notice and cut the rest of her neck. R. managed to grab the razor blade, threw it to the ground, and ‘with great difficulty’ made it to her master’s house not too far way. As she struggled along the road, A.T called: ‘You need not run: you are done for.’ He followed her to the garden gate, and proceeded to cut his own throat. Both A.T and R. spent two months in the infirmary. A.T was tried at York Castle. The judge declared that ‘it was a most lamentable case, showing, and he hoped would show to many, what fearful consequences resulted from giving way to drink.’ Moreover, he ‘had no doubt that [A.T] had firmly resolved to destroy his wife and himself in a state of despair, misery, and wretchedness brought on wholly by himself.’ A.T was found guilty and sentenced to twenty years penal servitude.

Not long after he entered prison, A.T began displaying symptoms of insanity: he ‘hears his wife outside the door. [And is] Incoherent about going on board his ship.’ He was transferred to Broadmoor. There appears to have been some disagreement as to whether A.T was suffering from ill mental health when he committed the crime (although this wasn’t addressed, as in some other cases). One man wrote:

This is a very bad case. The attempt to murder was deliberate and not due to a sudden burst of passion; and though no doubt the man was under the influence of drink, there is nothing in the evidence to show that he was in any way out of his senses at the time.

On the other hand, Broadmoor’s Superintendent, William Orange, believed: ‘he appears to have been suffering from mental depression for some time before he committed the assault upon his wife and that he had recourse to drinking in order to try to relieve the depression.’ And a close friend of A.T wrote to Orange:

as one of [A.T’s] oldest friends and having seen him and frequently conversed with him up to the very day on which he committed the deed […] I, together with more of his friends feel confident that his mind was certainly unhinged at the time the deed was done and that he was not accountable for his actions. His desperate attempt on his own life goes, I think, very far to prove this.

A.T hated his time at Broadmoor. He wrote to the Home Secretary and begged him ‘to remove me from Broadmoor, back to the prison which I came […] or to any other in the country.’ Like a number of convicts, he complained about the ‘strong prejudice’ he believed existed towards patients of his class.[i] He acknowledged that being in prison wasn’t ‘comfortable’ but believed it was a better option that remaining at Broadmoor where he ‘could not bear my surroundings’: he suffered ‘miserable anxiety’ and complained of ‘the great strain on my nerves’. His experience runs counter to that of others, some of whom viewed prison as mentally and physically trying, and Broadmoor as a place of refuge and recovery. A.T’s hatred towards Broadmoor and its officials can be observed in his ‘Broadmoor Prisoner’s Prayer’ (1884).

Eternal God from heaven send

Thy curses on this place

Stretch forth thine hand omnipotent

This Broadmoor-hell erase

The demon Orange Lord blot out

His minions Lord destroy

Blast with Thy all-devouring breath

These imps of devilry

Confusion bring O heavenly King

Black death and damp despair

Unto their rotten hearts O Lord

Thy Majesty declair [sic]

Let not Great God these men whom Thou

Hast fashioned with Thine hand

Be longer turned to vilest use

Though say misfortunes brand

Tis Thou alone Jehovah who

Canst pardon dark deed done

And not contemptuous creeping curs

With living tortuous tomb

Their swelling hearts with anguish burst

Their wives and children mourn

And bleed with horror at the thought

When reason fled her throne

Rise Lord, in thy almighty power

Against this hellish band

O hear our prayers; declare Thy night;

Vouchsafe Thy saving hand


In addition to his seeming hatred towards Broadmoor and its staff, there was another reason A.T wanted out:

If sir, you will kindly send me back to some prison […] you will not only release me from this unfairness, but also give me an opportunity of showing whether I am insane now, – or shortening my long sentence and so helping me to another opportunity of doing better before I am an old man, and also of sometimes seeing my friends.

One grievance held by some members of Broadmoor’s convict population was that they’d remain incarcerated long after their prison sentence had expired. This could happen if Broadmoor’s medical staff continued to state they were insane.

According to the asylum’s staff, A.T. didn’t make life easy for himself: he was ‘full of shrewdness and cunning’ and ‘impatient of asylum discipline’. On one occasion, he attempted to escape (his plan thwarted when another patient revealed it to the Superintendent). Despite the trouble he caused, there was hope (at least initially) that A.T would recover. This appeared to happen in 1889 when he was conditionally discharged to the care of R., who was reportedly ‘very soliticious for his release and promised to look carefully after him and report periodically as to his condition.’ The reports were initially favourable but in 1892 R. told Superintendent Nicolson that A.T had been ‘drinking intoxicating liquors’ and ‘is very hard to manage’. The Home Office issued a warrant for his arrest and he was readmitted to the asylum. One month following her husband’s readmission, R. wrote to Nicolson:

You will no doubt wonder why I have not written to my husband, but after careful consideration I think it best not to do so as I am not intending to live with him anymore. I will give you a truthful reason why. Some nine months ago I engaged a girl Annie […] as a servant, expecting her to be a respectable girl. I had to discharge her before she had been with me two months on account of the familiarity between she and my husband. I thought this would put an end to it, instead of which, I kept hearing of them being together in different places, I watched for them and caught them together. I should have then left him, but being responsible and having to report him to you, this I could not do if I left the town. Since then matters have got worse, he has never been properly sober, we have been continually quarrelling during this time, he has kept much of his wages, and since the week before Christmas, all of it; he said he should do as he pleased and I should do the same. You will no doubt learn the truth of what I say through his correspondence for it has been the talk of East Hull. Considering what I suffered at his hands, and I worked the whole time he was away, and have done since he came home, so as to make us comfortable when we are old, I feel some of you will feel me justified in my decision.

She asked, ‘any time you feel justified in giving him his liberty […] give me due notice of his release, as I intend to go to America before he returns.’ This does not appear to have happened. After his readmission, A.T was reportedly ‘rational, tranquil and industrious’, and two years later was discharged on the condition that he would not visit his wife. A few months passed before Nicolson received a letter from R.: ‘I write to inform you that my husband has been here armed with a pistol and it was only after a long time it could be taken from him and he be got out of the house.’ The Home Office issued two warrants: a revocation of A.T’s discharge and one for his arrest. He was once again readmitted to Broadmoor.

In April 1899, just before his prison sentence was due to expire, A.T petitioned the Home Office for his discharge. In a letter that accompanied the petition, Superintendent Richard Brayn told the Home Office that A.T had been declared insane with the view to his removal to the Hull Borough Asylum:

He is very plausible and quite capable of concealing his real feelings and opinions, and I have no doubt he will regulate his conduct in the Asylum with the object of obtaining his discharge at an early date: and in view of the possibility of his being successful, I think it might be advisable that the police of Hull should be informed of his transfer, as would be the case were he discharged from Prison to their district.

Brayn was so concerned about A.T’s potential plans if he were ever to be released that he told the Superintendent of Hull asylum that he was being transferred as a pauper lunatic to avoid discharging him. He warned him that A.T

will no doubt try to regulate his conduct and conversation with a view to obtaining discharge from the Asylum. I am of opinion […] that his feelings towards his wife continue to be morbid and vindictive, and I consider that his discharge would be attended with considerable risk […] as his sentence expires at the end of this month, there is no authority for his further detention in a Criminal Asylum, and he is therefore transferred to your Asylum as a pauper lunatic.

A.T was transferred to Hull asylum in April 1899.

[i] There were two classes of patient in the asylum. First, men and women who had been found insane before or during their trials who were known as Queen’s pleasure patients. Second, there were insane convicts; men and women who had become insane whilst undergoing a term of penal servitude and were transferred to Broadmoor from prison until their sentences expired and they were discharged to another asylum or released, or they were declared sane and sent back to prison until their sentences expired.

Christmas at Victorian Broadmoor

Twas the night before Christmas (1869), when patient D. M. decided that not even the prospect of currant cake the following day was enough to keep him at Broadmoor. As much of the asylum slept, he carefully removed the iron bar from his window, placed it onto his bed, and escaped into the dark, cold December night.

Christmas at Broadmoor was, in many ways, no different to any other time at the asylum. In addition to escapes, there were reported instances of violence and abuse towards staff and patients, petitions for discharge were still made, and some patients still complained about their treatment and alleged wrongful confinement. Yet, at the same time, there is evidence that for some, life was, if only for a few days, a little bit better. 

For some patients, December meant more visitors. In early December, the friend of one patient pleaded with the Superintendent to allow him to visit one Sunday before Christmas because he ‘couldn’t see him on a weekday, and cannot give up his Christmas holiday to visit’ (Sunday was the only day visiting was not normally allowed). As Christmas got closer, the Superintendent received letters from patients’ friends and families wishing to visit their loved ones: patient H.D.’s two little girls ‘very much want to see their father at Christmas’ and A.I.’s husband ‘thought of coming over to see my wife about Christmas’. Some families were not content with the prospect of simply visiting their loved ones, and were hopeful that their petition to the Home Office would be be successful so that they could be reunited, at home, in time for a family Christmas. In mid-December 1873, the husband of patient M.D. expressed his family’s disappointment that his wife wouldn’t be released in time to celebrate with them. Christmas was certainly important to some families. Following the death of a relative at Broadmoor, and their subsequent burial at the asylum, many wished to remember their loved ones during the holidays: for many years, around mid-December, the son of patient A.O. sent a wreath to be placed on his grave.

Of course, as at other times of the year, many people found the time and cost of travelling to Broadmoor too great, and others feared acrimonious reunions with their loved ones. This meant that some patients received no visitors. In some cases, patients’ relatives sent Christmas cards and other tokens, including small gifts, in lieu of their presence. Some patients even requested certain presents: patient F.C. asked his mother ‘if a few shilling is ok for a gift’.

The atmosphere at Broadmoor at Christmas time was, according to some reports, quite jovial. Perhaps unsurprisingly, more patients attended religious services on Christmas day than on any other. In his report for 1874, Broadmoor’s chaplain reported that the average number of patients attending service on a Sunday was 92. On other days (services were held every day), it ranged from 22 to 42. On Christmas Day, it was 115. Other patients were reportedly caught up in the festive atmosphere, decorating the wards and wishing their fellow patients and Broadmoor’s staff a Happy Christmas. One reason for increased happiness, perhaps, was that the food was slightly better. This meant that pauper patients, whose diets were normally quite basic, could enjoy cake usually only available to private patients (who paid their own fees and could request any food item they wanted as long as they paid for it).

The Victorian reading public were seemingly just as curious to read about life at Broadmoor during the festive season as they were at other times of the year. ‘Christmas Day at Broadmoor’ was published in Reynolds’ Newspaper in 1896, and whilst highly sensational (and probably mostly embellished), it’s one account of Christmas at the asylum. What’s more, tales of terror, insanity and violence, as well as a furious snow storm, all of which emerge in the piece, sit quite nicely within the Victorian tradition of telling spooky and sensational tales on dark, cold Christmas nights, quite like the one I began with.

Christmas Day at Broadmoor Part 1 Christmas Day at Broadmoor Part 2 Christmas Day at Broadmoor Part 3.1 Christmas Day at Broadmoor Part 3.2 Christmas Day at Broadmoor Part 4

‘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.

Treating ‘Insane Convicts’

It’s recently been announced that the government is going to consider plans to build specialist units inside prisons to treat prisoners with mental health problems. Currently, the most dangerous offenders are sent to Ashworth, Broadmoor or Rampton for treatment, but some receive little or no help. The question of how to treat mentally ill offenders pre-dates the construction of Broadmoor (1863), Britain’s first hospital for mentally ill criminals, and has always been highly contentious. This posts outlines the contention that existed at Victorian Broadmoor regarding the committal of insane convicts into the asylum. There were two types of patient at Victorian Broadmoor: Queen’s pleasure patients (individuals found insane when tried) and insane convicts (those convicted of a crime and transferred to Broadmoor from prison after allegedly developing insanity whilst incarcerated).

There had long been discussions in Parliament and between Lunacy Commissioners and Broadmoor’s Superintendents about whether convicts should be incarcerated at Broadmoor and the extent to which they should be allowed to associate with Queen’s pleasure patients. In May 1860, three years before Broadmoor opened, the Lunacy Commissioners reported the result of their examination of the draft Criminal Lunatics Act to the Home Secretary. Perhaps basing their conclusions on the reservations of MPs, journalists, asylum Superintendents and prison governors, all of whom objected to the association of criminals and the insane, they stated that the reception of convicts into Broadmoor ‘would be most objectionable, and […] the proper place for the[m] […] would be an institution […] in connection with convict prisons.’ Yet, not long after Broadmoor opened, the Lunacy Commissioners declared, ‘it is the matter of the gravest doubt whether insane persons of the criminal class […] should be treated differently from other patients.’ But the behaviour and presumed natural propensities of convicts (that they were inherently lazy and bad) meant they were considered radically different to Queen’s pleasure patients, and when William Orange became Medical Superintendent in 1870 he initiated great change: he separated Queen’s pleasure patients and insane convicts because he believed that ‘unrestricted association leads to the […] further deterioration, morally, of the patients.’ After years of observing the violent and abusive nature of insane convicts in Broadmoor and hearing damning testimonies from the Superintendents and Queen’s pleasure patients regarding their behaviour, the Lunacy Commissioners agreed.

Although he viewed criminals and the insane in a similar light, Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, admired Orange’s efforts to separate the classes. He reported that there had been a reduced number of attacks made against attendants and that the conditions at Broadmoor had ‘greatly improved’ since the disassociation of the two classes. This observation was partly true but evidence suggests that the separation of classes was insufficient and Broadmoor’s resources were, as Orange reflected, ‘strained beyond the limits of prudence’ in the attempt to treat both classes of patient and change was needed. The Lunacy Commissioners were in agreement:

The forced association of honest and well-conducted persons who, solely owing to mental disease have broken the law, with convicts whose criminal acts have probably been the cause of their mental disorder is evidently unjust, and there is every reason to believe that the successful management and treatment of both classes should be more safely and efficiently conducted in separate institutions, with different rules and modes of treatment, and wherein the structural arrangements can be specially adapted to the varying requirement of each.

In 1874 it was decided that insane convicts should be incarcerated at Woking Prison instead of Broadmoor. This meant that through death, transfer or discharge, the numbers of convicts in the asylum gradually declined.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Broadmoor’s stance towards convicts appears to have been changing at the same time damning images of the criminal were emerging in scientific and legal discourse. An examination of the Addresses, publications and Annual Reports of Broadmoor’s Superintendents – William Orange and David Nicolson (Superintendent 1886-1896) suggests that they shared many of the same views as men such as Edmund Du Cane (chairman of the prison commission) and psychiatrist Henry Maudsley who tended to represent (habitual) criminals (as most of Broadmoor’s convict population were presumed to be) as amoral, uncivilized and untreatable: they were not industrious, they failed to control their passions and they were physically weak and deformed.

The positive effects on asylum life as a result of the prohibition of convicts were soon realised – there was ‘less bad language […] [and] fewer attacks by patients on each other take place, as shown by the comparative absence of bruises, and in all respects [patients] have become more manageable.’ It was not to last, however. Home Office records indicate that contention existed regarding the committal of insane convicts at Woking. Some, including the Lunacy Commissioners, questioned the legality of housing insane convicts in a prison rather than a legally recognised criminal lunatic asylum. Others believed Woking was unsuitable to house insane convicts and one contemporary reported to the Home Office: ‘no alterations can make Woking prison as good or convenient place for the treatment and detention of the insane as Broadmoor.’ In 1886 it was decided to discontinue the occupation of Woking by insane convicts and the following year work began at Broadmoor to construct a Block specifically for convicts in preparation for their re-admission into the asylum. In October 1888 the transfer of convicts back to Broadmoor began. The asylum reportedly soon witnessed an increase in the ‘proportion of restless, turbulent, and viciously disposed inmates.’

Where (and even if) mentally ill offenders should be treated in the nineteenth century was certainly the cause of much debate – it was proposed in the British Medical Journal that insane convicts should be kept in a separate institution where they could receive specialised treatment, and the Pall Mall Gazette refused to the pity the repeat offender (the ‘hardened criminal’) who became insane, advising that it was probably better to hang than treat them. Recent press coverage regarding debates over the provision of books for prisoners (‘Books […] [are] a way of nourishing the mind’)[i], and discussions of how and where mentally ill prisoners should be treated, indicate that the question of how best to treat them remains to this day – albeit, thankfully, in more sympathetic terms.

[i] Victorian psychiatrists expressed similar beliefs. Broadmoor’s Superintendents and Chaplain wrote about the positive effect reading had on patients’ minds. Broadmoor’s Council of Supervision (its governing body) purchased books for the patients which Reverend Burt described as being ‘of great moral value; they afford mental occupation to a considerable number of all classes of patients, and both amuse and instruct them during many hours which, without this humane provision, would be spent in weariness, in bitter reflection, or in angry discontent.’

Escaping Broadmoor

I’ve previously blogged about patients whose desire to stay in Broadmoor, or gain a transfer to the (comparatively lenient and luxurious) asylum from prison was so strong they feigned insanity. This post briefly outlines the cases of some patients who didn’t want to stay in the asylum and so they planned, sometimes successfully, their escape.


Insane convicts (patients who were transferred to Broadmoor from prison) were reportedly dirty, violent and cunning, with their crafty nature allegedly being the cause of many escapes from the asylum. In 1873, three convicts escaped. One of these men was W.B. who had been permitted to go for a walk in the asylum grounds, chaperoned by an attendant. W.B. encouraged the attendant to examine a rabbit hole and, as he did so, reportedly ‘suddenly struck him on the head with a large stone and after endeavouring to strangle him, left him on the ground nearly insensible.’ The Lunacy Commissioners subsequently condemned the ‘management of want of proper precaution in trusting to the sole care of one attendant such a man as [W.B.] who had committed murder previous to his admission, and had exhibited dangerous tendencies in the asylum.’ An announcement was made to the press and to police stations around England and Wales, and a description of W.B. was circulated: he had black, thick curly hair worn parted down the middle; black whiskers, moustache and beard; dark, blood shot eyes; and a sallow complexion. He was dressed in blue clothing marked Broadmoor. Not long after the escape an announcement, ‘Insane Person Found’, was forwarded to Broadmoor. The name on this announcement was not that of the missing Broadmoor patient – this wouldn’t have been considered unusual since many convicts had aliases. Despite the physical resemblance the person found appears to have had to W.B., however, the two men weren’t one and the same. The records suggest that W. B. was never found.


F.M. escaped in the late 1880s. According to his medical notes this patient was particularly troublesome: he was reportedly violent, easily agitated, and engaged in acts of a sexual nature with his fellow patients. His escape was reported to the Home Office:

[F.M] was employed with a party of inmates and with the care of an attendant at a temporary job of levelling some ground at the back of no 2 Block within the asylum walls. About 2. 30 soon after work was commenced, […] [F.M.] left his work and ran to the scaffolding which had been raised in connection with the new works for joining blocks 1 & 2 (upon which a number of paid labourers were engaged). Mounting the scaffolding he sprang a distance of about 6 feet across and managed to balance himself by clinging with his knees, upon the top of the disconnected end of a high partition wall along which he speedily scrambled to the boundary wall, and then dropping onto the ground, he escaped into the woods which closely adjoin.

F.M.’s escape was short-lived – he was apprehended the same evening about 8 miles from Broadmoor by the asylum’s assistant gatekeeper and a temporary clerk, both of whom were awarded £1. 10. The escape of any patient was an embarrassment and a cause for concern, but Broadmoor’s governing body, the Council of Supervision, and the Superintendent, tried to downplay the incident by insisting that F.M. was only able to escape because he was ‘formerly a sailor’ and an ‘active youth’ (he was 24 years old). The Superintendent reported that F.M.’s escape was ‘effected by means of a dangerous but successful leap made from some scaffolding on to the temporarily broken end of a partition wall’ – a leap most of Broadmoor’s other patients wouldn’t have been able to perform, not least because (according to the Council) they would struggle to climb up the scaffolding and successfully make their way into the woods. On this occasion the attendant was not blamed or accused of neglecting his duties – instead, building work (the presence of scaffolding) and F.M.’s strength and speed were held accountable.


T.G. was reportedly a particularly troublesome patient. Following a visit to Broadmoor one journalist, in a highly exaggerated account of the asylum, wrote ‘The Terrors of Broadmoor’. He declared T.G. to be the most dangerous patient in the asylum – he was ‘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.’ Whilst a sensationalist account of Broadmoor and its patients, records indicate that T.G. had a group of friends at the asylum who were willing to assist him with his schemes. In 1864, T.G. was singled out as the ringleader in a ‘very serious’ attempt to escape with three of his fellow patients. They diverted an attendant by asking him to fetch a piece of pie, before running down the corridor, shutting the doors and putting stones in the keyholes to stop other attendants reaching them. They then tied their handkerchiefs and neckerchiefs together to construct a rope in order to climb out of the window. The plot was foiled at the last minute after the Broadmoor’s chaplain ‘saw the men descending outside one of the windows of the room where he was reading prayers’ and raised the alarm. T.G. and his friends made it to a wall in the airing court of Block 1 before they were apprehended.


A serious incident occurred one evening in September 1864 when G.H. escaped. At the time of his escape G.H. was under the care of Samuel Wills, ‘an experienced officer’ who was subsequently summoned before the Council and reprimanded. What was unusual about this case was that John Sydney Philport, a second-class attendant at Broadmoor, encouraged and assisted G.H.’s escape. Philport had instructed the patient to hide under a bed in one of the dormitories and adjusted a rug so he could conceal him; he then let him out of the building. G. H. made his way to Derbyshire and, as Philport recommended, obtained work in a coal pit. He was recaptured in November when the Chief Constable of Sheffield found him; he received a £5 reward. Philport was committed for trial at Reading assizes and charged with aiding and abetting G.H. in escaping. He was found guilty and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment with hard labour.


Broadmoor’s attendants were instructed to be particularly vigilant and mindful of the whereabouts of patients and their activities. A lapse in judgement occurred one evening in July 1869 when female patient A.K. escaped from airing court No. 2. At the time, there were twenty-five patients under the care of four attendants, and music was playing in airing court No. 1. Accounts of the incident suggest that rather than watching the patients the attendants were dancing with them, and A.K. saw an opportunity to flee. The image below, taken from the Illustrated London News (1867), shows female patients dancing in the airing court.

Patients Dancing

With the assistance of a fellow patient, A.K. had no difficulty reaching the top of the north wall of the asylum and escaping into the countryside. The attendants were ‘reprimanded and cautioned to be more careful in the future.’ A.K. wasn’t found. As a result of this escape, proposals were made to increase the height of Broadmoor’s boundary walls.


The carelessness of attendants – leaving patients unsupervised to fetch pie, dancing with them instead of watching them – was the cause of a number of escapes. M.M. attempted to escape from Broadmoor via the door that connected the dormitory she slept in with the chapel after it was left unlocked by an attendant. M.M. got through the chapel and onto the airing court before she escaped over the boundary wall. She was apprehended the following day and taken back to Broadmoor by a policeman from Reading. The attendants in charge ‘admit their neglect and express deep regret at the occurrence’; they were reprimanded and fined for their discretion, and the policemen was awarded £2 as a reward. As a result of this escape, the Council approved the Superintendent’s suggestion that bars should be placed in the windows of the chapel for extra security.

This is by no means a comprehensive account of all of the escapes that occurred. A number of other patients managed to flee whilst working in the fields or out on walks with attendants, others through the use of fabricated keys or deception. In 1888, Broadmoor’s Superintendent reflected quite positively on the situation:

It is not surprising that the idea of escape is much in the minds of a population situated as the inmates of Broadmoor are. Many of them, although fully convalescent and practically recovered, are yet quite unfit to be released from asylum supervision and permitted to go at large, in consequence of the risk that would be incurred. In order to make the daily life of the inmates as little irksome as possible, it is necessary to extend at least a reasonable amount of privilege and freedom to them within the walls; and it is only in the nature of things that these privileges should from time to time be taken advantage of and abused. Since the opening of the asylum in 1863, embracing a period of over 25 years, only 28 inmates out of an average yearly population of 473, have contrived to make their escape, and of these all have been recaptured with the exception of four. Up to last year no inmate had succeeded in making good his escape and avoiding recapture since 1873. Under all the circumstances, and bearing in mind the fact that no offensive or defensive weapon is permitted to the attendants, this is, for my predecessors in office, a very satisfactory record of immunity from escape, and it has reference not only to the general management and asylum distribution of the inmates, but also to the vigilance and reliability of the staff generally.

In the early 1890s a slightly more pessimistic view was expressed, and very few male inmates were allowed to work outside because it was feared they would try to escape. As a result, a new garden boundary wall (16 feet high) was built so that more patients could be trusted with working on the land.

Many (if not most) of Broadmoor’s patients hoped that they would one day leave the asylum – preferably because they had been (legally) discharged and not because they’d successfully managed to escape and live out the remainder of their days incognito. Whether out of hope or simply because they wished to keep themselves entertained (perhaps both), patients in early-twentieth century Broadmoor adapted H. G. Pellissier’s comedy song ‘Back to the Land’:

There’s a many slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip,

But now and again someone does ‘get the tip’;

To get out of Broadmoor’s a hard thing to do,

But don’t be downhearted – there’s still hope for you

To go back back back to the land;

It may be feet foremost with flowers in your hand;

But, if favoured by fate, you’ll escape “No. VIII’

And get back, back, back to the land.

No VIII was the title bestowed upon the mortuary.

‘If ever there was hell, Dartmoor was hell’: One Man’s Account of Victorian Prison Life

My previous post dealt with feigning insanity and Broadmoor and it was shown that one of the reasons Broadmoor patients reportedly feigned (or in some cases developed) madness was the brutality of the Victorian prison regime. One of the cases briefly referred to was that of habitual criminal J.D. – a man whose hatred of prison led him to feign insanity. This post briefly outlines J.D.’s alleged prison experience prior to his transfer to Broadmoor.

In August 1890, J. D. broke into Dartmoor prison where he had previously served eight-years penal servitude. He was discovered after he accidentally put his feet on the bell wire when climbing over the wall and the alarm was raised. When discovered, J.D. reportedly told the guards that he had ‘come to murder’ the chief warder – ‘and murder him I will if I have got a chance.’ Following his arrest J.D. was taken into custody at Tavistock where the charges against him were made: intent to murder, intent to set Dartmoor on fire, and stealing (and slaughtering) a sheep from the prison farm, part of which he ate raw. J.D., a Barbadian, justified his intent to murder the chief warder by complaining of the ill-treatment he had allegedly received at his hands. He told the magistrate that he had been ‘put in irons only because he was a man of colour and a plain speaker’, and complained of being flogged on numerous occasions without reason. He said he’d been ‘treated worse than a dog’ and revealed that although he had travelled to America and the West Indies since his release, he longed for revenge: ‘if ever there was a hell Dartmoor was hell’. J. D. was committed for trial at the Exeter assize. It was reported in the press that as he left the courtroom, J.D. turned to the chief warder and ‘in the most vindictive tones’ twice declared: ‘I shall remember you.’ When tried, J.D. defended himself and repeated the accusations he had made previously. When questioned, the chief warder rebuked claims that he had ill-treated J.D. – the Governor of Dartmoor supported this, telling the courtroom J.D. had been flogged because he refused to pick oakum, and recalled that he ‘had got into trouble in all parts of the prison’.

Seemingly wanting to get to the bottom of the case, one newspaper delved into J.D.’s history. It was discovered that he had spent most of his life in prison and that whilst in custody he ‘always behaved himself in a most recalcitrant manner.’ An ex-convict who had been imprisoned alongside J.D. at Dartmoor talked to a journalist. ‘Know [D]? I should think I do. He was known to us as “Darkey”, and he was always getting into trouble with the warders and getting punished for it.’ He recalled J.D.’s refusal to do anything that was asked of him, and described his violent behaviour and how the warders and convicts were scared of him. J.D. was ‘in No 9 gang’ – ‘there were three of them who were known as the “three terrors”. On one occasion, ‘Darkey concealed himself behind the cell door and just as the warder [who was on night patrol] looked through the inspection hole he thrust the handle of his wooden spoon through the hole, and it was a miracle he didn’t knock his eye out.’ The ex-convict claimed that as a result of this behaviour, J.D. was frequently flogged, refused food and allowed only bread and water, and placed in solitary confinement from where he would come up with more ghastly schemes. He believed that ‘Darkey’s life in prison was certainly a hard one, but I think that he brought most of it on himself. Life at Dartmoor even for the best-behaved prisoners is dreary and terrible, and nobody who has ever been there wants to go back.’

J.D. certainly didn’t want to return. According to one newspaper, at his trial J.D. spoke in ‘an emotional manner […] and […] pleaded for mercy to allow him to live a better life.’ The jury found him guilty. The judge told the court that there was no foundation for the accusations J.D. made against the warder and sentenced him to 12 months hard labour. He was sent back to Dartmoor. Soon after, J.D. began to feign the insanity that resulted in his transfer to Broadmoor.

Following his discharge from Broadmoor J.D. was escorted to Farnborough from where he was put on a train to Southampton. Following his arrival, he continued to commit crime – he was arrested and tried for stealing a coat from the Sailor’s Home. When he was called on for his defence, he addressed the court for an hour and a quarter on the horrors of penal servitude. He again referred to the alleged ill-treatment he had received at Dartmoor and declared that he would rather ‘go the grave’ than return there. According to press reports, ‘The prisoner’s statement was made before a crowded court and produced a profound impression.’ J.D.’s fate remains unclear.