Lifting the lid on life inside a 19th century asylum

Lifting the lid on life inside a 19th century asylum

By Gareth Dennison | 12/06/2022

Lifting the lid on life inside a 19th century asylum


SERGEANT Horne of Rawmarsh visited the home of Thomas Bennett in 1864 after the police had received reports of concern.

The resident’s daughter, Mary Ann, was found at the Parkgate property in an emaciated state with signs of violence on her body.

The girl was uncommunicative, so magistrates were tasked with investigating her alleged mistreatment. It was said that she had been a victim of such treatment for much of her life.

Physicians Bernard Walker and Junius Hardwicke disagreed on both the extent and cause of Mary Ann’s injuries.

And the hearing attracted large crowds, which the police struggled to contain.

The case was adjourned and the girl removed to Rotherham Workhouse. When proceedings resumed, the court heard that Mary Ann had benefited from being inside a place of safety.

There were hopes that she might recover and lead the life of a “normal” adult. The court regarded her as “weak in intellect although not altogether a lunatic.”

Her parents were arraigned for cruelty. Her father was found not guilty but her stepmother was sentenced to six months’ hard labour. Thomas paid 7s a week for his daughter’s upkeep in the workhouse.

Mary Ann was still resident there 12 years later when she was found guilty of deliberately scalding a young boy. She was given two years’ hard labour.

She was sent to the West Riding Asylum at Wakefield, where the Rotherham Guardians paid her maintenance. Later, Mary Ann was transferred to the Wadsley Asylum at Sheffield.

She died there in 1899. The cause of her original affliction was recorded as “cruel treatment in early life”.

The sad story of Mary Ann — which made national headlines — serves as an example of how mental health-related cases were viewed and dealt with differently in the 19th century.

Local historian Peter Feek said: “Today we group many psychiatric, behavioural, physical and social issues under the term mental health issues.

“This was not the case in Victorian England, when lunacy was the catch-all term for many issues that were not understood at the time.

“Like many other aspects of that society those deemed to be suffering from lunacy were treated differently according to class and wealth.

“The treatment of mental health issues were not at the forefront of the authorities in Victorian England.

“Indeed, the poorer members of society who were incarcerated in asylums were referred to as lunatics.”

The West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum had been opened in Wakefield, in 1818. It was soon realised that the capacity of 150 was inadequate.

It was eventually expanded to provide a home for 2,000 patients, by which time it was known as Stanley Royd Hospital.

“The lack of capacity of workhouses and asylums remained a problem throughout the Victorian period,” said Peter.

“Admission to the asylum was via the Overseers of the Poor. This was the body tasked with administering the Poor Law.

“These guardians would provide medical evidence of individuals to a Justice of the Peace, who would issue a reception order, which, today we would call a section.

“If there was no accommodation, those who were deemed lunatic were either incarcerated in prison or had to be accommodated in the workhouse.

“The government recognised a growing national concern with the issue and legislated with the Lunacy Act of 1845 which brought asylums under regulation.

“The people responsible for enforcement were known by the wonderful title of Commissioners in Lunacy!

“They made an early visit to Rotherham Workhouse in 1846, when Dr Pritchard and Mr Campbell were satisfied that all the insane paupers were ‘in a tranquil and comfortable state’.”

In Rotherham, the responsibility for those declared lunatics lay with the Board of Guardians, who were in charge of the workhouse.

In 1841, the workhouse had 135 pauper inmates, although the reasons for admission were not recorded at the time. Thirty years on, categories like “imbecile” and “idiot” were being used.

The guardians also were responsible for funding Rotherham residents who were in other asylums.

In May 1860, Rotherham’s chief medical officer Dr Shearman gave a lecture on the influence of civilisation on health.

He said that great and prolonged excitements — whether on political, religious or commercial affairs — often led to imbecility. Mental health problems were an offspring of “high civilisation”.

“Ann McCann might have added emotional to Dr Shearman’s list of affairs,” said Peter (below).

“She was an Irish widow living on Westgate, with two children still in Ireland, who in the aftermath of the Great Famine, had come to Rotherham and sought work at the flax mill.

“She had taken up with Bernard Courtney from Longford, an iron worker at Parkgate. Believing her pregnant, he had left the town, leaving her distraught. So disturbed was she that she took chloride of zinc and died a painful death.

“The inquest jury, chaired by Thomas Badger, returned a verdict of suicide due to temporary insanity, which tended to be the verdict in suicide when matters of the heart were concerned.

“Incidentally, Bernard Courtney returned to Masbrough, where he lived in Orchard Square and married another widow, Ann Burns. True to form, he abandoned her in 1866.”

Not everyone with lunacy issues went to the workhouse.

The Sheffield Independent reported the 1831 death at Kimberworth of John Lunn, who had reportedly been in a state of lunacy for 40 years.

Other cases provoked excitement in the community. Benson Lowe, who had been certified, fled from his Charles Street home at Thornhill in 1887 to avoid union officials. He was chased by them and police officers for three hours before being cornered and conveyed by cab to the workhouse.

Pressure on space at Wadsley Asylum continued to increase throughout the era.

Many of the people sent there from Rotherham were suffering from epilepsy. Sara Ann Lloyd’s diagnoses was that she had been “frightened by a policeman” — fortunately, she recovered.

Rotherham’s workhouse and the asylums at Wakefield and Sheffield were for paupers and working people.

For better off members of society there was Thundercliffe Grange, near Kimberworth, which had been vacated by the Earl of Effingham when he and the family decamped to Oxfordshire in about 1858.f

It had been leased out to brewer Thomas Marriam, then barrister John Edward Barker, who was a friend of the anti-slavery campaigner, Mary Ann Rawson, of Wincobank Hall.

In 1871, a Sri Lanka-born doctor, James Atkinson, applied for and gained a licence to use Thundercliffe for the reception of 12 female lunatics. This capacity was increased to 20 in 1877.

“By that time, the licence was held by his wife Charlotte as her husband appears to have been not in the best of health,” said Peter.

“Like the public institutions, it was subjected to regulation and inspection.

“A visit in 1878 by Commissioners in Lunacy, Charles Phillips and John D Cleaton identified a problem with understaffing and a lack of ventilation. They observed that one patient suffered delusions of satanic visitations.

“It was clear what the target audience was in an advert in the Yorkshire Post in 1883. It said: ‘A few vacancies for first class ladies mentally conflicted: every home comfort. Apply to the Medical Proprietor, The Grange, Rotherham.’

“It was evident that first class meant rich. When Maria Gamble of Sheffield died at the Grange she left over £2 million, at today’s valuation!”

Peter added: “Religious mania was cited as the reason for the admittance of Matilda Ann Wright, daughter of John Wigfall of Glossop Road, Sheffield.

“What was unusual was that she was committed by Dr John Balbirne after being interviewed in the waiting room of Grange station!”

A similar diagnosis was given for Emma Burtonshaw, the wife of a solicitor from Lincolnshire. She believed herself to be surrounded by profane men who were trying to destroy her soul.

Henrietta Bould, of Dewsbury, believed that she was the daughter of Jesus Christ.

Mary Leylands, of Kettlewell, felt electricity in her hair and maggots in her brain.

Fanny Fox was constantly troubled by the conduct of the lower classes of society.

Mary SW Grabb, born in India, spent almost all her adult life in the Grange. She died in 1942, aged 72, having been there since she was 19, when her diagnosis was acute dementia.

Illness forced the Atkinson family to take on a partner for the Grange business, local physician Crotchley Clapham.

After they died, Clapham established a partnership with Gilbert Edward Mould, whose family had strong experience in the sector.

He was a consultant with both Rotherham and Sheffield hospitals and published works on mental health. His father had been superintendent of Manchester’s Royal Lunatic asylum, while both his brother and brother-in-law ran similar institutions.

Peter said: “It is hoped that they were more enlightening than Crotchley Clapham, whose work on brain size led him to claim that Roman Catholics had bigger brains than Protestants!

“Mould ran the asylum until his death in 1946. He was a mason and was a great participant in field sports riding with the Fitzwilliam Hunt.

“He married twice. Locally, it was said that the first was for money, a Newton Chambers daughter, and second for status. Unfortunately, that did not last but that’s entirely another story.

“And King Karma of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), following an audience with Queen Victoria in 1895, visited the Grange to meet Crotchley Clapham, whose brother worked in Bechuanaland.”



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