in An archaeology of lunacy


In the popular imagination, the historic lunatic asylum was a dark, monolithic institution of social confinement. Locked behind thick, damp walls, the popular perception of the ailing patients – closely guarded behind locked doors by hard-faced matrons and sly, brutal keepers – dominates the popular memory of lunatic asylums. This legacy of the asylum, born out of a number of factors, some based in fact and some in fictional accounts of urban institutions and correlations between asylum architecture and that of the reformed nineteenth-century prison, has carried over into popular media and is pervasive. As such, the perception of all asylums as marginal, brutal places of human suffering is reflected in the ways in which asylum buildings are reused and redeveloped across the British Isles. This book aims to redress the history of the built and material environment of the lunatic asylum, identifying early nineteenth-century ideas on how the treatment of the mad informed the architecture and material culture of the early nineteenth-century asylum. Approaching the asylum and the built environment of mental health provision as archaeological artefacts and landscapes, this book will draw together archival source material, material culture, built heritage, and cartographic information.

The subject matter of the book necessitates a short note on terminology in order to clarify usage. The terminology used in this book is of its period and consistent with the primary source material for the subject. The buildings will be referred to as lunatic asylums or asylums throughout, allowing for changes in the names of the buildings as time went on; a building which continued in use as a facility for treating mental illness will be referred to as an asylum in relation to the early nineteenth century, and a hospital when discussing changes in the twentieth century. For example, the Maryborough District Lunatic Asylum, one of the buildings examined in detail in this book, will be referred to as an asylum in the 1830s, but as a hospital, Portlaoighse Mental Hospital, when discussing changes to the building in the 1930s. This change in nomenclature is necessary to maintain consistency with the primary source material referred to throughout. Similarly, words like ‘insane’, ‘madness’, ‘lunatic’, and ‘mad’ will be used frequently, as this is consistent with the language employed at the time in question. For the same reason, though asylums are frequently conflated with prisons and workhouses of the period, the word ‘patient’ will be used to refer to the denizens of the asylums, consistent with the sources.

Primary source material relating to lunatic asylums in the nineteenth century is reasonably prolific. As government-run, or -regulated, institutions, asylums generated a significant amount of administrative material, most of which is accessible in public record offices or private archives. The archaeology of the lunatic asylum, of insanity, and of institutions in general, is a growing subfield of historical archaeology. The volume of material and breadth of different approaches adopted by researchers to study these (sometimes problematic) buildings means that this book is a contribution to a much larger body of work. As such, the subject of this book is the buildings, their builders, and the staff who were responsible for running them. For a patient-focused archaeological approach to lunatic asylums, I invite the reader to look at the work of Susan Piddock, cited frequently in this book, and papers on the subject published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Historical Archaeology, and Post-Medieval Archaeology journals. Focusing on the materiality of reform, administration, and control, this book looks primarily at the buildings and their constructors and workers, often the enforcers of the rules, and their approaches to the ever-changing material landscape of the early nineteenth-century asylum.

It is difficult to detach completely from a subject matter like mental health. Many scholarly approaches to the subject are inspired or informed by personal engagements with mental illness or mental hospitals, and this book is no exception. My approach has been stimulated and informed by my experiences with these buildings before I ever approached them as an archaeologist. I was attracted to this research topic due to my familiarity with a former district asylum in Ireland where I was employed as a clerical assistant while I was an undergraduate student, but I had been familiar with the building even before that. The hospital, still in operation, had employed both of my parents, two of my siblings, and several uncles before me. As such, I approached the topic as a former employee, with a cognisance of the importance of representing only what narratives I had access to through the material culture and sources available. My knowledge of the Irish health service, and familiarity with psychiatric nurses in particular, meant that my fieldwork has been facilitated and aided by many current and former staff members of Irish and English psychiatric hospitals. Indeed, it is through these contacts made in provincial hospitals, small community-run museums, and through academic networks, that I gained access to materials and records which were saved from destruction by the enthusiasm and insight of the interested public. Community networks are vital for the study of historic buildings, especially those with problematic and underrepresented histories, like lunatic asylums. Maintaining a link with at least one associated community means that their voices and opinions on the direction of the research are heard and taken into consideration. This is key to maintaining relevance to these communities, who have been instrumental in building up historical networks of staff and even contributing to the development of residential neighbourhoods around institutions.

As well as the Maryborough Asylum, several other detailed case studies are referred to throughout, representing major changes at a national level and local practice at asylum level. Another asylum looked at in detail will be one I have lived in close proximity to while writing this book, the Lincoln City Asylum. Lincoln City Asylum was a pioneer of the non-restraint movement in asylum management and was one of two lunatic asylums in operation in the city of Lincoln in England at the end of the nineteenth century. The other asylum, located to the south of the city at Bracebridge Heath, represents an archetypical Victorian lunatic asylum, and the village which grew up around that institution signifies the historical importance of these buildings as services, employers, suppliers, and customers. Both the former Lincoln City Asylum and the Bracebridge Heath Asylum have undergone redevelopment in the 2010s, the former into a small-scale industrial complex and hotel and the latter into a domestic estate. These developments are just two of the purposes to which former asylum buildings are being put, with others in the planning process. As archaeologists, both academic and commercial, we are in a key position to inform on the impact these buildings have had on their locales, from early nineteenth-century origins as pioneers of what became psychological medicine, to later twentieth-century proving grounds for psychiatry, for better or worse. Far from marginal, these places occupy significant positions in local memory and beyond. Many of the key battles in psychiatry were fought in the draughty corridors and echoing verandas of these experimental building types. As employers, asylums consistently employed women on a meaningful scale from the early nineteenth century, sometimes in positions of significant authority. Finally, as institutions for the treatment and attempted cure of the mentally ill, asylums were designed to support domesticity and comfort, however vain their efforts in the face of budgets and overcrowding. This book will represent the material environment of the early nineteenth-century lunatic asylum and seek to address the historical reputation that the earliest asylums have gained, presenting them as pioneering rather than retrograde, even in the face of failure.

An archaeology of lunacy

Managing madness in early nineteenth-century asylums


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