Saturday, 1 September 2012


Despite having put all projects on hold for a few weeks, I thought it might be good to post the introdution to my Three Women in Asylum book.  In fairness, it was written while waiting for my train home.

Also, as the book will be dedicated to Isabella, a girl from the late Victorian Era who helped guide me back to Borthwick, I've posted the photo of 'The Dreamers' who I'm writing about for the fiction anthology.


 As an archaeologist and children’s author, it may seem strange that I’ve decided to write a book on women in asylum in the Victorian Era.  Stranger still when my archaeological focus has always been early Medieval.  Having excavated with several rescue archaeology teams, I had occasionally come across Victorian archaeology – it couldn’t be missed although it was almost always taken for granted and discarded.  The answer is very simple.  When I was a MA student in York, my class was led to the Bothwick Institute to look at medieval city plans.  They were truly amazing, but what caught my eye the most and what lodged deep into my psyche, were the photographs on the wall.  At the time, Borthwick was located on the premises of what used to be Clifton Hospital – the North Riding Mental Asylum.  The photos were on inmates, women who were deemed to be insane. 

            I knew a little of what Victorian asylums were like – they had a reputation, along with prisons, as being places of unrest.  Suicides were common and recovery rare (or so I thought at the time).  Women who were postnatal depressive, who were mourning the loss of a young child, who may have miscarried, were almost always sent to an asylum.  Not a very healthy way to grieve.  Not only this, but these women were lumped in with maniacal and suicidal dangerous women; those with lunacy in the family.  Melancholia seemed to be the number one problem with women in asylum, followed closely by ‘mania’.  With so many mental illnesses clumped together, it was hardly a recipe for recovery.

            I wondered then, and for over a decade afterwards, what had happened to these women; what was their confinement in an asylum like, and were they ever released?  It wasn’t until I was writing for a fiction anthology based on a Victorian portrait of a young woman who looked pregnant that I was finally tempted to research the Clifton Hospital records.  Writing for the anthology brought back those eyes, staring at me through their protective glass.  Young unwed women of pauper backgrounds like the one in the photograph I was writing about were often sent to the asylum and the babies whisked away to orphanage or workhouse.

            And so, halfway finished with a fictional short story, I ended up booking a train to York.  The Borthwick Institute had relocated since I’d been.  At the time of writing, it was located at the main university’s campus library. The photos I’d seen before, now packed away; only one lonely image of a Clifton Hospital patient remained, pinned to the notice board, watching me research.  I enjoyed the moral support. 

            I started with the female photograph album and then moved onto Female Patient Admissions, then to Female Case Studies.  Each tome offered thousands of names, their origins, their history and family, sometimes their address.  One thing was certain, by the time I’d read through their case, I felt like I knew them.  On my first day of research, I kept reading entries of women who’d spent a lifetime in asylum.  Their reports went much the same, about four entries per year from Dr Nicolson, who I also felt an affinity for (I was saddened to learn that he’d spent years in the same role, only to become an alcoholic and dismissed from service because it was discovered he’d married and had a family outside the hospital; something that was against the rules).  When I’d read the final entry, ‘patient died in the presence of the ward nurse,’ I’d often feel like crying.  My second day of research yielded much happier results as most of the women I’d read about ended up ‘cured’ and discharged.  There were so many women, youngest having been 16 and many up to their 60’s.  One woman was so bereaved when her doctor husband died, she was suicidal and distraught.  She’d constantly told Dr Nicolson how she and her husband ‘were ruined’ and how she was ‘lost’.  Finally, two of her good friends wrote to the commission and requested her release.  There were no more notes, but I hoped that they were looking after her well.  Of her adult children, there was no mention.

            So how did I get to just three case studies?  As I said above, there were thousands of entries in the handful of years I wanted to focus on.  1889 was the date I was primarily after, as the photo book with the patients’ images was set to that date.  I first looked through the photos, picked out about five and then started hunting for their records.  Of those, three had such telltale signs of postnatal depression, broken heart and bereavement that I felt those were the women I should focus on.  It was difficult not to be swept up in every story and I would strongly urge anyone interested to spend just a day reading up on these women at Borthwick.

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