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Gaslight Stories: The Early Days of Broadmoor

In 1863, England's first criminal lunatic asylum received its inmates

This summer marks the 150th anniversary of England’s first specialist facility for criminal lunatics. Before 1863, the criminally insane had been incarcerated alongside the mentally ill who had never committed any illegal act, or were kept within the specialist ward of Royal Bethlehem Hospital (‘Bedlam’) in increasingly unsuitable accommodation.

Broadmoor had been a highly controversial innovation – not so much for the nature of its intended inmates but because it was to be a huge, expensive, centralised-state-run institution, whose control lay with the nation’s Home Secretary, to the exclusion of any locally based administrators. Early documentation often refers to Broadmoor simply as ‘the State asylum’. It was only at the Home Secretary’s discretion that the Commissioners in Lunacy (who inspected conditions at all of England’s asylums) were allowed to visit and examine how patients were lodged and treated at Broadmoor. They were permitted no say in admissions and discharges.

The site of Broadmoor had been selected for its magnificent views, with fresh air sweeping across the Berkshire heathland, through a pine forest and up on to the ridge where the magnificent Romanesque buildings were constructed. It was easily accessible from London, yet secluded enough not to terrify any townsfolk in the event of an escape.

The quality of the building was very high indeed, and both budget and completion deadline came under pressure. In fact, the male wing was running very late when the Commissioners in Lunacy arrived one November morning in 1863, for their very first examination of the new facility; and so it was solely the female quarters that they visited.

Broadmoor had been built to house 100 women and 400 men. In England at that time, there were around 900 people deemed to be criminal lunatics, of whom three-quarters were male. The female accommodation at Broadmoor was close to full when the Commissioners visited, and of these 100 women, one-third were murderesses, of whom 12 had killed their own children. At trial, the majority of these female child-killers had been acquitted on the grounds of insanity: almost without exception they had been deemed to be suffering from post-natal psychosis (or ‘puerperal mania’, as it was termed then). They were then ordered to be detained ‘at Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ – criminal lunatics also colloquially being known in the penal system as ‘Pleasure Men’, or ‘Pleasure Women’.

Eleven of the 100 women at Broadmoor that summer had been acquitted during trials for manslaughter, attempted murder or malicious wounding. One half of the remaining women, though, had become insane while serving a prison sentence, having been considered sane at the time of their trial and conviction.

The Commissioners were used to witnessing poor conditions at Bedlam, at its overspill asylum Fisherton House, in Wiltshire, and also at the large county asylums where criminal lunatics had sometimes ended up for want of more appropriate accommodation. But they described the female wing at Broadmoor, in their first official report, as ‘comfortable’ and even ‘cheerful’. Many of the women were quietly bent over their needlework; others were working in the laundry. All with whom the Commissioners made conversation were described as ‘intelligent’ and answered the questions that were put to them in a rational manner. All told the Commissioners how much better the conditions were in comparison to the asylums they had come from (one had in fact come straight from gaol, the notorious Millbank Penitentiary, on the banks of the Thames). The food was spoken of approvingly, for its quality and quantity. The Commissioners were themselves particularly impressed by the brand-new birch-wood bedsteads, feather-down pillows and horsehair mattresses; their reports on workhouse lunatic wards and some of the less reputable private asylums had noted appalling bedding – even occasionally urine-soaked linen and straw being used instead of a mattress.

Two ‘noisy’ and fractious women were the only cause for alarm – and the Commissioners, for reasons they did not go into, made up their minds that these inmates were ‘shamming’. One of the worries when the creation of Broadmoor had been announced was that perfectly ordinary villains in gaol would begin to feign insanity in order to take advantage of Broadmoor’s likely luxury. The notion of prisoners acting mad was often at the back of the judicial mind.

Four months later, the Commissioners returned. By now 200 males were in situ, although their separate accommodation blocks were still not entirely completed. These male inmates also told the inspectors how much better Broadmoor was in comparison to their previous places of detention.

While the women were kept busy with sewing and laundry work, the males had a greater range of occupations: Broadmoor had its own market garden, a small farm, and workshops for tin-working, carpentry, footwear manufacture and tailoring, and in the latter two, much of the asylum’s clothing and shoes were made.

But the good impressions upon the minds of the Commissioners stopped as soon as they came to the ‘strong block’, on the northern side of the complex. This specialist, separate unit for the most aggressive and violent of the lunatics did not meet the inspectors’ expectations. Damp had already set in, and the outside courtyard area was in deep gloom, as a result of its northerly aspect and of the extra-high walls required to contain the hopeless homicidal ‘maniacs’ within.

The Commissioners were also very disappointed that these men were permitted no access to any occupation, and in their report they made a special plea to the Home Secretary that even the most dangerous and seemingly incurable madman should have access to some form of work or pastime, for these were ‘likely to soothe their mental irritation and act to calm them’. It is likely the governor and his staff found this view naive in the extreme – any implement whatsoever could be fashioned by these uncontrollable killers into a weapon. Even their food was pre-cut before serving so that they could eat using only a spoon – deemed to be the least potentially lethal item of cutlery.

It was just this huge level of security that helped to make Broadmoor the expensive facility it was: it cost two and a half times as much money to board a patient there as in a county asylum. The staff were indeed in danger of attack, and in the first decades, almost every superintendent suffered an assault of some kind by an inmate – sometimes with serious injury resulting.

A year after the Commissioners’ visit to the male wards, The Times newspaper ran an anonymous report of a visit to Broadmoor, at which the observer reported, ‘Here one may occasionally see a female croquet party on the lawn, the players in which have been guilty in the aggregate of some 30 murders; or, on the men’s side, playing at bagatelle, a little group with each of whose crimes all England at one time rang.’

Again, it was the male ‘strong block’ that evoked the most powerful emotions – fear, wonder, despair – in the onlooker. ‘G’, wrote the reporter, was ‘the most dangerous of all at Broadmoor... and can gain over his associates to do his will and keep it secret till it is done. He is here for most cruel murders.’ ‘F’, meanwhile, was ‘red-haired, tall, lithe and powerful, with a quick bow and a fawning smile. . . Neither warder nor doctor would ever turn their backs on him. . . He will kill or try to strangle and kill any whom he can surprise unawares.’

The reference to croquet and bagatelle highlights the types of recreation that were made available to most of the patients (the worst-behaved women and the ‘strong block’ males did not take part). Around one-third of the males turned up for the regular theatricals and concerts that were put on; the females attended fortnightly dances and brass band recitals, and the weekly singing club was said to be particularly looked forward to by the women. The males had access to a well-stocked library; they were for the most part literate, whereas only one in three of the women were said to be capable of both reading and writing.

The two genders were never permitted to meet, except at the Chapel services, at which around 65 men and 30 women were present on a regular basis.

In case all the above sounds too much of a success story, it does have to be pointed out that, in addition to the attacks on staff already noted, in the first four years there were a number of suicides among Broadmoor’s inmates. A typhoid outbreak killed several more, and the Commissioners in Lunacy continued to deplore known cases at the criminal lunatic asylum of the use of the straitjacket and manacles.

But generally, the Commissioners continued to believe that conditions at Broadmoor represented a huge advance – perhaps too big an advance. The chairman of the Commissioners, Lord Shaftesbury, told the 1877 Select Committee on Lunacy Law that Broadmoor had become so attractive, and was located in such ‘a beautiful situation’, that most men languishing in gaol on a long sentence would consider five years spent there would be no hardship. In addition to the likelihood of ‘shamming’, as already noted, Shaftesbury worried that Broadmoor could act as an inducement to violence in jails and asylums.

Shaftesbury pointed to the loss of one of his own colleagues, Commissioner Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, as a warning of this phenomenon. Long-term Fisherton House patient William McKave had been agitating for a transfer to Broadmoor. William Corbin Finch, proprietor of Fisherton House, later said, ‘I have heard him repeatedly ask the Commissioners for his liberty, and heard him express a wish to be removed to Broadmoor. [But] He was not considered to be a dangerous lunatic, although he was in the habit of threatening.’

On 21 May 1873 Commissioners James Wilkes and Lutwidge came to inspect Fisherton House. In Ward 17, McKave was pretending to be asleep but lunged at Lutwidge, striking him in the head, driving a nail into his skull. Lutwidge died five days later.

Lutwidge was the much-beloved uncle of Lewis Carroll, and Carroll’s notoriously obscure poem, ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, has been decoded by academics Judy Miller and E Fuller Torrey as a reaction to this huge bereavement; they also spot that it contains pen portraits of the various members of the Lunacy Commission.

Shaftesbury believed that his own worst fears had been realised – that McKave had in fact been rewarded for this killing, by being sent to Broadmoor, ‘where he enjoyed the fruits of his violence’.

© Sarah Wise 2013

Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in Englandby Sarah Wise Counterpoint
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Report of the Commissioners in Lunacy on the Present Condition of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum and of its Inmates, 1864

Copy of the Eighteenth Report of the Commissioners in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor, 1864

Copy of the Nineteenth Report of the Commissioners in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor, 1865

The Times, 13 January 1865, ‘A Visit to the Criminal Lunatic Asylum’

Report from the Select Committee on Lunacy Law, 1877, p536 and p550

Judy Miller and E Fuller Torrey, ‘The Capture of the Snark’, The Richmond Review, 2001