“I gave Mary a bit of cake, and then I killed her, wretch that I am”

I. Crime and Trial

On the morning of April 21 1864, M. D. saw her husband to the front door as he left for work, as she did every morning. After he had gone, she returned to the kitchen and murdered her two young children. Following the crime, she walked across the street to her neighbour’s house – a policeman – and reported the act: ‘I’ve killed my poor children, take me and lock me up, I’ve not hurt them; I love them; they’re in heaven.’ M.D. was arrested, and an inquest into the murders followed. As usually happened in child-murder cases, the press reported heavily on this ‘horrible’/‘shocking’/‘terrible’ crime committed by a previously loving and attentive mother who was ‘passionately fond’ of her children and whose character was, up until the crime, exemplary. It is from these press reports (example below) that we can gauge some sense of what happened at the inquest and the trial.

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Penny Illustrated Weekly News, April 23 1864

At the inquest, M.D’s husband referred to M.D.’s affection for her children, and stated that she’d demonstrated no signs of insanity or mental anguish. She never drank alcohol, ‘having signed the teetotal pledge when eight years of age’ – an important fact because the consumption of alcohol and insanity were very closely tied in the nineteenth century. He did, though, remember that on the morning of the murders M.D. wasn’t her talkative self as she showed him to the door. He also mentioned that she ‘had said she would like her home better furnished’, but that he was unsure whether this played upon her mind. This lack of furniture was important. The policemen to whom M.D. confessed her crime reported that she had told him, ‘I’ve tried to be like others, and I cannot’. The policemen assumed that she was referring to the condition of her house, which had ‘very little furniture’. This lack of furniture was tied to her husband’s failure to secure steady employment. It was reported in one newspaper that M.D’s husband had been out of work and that ‘this seems to have affected the wife, who … has latterly been somewhat depressed in spirits.’ In addition to the condition of her house, M.D’s husband told the inquest that in the month that preceded the crime she had complained that ‘her head was bad’, and appeared confused and was easily exhausted. He also ‘believed some members of [M.D.’s] family had been affected in their head, but could not say positively.’ Other witnesses reported M.D.’s demeanour following the act. Dr P. reported that M.D. was ‘very dejected, and yet very restless, sighing and wringing her hands’. During the inquest it was reported in the press that M.D. ‘wrung her hands and moaned piteously the whole time.’ The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder and M.D. was committed for trial.

M.D.’s trial took place the following August, and evidence similar to that presented at the inquest was provided: M.D. was anxious about the lack of furniture in her home, and her family was barely surviving. Evidence was given to demonstrate M.D.’s demeanour immediately following the act. A policeman repeated M.D.’s confession: ‘ I gave Mary a bit of cake, and then I killed her, wretch that I am.’ He said that she had expressed regret at taking the two children away from their ‘affectionate father’ – a man whom she described as a ‘good husband’. Other witnesses testified that M.D. wasn’t of sound mind, and that for some months she had frequently imagined that harm would come to her husband and that she and her children would be left destitute and alone. But this wasn’t the explanation M.D. had given to the policeman: ‘the thought suddenly came upon her and she did it.’ The defence called M.D.’s mother and father the stand. They told the courtroom that ‘she was always eccentric in manner, and on one occasion ran away from home without her clothes … Four of her brothers and sisters had died of water on the brain.’ It took the jury twenty minutes to find M.D. not guilty on the ground of insanity. She was transferred from Leeds gaol, where she was held during her trial, to Broadmoor.

II. Broadmoor

Before a patient was transferred to Broadmoor, the Prison Medical Officer (PMO) at the prison where they were held filled out a document called Schedule A – this recorded a patient’s personal information including name, date of birth, bodily health, crime, verdict and cause of insanity. The PMO at Leeds gaol reported that ‘improper nursing during menstruation, and anxiety about her husband’ had caused M.D.’s insanity. The former was not mentioned during the trial. M.D.’s chief delusion was ‘fear for her children’s welfare’. Immediately following her committal to Broadmoor, M. D. was reportedly ‘very quarrelsome’ and ‘not quite sane’. According to the asylum’s medical officers, her husband was to blame for her insanity: ‘she was kept in constant … fear from her husbands intemperance and neglect’, and following the birth of her second child in 1863 ‘was very depressed … [and] left alone very much’ – an analysis of M.D.’s life that contradicts her claim that he was a good and loving husband.

Throughout the mid-to-late 1860s a number of applications were made to the Home Office for M.D.’s discharge, mainly from her father (on behalf of her family), who also wrote many letters to M.D. at Broadmoor within which he told her how much he wished she could be liberated. M.D. heard nothing from her husband until 1871, when he wrote to her at Broadmoor to inform her that he was going be in London and would like to travel to Broadmoor (in Berkshire) to visit her: ‘but I suppose you will not like a visit from me.’ M.D. replied, informing her husband that would like to see him. He responded by telling her that he was pleased she had written, and that he’d be in touch when he knew more about his travel plans. She never heard from him again. Whilst M.D.’s relationship with her husband appeared to deteriorate, the relationship she maintained with her parents was a strong and honest one. In 1872, her father wrote to her informing her of her husband’s whereabouts:

My Dear Child,

In reply to your letter of the 10th just, we are all happy to hear that you are in good health in both body and mind. In answer to your questions concerning your husband, I will tell you all the information I can … your husband has left Halifax and I do not know where he has gone to he has got a chid by this other person between five and six years old. I cannot say whether he has gone away. He was at my house a month hence and he said that if you got your liberty he would … leave the country that is all the information I can give about your husband and if you get your liberty myself and your brother has a home and a good one for you as long as we live [sic]

M.D. soon received another letter from her father informing her that her husband had left the country. Perhaps in an effort to assure her she wasn’t alone, he told her: ‘You have a good mother and a good father … and you have four brothers and two sisters’. Ten months later M.D.’s father wrote to Superintendent William Orange asking for his help in securing his daughter’s discharge: ‘Her mother and brothers and sisters and myself promise that she shall be taken care of in future if you will comply with my request. I shall never cease to be thankful to you’. M.D.’s discharge was certainly looking more likely. The medical officers had reported an improvement in her health and character: she ‘is industrious, abstentious and generous. She remembers dates and facts’. Orange certainly had her discharge in mind – he began to make enquiries into who might care for her if the Home Office approved her release. Two months later, Orange received the following letter from an unknown correspondent who had looked into the whereabouts and character of M.D.’s husband:

I find he is living with another woman, and he himself states that he is married, but whether this is true I cannot tell … One thing is certain, that [her husband] is a thorough scoundrel, and I have little doubt that it was owing to his wicked conduct that his unfortunate wife was driven to desperation, as even during the trial, while the poor woman’s life was pending, he was seen in the company of prostitutes, by many people in this township.

M.D. was discharged from Broadmoor in the spring of 1872. The records don’t indicate where she was sent, but it seems very unlikely that her husband would have been entrusted with her care: he apparently didn’t possess the good moral character expected of guardians.


‘the man whom she killed … was a “regular old rogue”’

In 1870, forty-five year old Charlotte Barton murdered Thomas Pagdin, the man she had lived with for twelve years, by hitting him on the head with a hammer. The Illustrated Police News described both Barton and Pagdin:

The deceased was nearly bald, and appeared to have been tolerably robust. He was rather tall, and had been a strongly-built man … The murderess … is a person of medium height, slightly built, and with narrow, dark, lowering features. Her eyes are deeply sunk into her head, and the corners of her mouth are held tightly drawn up, probably caused by intense excitement.

It was reported in the press, and later at Broadmoor, that Pagdin had mistreated Barton and that this was the motive for the murder: Barton told her brother, ‘He had wanted me to go with other men’.

Charlotte Barton Case. IPN. Dec 10 1870

Illustrated Police News, 10 December 1870, p. 1.

At her trial, Barton was reportedly dressed ‘in rusty black’, and ‘a shade of melancholy pervaded her countenance’. Her demeanour was ‘quiet and subdued’. In answer to the question ‘Are you guilty or not guilty?’, Barton whispered ‘yes, sir’ so quietly the clerk didn’t hear her: he took it to be ‘not guilty’. It appeared from the evidence given that on the morning following the murder, Barton appeared ‘in a very excited state at her daughter’s house. She said she had hit Pagdin with a hammer, and he was dead. [Barton’s daughter] fainted and her children cried, and the husband was aroused from bed. To him all that the prisoner could say was, “it was an awful sight”’. Barton told her son-in-law that Pagdin wanted to ‘turn her out onto the streets’ to make up for their falling income (he had lost his job). It was suggested at the trial that Barton had been of an unsound mind for some time: ‘she had a bewildered appearance, and acted in curious ways.’ The defence called upon Barton’s neighbours to show there had been a demonstrable decline in her mental health. One witness stated that ‘one morning in spring she had seen the prisoner sitting under a pear tree, in a garden some distance from her house, and on asking her why she was there, she said, “I’m watching the onions grow, and the little sparrows build their nests”’. In addition, it was argued that Barton didn’t know the difference between right and wrong (making her legally insane), and the jury found her not guilty on the ground of insanity. She was transferred to Broadmoor in January 1871.

A couple of years after Barton’s admission, a solicitor wrote to Superintendent William Orange  to ask for his advice. Friends of Barton’s had been in touch with him regarding the case, and he wanted Orange’s opinion on Barton’s mental state before he agreed to help them petition the Home Office for her release. Orange cautioned against a petition, stating that it was ‘too early’ for the question of discharge to be raised. In 1875, Barton told her sister that she wished to leave Broadmoor. In a letter received by Orange, an acquaintance of Barton and her sister told him:

[Barton] has communicated to her sister here her desire to leave the asylum believing her mental faculties so far improved that she would be competent to take care of herself with the assistance of her sister in whose house she would reside. I may say her sister is a highly respectable woman … Before applying to the Home Office I thought it advisable to apply to you for your opinion as to the patients state of mind and also as to the advisability of applying to the Home Office for her.

In March 1876, Barton’s sister, Sarah, wrote to Orange:

Dear Sir, my sister … is confined in your asylum and is very anxious to be restored to her friends as we should be very happy to receive her, from the tenor of her letters to me I have every reason so far as I can judge to believe that my sister has not only lucid moments but is in such a state of mind and so far recovered her faculty of sense that I think she might with safety to her friends and herself be restored to us. I promise to provide her with a good and comfortable home which I am glad to say I am enabled to do for her comfort. I trust this matter will have your best consideration and see fit to recommend my sister to Her Majesty clemency of a free pardon, by an application from me supported by yourself to the Home Office. Your kind affection to my solicitor will greatly oblige.

Orange told Sarah to write to the Secretary of State, and made no mention of Barton’s mental state. Sarah’s efforts to have Barton discharged were in vain. The following year she wrote to Orange again, and to the Home Office. The Home Office wrote to Orange in 1877, informing him that the Secretary of State had considered the petition for Barton’s discharge and ‘sees no ground to justify in recommending release.’ Four-years later, the Secretary of State asked for a report into Barton’s mental and bodily condition. This was the response:

For some time after her admission her mind was much unstable, and although lately there has been an improvement in this regard we do not think that she could with safety by permitted to go at large, although according to her statement she has a sister who is willing to provide for her in the event of her discharge.

She was married but had left her husband to go and live with the man whom she murdered.

The following was crossed out:

but for some years she has remained free from acute attacks of insanity. Her behaviour and conversation is often strange and irrational and her disposition is reserved … Although she makes herself useful in the laundry and although on ordinary subjects her conversation is rational, we have never been able to regard her as being of sound mind.

In 1883, Orange advised an acquaintance of Barton’s that, ‘application should not be made for her release’. The following year, Barton’s brother ‘prays for the release’ of his sister, but Orange informed him she was unfit to leave Broadmoor. In 1885, the medical officers again refused to sanction Barton’s discharge on the grounds that it would be unsafe to release her. That spring, an M.P. wrote to the Home Office asking ‘for most favourable consideration’ of Barton’s case, but he was refused. It certainly appears that Barton’s behaviour was cause for concern and frustrating. Orange put a stop to an interview he was having with Barton because she ‘replies to one question by asking another’ and was ‘disposed to lose [her] temper’.

In the autumn of 1885, Barton’s brother visited her at Broadmoor. Following his visit he wrote to the Superintendent:

I take the liberty in writing to you respecting my sister Charlotte Barton who has been in your asylum about fifteen years. We visited her …  and she appeared quite restored to her usual health also the letters we receive from her are perfectly sensible and we think she must feel it very hard to see others who have only been in there a short time coming out … We feel very anxious to have her amongst us again if you will allow her to come and let us see how she will be. We shall do all in our power for her and try to keep her in good health and follow any advice you will be kind to give us respecting her. We shall feel greatly obliged if you will assist us (as far as it lays in your power) towards getting her release. We enquired for the doctor when we visited her but understood that you were gone out. Trusting you will kindly send a reply to this as soon as convenient.

Unfortunately for her family, however, Barton hadn’t yet recovered. In March 1886 she was considered ‘moody and reserved’, and unfit for release.

The following month, a discussion between Barton and a medical officer was recorded, and it provides insight into Barton’s motive:

[She] says the man whom she killed…was a “regular old rogue” that he took four pounds which she had laid by, and that she accused him of taking the money and … he struck her, and then she struck him in return with a hammer and knocked him down the … steps. She says that she had lived with him 13 years – that she first went to do his washing and then he asked her to get married to him and keep his house. It is stated also that he wished her to lead an immoral life. She says she had been so low spirited for a long time that she did not know what to do.

The medical officer who wrote this note recorded: ‘She has no apparent delusions’.

Two months after this meeting took place, and after many years of petitioning the Home Office, Barton was released into the care of her daughter and son-in-law after Orange came to the following conclusion:

It is impossible to say that her discharge would be entirely unattended with risk. But she is now 62 years of age and she has been in confinement more than 15 years, and it is not that her mental condition will be improved by longer detention.

She has no delusions or other active indications of insanity at present.

Two weeks after Barton’s release, her son-in-law wrote to David Nicolson, who was now Superintendent: ‘I am glad to be able to say that Mrs Barton is conducting herself in a proper manner, she has not been very well in health owing to her having caught a cold. She has now gone to spend a few days with her brother who resides … [in] a little country place about 3 miles from Sheffield – and the change of air is doing her much good.’ Quite unusually, and to the surprise and concern of the officials, Barton didn’t stay at her daughter’s house very long, and in the autumn of 1886 moved into her own home. Questions were raised, but Barton’s daughter was quick to inform the authorities:

although she is not residing with us, in the strict sense of the term, still she is under our close supervision. [Her house] … is very near to out home and my mother is more often here than anywhere else. Myself with the help of other relations have furnished her a nice little home at her own choice … she is enjoying good health, and so far as we know, is happy and comfortable. We hope you will have no objection to these arrangements as it is more convenient for us all and we assure you that she is under supervision.

These circumstances were seemingly fine and over the next few years (well into the 1890s) Barton’s relatives reported back to Broadmoor regarding her mental and physical wellbeing. According to these reports, Barton preferred ‘cocoa or coffee’ to alcohol (although she sometimes had the odd glass of beer with meals or when with friends), and was mentally stable. She exhibited no behaviour to cause alarm. Barton never saw Broadmoor again.



‘Female Criminal Lunatics: A Sketch’

Many of my previous posts have concentrated on Broadmoor’s men, primarily because they were the focus of my PhD research. Here, I’m going to focus on Broadmoor’s female patients. I’ve been sitting on female case files, as well as publications written by Broadmoor’s staff about these patients for years, and this will be the first of many posts dedicated to the asylum’s female population. Of course, owing to years of research I do have loads more posts lined up on Broadmoor’s male patients too. Following my hiatus from blogging, my plan is that this post will be the first of many over the coming months.

In 1902 Broadmoor’s Deputy Superintendent, John Baker, presented a fascinating paper to other medical men on the asylum’s female criminal lunatics.[i] Here, I’m going to sum up some of his key findings.

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). By the turn of the twentieth century, most of Broadmoor’s female patients were insane convicts who had been convicted of crimes including larceny, arson, robbery and housebreaking. 55% were under 30 years of age, 45% were middle-aged and 5% were old women. The most common type of insanity Baker observed amongst these women was delusional mania. As a result of this, they were violent, used obscene language, degraded in their behavior and noisy. Their delusions were of suspicion and persecution, and many demonstrated aural and visual hallucinations. Baker noted:

Very frequently these insane manifestations have a sexual bearing, and it is noteworthy that the ranks of this class of lunatic are mainly recruited from women of loose character and irregular life.

In a previous post I noted the friendships that formed between the asylum’s female patients, but Baker observed something different:

In their quieter moments they seek one another and herd together like epileptics; but jealousy soon springs up, they denounce one another, conspire against the other, friendship is hardly born before it dies, and is transformed into enmity.

Baker observed that most female convicts were lazy, and usually unwilling to work.

In addition to these insane convicts there were Queen’s pleasure patients, most of whom had committed infanticide. Baker noted that the huge number of mothers who had killed their children present in the asylum was down to one fact: ‘the lawyers are more ready to accept a plea of insanity, pity inspires both judge and jury, and the opinion of the expert is not often required in evidence’. The insanity Baker attributed to these women tended to correspond with their maternal function: insanity of pregnancy, puerperal insanity, and the insanity of lactation. Based on the Broadmoor cases, he found that infanticides occurred in the following: In the insanity of pregnancy: 5%; in puerperal insanity: 35%; in the insanity of lactation: 60%. Baker suggested the insanity of lactation was higher than the others because ‘lactation is an exhausting process’ and women ‘frequently’ ‘break down’. In addition, he observed that many poorer women ‘seem to be pregnant or nursing mothers all the time, who toil and moil all their married life’: ‘Is it to be wondered at that many develop melancholia, and frequently become actively suicidal?’ Based on the cases of 115 females considered to be insane due to lactation, Baker found that it was older women who suffered more from this particular type of insanity, and in comparison to younger sufferers they were unlikely to recover. He suggested a number of reasons for this, including:

  1. The age of the patient. As a rule the older the patient on admission the less chance of recovery.

  2. The number of children. Were a woman has been exhausted and debilitated by frequent pregnancies, the prognosis is generally unfavourable.

In the majority of infanticidal cases, the type of insanity was ‘melancholic, – simple, delusional, resistive, or stuporose’.

Whilst Baker derided criminal anthropology, at the end of his paper he referred to, but didn’t elaborate on,

the curious and interesting pathological fact that the brain-weights of homicidal female lunatics were below the normal standard of sane women, and the brain-weights of lunatic criminals – the thieves and the fire-raisers- were still more deficient in this respect

He provided the following table.


Baker. Brain weight.

Future blog posts will elaborate on some of the causes of insanity mentioned here, and the fascinating cases of some individual female patients will be discussed.


[i] John Baker, ‘Female Criminal Lunatics: A Sketch’, Journal of Mental Science, 48, 1902, 13-28

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.