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Duration 53:21

Broadmoor revealed: The Victorian asylum

Broadmoor Hospital opened in 1863 and has always admitted patients who would otherwise have been in the prison system. Mark Stevens discovers some of the patients’ stories, and takes a journey behind the walls of Victorian Broadmoor, England’s first Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

Image courtesy of the Berkshire Record Office. The Berkshire Record Office website has more information.


Thank you very much. (Can you hear me, first of all? Yes, ok excellent. Right, ok, yes, my name is Mark Stevens and I work at the Berkshire Record Office and one of the collections that I look after is the historic archives of Broadmoor Hospital. Now in Berkshire, that’s part of the Victorian landscape that is still very much with us today. And I’m going to talk for pretty much the full hour and after that I gather we have ten minutes when if you have any questions in this room you’re welcome to ask them of me, but if not and we need to get out at ten minutes past three, I will hang around outside if people then want to come and ask me questions direct.)

Well I mean in terms of Broadmoor, although as you might expect, a lot of the collections actually have restrictions for access placed upon them. Most of the Victorian archive is now available for research in the Berkshire Record Office based in Reading. And this talk is going to use some of the stories, from those bits of the Broadmoor archive that are open, to give you a sense of what the place was like over one hundred years ago.

Well, since its opening, Broadmoor has become one of the best known places in the Royal County of Berkshire. It has a nationally recognised name or reputation, if you prefer, as the place that you go to if you are both mad and bad. What it does and indeed what it has always done is it provides special psychiatric care for patients who would otherwise be in the prison system. Now today it’s just another part of the NHS, but it began life as something unique and entirely separate from the rest of Victorian society. It housed patients who would have otherwise have suffered hard labour or even been hanged for their crimes. Instead, they were offered refuge within the walls of a modern, purpose built lunatic asylum and it is this community of refugees from Victorian society that is at the heart of the Broadmoor story.

Well Broadmoor’s genesis can be traced back to a mad monarch and an even madder gentleman called James Hadfield. The ‘mad monarch’, George III, went out on the evening of Thursday the 15th of May 1800 to the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane to watch a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. But that evening, as the King strode into the theatre during the National Anthem and then bowed before the assembled audience, James Hadfield jumped onto one of the theatre seats, drew a pistol and fired two shots at the Royal Box. Well there was, as you might imagine, a bit of a commotion at that point and Hadfield was restrained at once; in fact he was bundled over the orchestra pit and sat upon. But on closer inspection however, the King appeared to be unharmed and also Hadfield appeared to bear no animosity towards him. In fact, Hadfield was very fond of the King, however Hadfield also believed that the second coming was nigh and that to bring it about he had been ordained to die at the hands of the State. So he therefore reasoned, not unreasonably, that shooting at the King would bring about his desired outcome.

Now, Hadfield was an ex-soldier, he was tried for high treason but he was clearly mad so he was acquitted on the grounds of insanity. And this verdict was well established at the time but the law really meant it for those who were described as either brutes or infants and the usual result of it was the release of the accused to their family or to some charitable body to be looked after. But Hadfield didn’t fit the definition; he was neither brute nor infant. He was married, he was in regular employment, he was a father but he was also very dangerous and if he was released he might well shoot at the King again. So Hadfield’s case had a political dimension which required some satisfaction by the lawyers and the Lord Chief Justice declared that for his own sake and that of society at large, Hadfield should not be released, ever. And a subsequent act of parliament confirmed his new status as a criminal lunatic. A new sentence was also applied to him: he was to be detained until His Majesty’s pleasure be known ie indefinitely. And then it was that sentence that would henceforth be applied to all those defendants who were found ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ no matter how serious or trivial their crime.

Well Hadfield died in 1841 but with that new sentence there came more of his kind; their came other patients to join him at His Majesty’s pleasure and patients of course, for whom secure accommodation was required. In 1816 the first such special accommodation was provided at Bethlem Hospital in London where two new wings were built to house these state criminal lunatics. But by 1856 both Bethlem and other buildings in Salisbury were full and so the decision was taken to build a dedicated special hospital and in 1860 the Criminal Lunatic Asylums Act, otherwise known as ‘the Broadmoor Act’, was passed.

Now the site at Crowthorne was chosen for being reasonably isolated yet also within accessible distance from London. Crowthorne was a small village at the time, on the London and South East Railway and Broadmoor itself was perched high up on a ridge amongst the pines of Bracknell Forest commanding a magnificent and suitably healthy view across the countryside below. And the original gatehouse, which is shown here on the slide, was one of the first buildings of Broadmoor to be completed. So this formed the original, the entrance to the original hub of the asylum. Behind that you had waiting rooms, you had the offices for the senior staff, you had the chapel and also the central hall that was like a large meeting place for entertainments and recreation. And so this, the gatehouse, with its distinctive twin towers, was a Victorian patient’s first view of the new asylum.

Now there are two blocks that join onto that, one on either side and they were actually designed for the male patients and it would be the male patients who would enjoy the bulk of the site. But these weren’t actually finished first; it was the separate block housing the female wing that was first completed. This was a smaller wing although it was on the same site. It had its own grounds but it was physically separated from the male compound by its own surrounding wall and by Wednesday the 27th of May 1863, enough of that was completed to begin admitting patients to the new criminal lunatic asylum. So on that day in May, eight female patients were transferred from Bethlem. The grandly titled Broadmoor Omnibus, which was the coach that served as the asylum’s transport, together with two smaller coaches, waited at Wokingham station for the half 12 train from Waterloo. When the train arrived, the eight women and their accompanying paperwork were loaded into the coaches and then driven the five miles to Broadmoor. There they were processed and their details neatly recorded in the first admissions register.

So who were these women? Well one was a petty thief, another had stabbed her husband while out poaching, but the other six had all killed or wounded their own children, either strangling them, drowning them or cutting their throats with a razor and it’s one of this last group who was the first patient to be listed in the asylum’s admissions register. Her name was Mary Ann Parr, she was about 35 years of age and she was a labourer from Nottingham. Now she had lived in poverty all her life and had what we now would consider to be learning disabilities. When she was 25 years old she had given birth to an illegitimate child and then suffocated it against her breast. She had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death but her sentence was commuted, first to transportation and then, after a medical examination, to detention at what was now ‘Her’ Majesty’s pleasure in Bethlem. And when Mary arrived in Broadmoor, as with every patient, her details were recorded from the forms that accompanied her and then she underwent a medical examination and an interview with one of the doctors. Subsequently, her notes were written up into a large case book and added to over the years. And here’s how the doctors summarised her case when she was first admitted: they described her as ‘a woman of weak intellect; complains of pains in the forehead; short stature; cataract of the left and right eyes, can see a little with the left eye only; teeth irregular and notched; a very irritable temper’.

Now Mary Ann Parr would have been offered no treatment as such because there were no drug therapies available for the mentally ill during Victorian times, no psychiatric analysis. Her treatment would have consisted of a regular daily routine of exercise and occupation and for her that meant working in the laundry; regular meals of fairly bland food and plenty of fresh air. And she was also given relief from her poor and harsh surroundings; she had a roof over her head and she did not have to worry about food or money. So by giving her refuge in the asylum, the Victorians believed that they would also remove her from the causes of insanity in her day to day life. And she experienced that treatment regime for the next 37 years until she died in 1900, aged 71, from kidney disease.
Well, by the beginning of 1864, the first male blocks were ready for occupation and the trains from Bethlem began arriving again on the 27th of February that year. By the end of that year there were two hundred men and one hundred women in the asylum and I’ve got some figures here from the annual report of that year to give you a flavour of the social mix within the walls. So around a quarter of the men and 40% of the women were murderers, many others had attempted to kill. Otherwise the average patient had probably been caught stealing or, if he was male, setting fire to something. There were sex offenders too, including paedophiles and those who had committed bestial acts. And then finally, a relatively few patients were also detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure on what appear to be more trivial matters, such as vagrancy or sending threatening letters.

Most of the men had been labourers or tradesmen in their previous lives, although around 10% had served in the forces. Amongst others, there was also one pianoforte maker, five farmers, three sweeps, one watch maker and also one artist, of whom more later. Around two thirds of the men were married although fewer than half the women were. Most of the men could read and write but only a third of the women could. And the causes of insanity assigned to the patients included various moral circumstances such as intemperance and vice, religious excitement, being unlucky in love, anxiety and poverty. Most causes of insanity though, were assigned to physical conditions, even if these were not fully understood, such as fever, head injuries and childbirth. And although the popular conception is that Broadmoor was a house of madmen, in reality around a third of the patients at any one time were well enough either to be employed in the asylum or its farm.

Now the asylum was a microcosm of Victorian society; so as such, it took in people not only from all walks of life, with all levels of education but also across virtually the entire age range. Now since most of the female patients had killed or harmed their children, it’s probably not going to surprise you to learn that the average woman in Broadmoor had probably been of childbearing age when she was admitted. There were some older women and there were younger singletons but they all tended to be of modern working age.

For the men, however, who had been charged with a broader range of crimes, the age range was also considerably wider. So I have found a number of men who were admitted when they were in their seventies. Some of them had committed violent crimes, others were thieves or forgers. And the oldest Victorian admission I have found to date is a gentleman called George Pursall who was 78 years and 297 days old when he was admitted in March 1888. Now George had lived peacefully with his wife, Harriet for 60 years in Worcestershire, where he worked as a nail maker and together they raised the grand total of 12 children. And one day in January 1888 George awakened early whilst it was still dark, he’d taken an iron bar from his workshop and then battered Harriet to death as she slept. He was ill when he arrived in the asylum and he was immediately placed in the infirmary ward. He was a shrunken old man. He was only four foot eleven high, he was bald on top apart from a whiskery crown of white hair and he died at Broadmoor a little under two years later.

At the other end of the spectrum it is not uncommon to find teenage men entering the asylum. A very few were under sixteen. There’s one 13 year old who killed his mother, there’s an 11 year old who set fire to some farm buildings and there’s a 12 year old who stabbed a young lady who asked him why he was crying. But none of these is Broadmoor’s youngest patient. That very dubious honour falls to William Giles who went to Broadmoor in 1885 at the age of ten. Now Giles’ case is still closed because he then spent an incredible seventy-seven years in the hospital’s care, dying there aged eighty-seven in 1962. So as such there isn’t much I can tell you about his case. But I can tell you that he was an arsonist and also, in terms of Berkshire, he was a local boy. He set fire to three ricks, one of oats, one of straw and one of barley in a field near Marlow in Buckinghamshire just the other side of the Thames. He had severe learning disabilities and also suffered from epilepsy. He was considered unfit to enter a plea at trial but also at high risk of re-offending and so he went to Broadmoor by default, grew up there, spent the whole of his working life there and then died there a pensioner.

So what was life like in the blocks for patients such as William Giles and George Pursall? Well each block was quite separate and there was a division between them. On the female side there was a simple divide with three wards in one large block. There was one ward for the more dangerous patients, one ward for those who were a low risk and one for those who were in between; a further block was added later. On the male side you have the same system, but there were six blocks in total. Now blocks one and six were the ‘back blocks’ and these were for dangerous and violent patients. The men here had their own separate airing courts bricked in and hidden from the rest of the site. And the name ‘back blocks’ comes from there position which was on the gatehouse side of Broadmoor and away from the beautiful views across the countryside from the terrace. These blocks contrasted with those nearest to the asylum grounds which were blocks two and five. And patients in these blocks were lower risk and enjoyed ready access to the terrace. And block two in particular was known as the privilege block and this was where patients had the most freedom to plan their day. Their insanity did not affect their daily lives. They could be trusted to spend their time fruitfully at work, in their rooms, in the communal rooms in the block or on the terrace. And block two was where V.I.Ps and the press were brought in if a bit of Victorian PR work was required. Block three housed the infirmary and block four was the admissions ward. And both these blocks also housed male patients who did not fit into the categories of being either dangerous or trustworthy. And those two were the biggest blocks and they housed one hundred patients each. And they also had the most communal dormitories in the site, because increasingly the majority of patients had a single room to themselves. This was twelve foot long by eight foot wide with a single bed or a mattress only in the back blocks and the linen on the bed was changed twice a week. They were allowed personal possessions if it was safe to have them and that would vary from block to block and from patient to patient. Cuff links might be considered to be ok in one part of the hospital but considered to be a weapon in another. The patients’ day began at 6am, or 7 in the winter, when the day shift attendants came on duty and it ended at 7 o’clock at night when the night shift came on. In between those who could work would work. The women as seamstresses or in the laundry, the men as tailors, shoemakers, upholsterers, tin smiths or carpenters or on the asylum farm, because Victorian Broadmoor was a largely a self-sufficient community.

Now a patient’s life could be cold and dark. At first there was no heating in the bedrooms; there was only open fires and hot air grates in the day-rooms. Central heating was slowly introduced to the blocks from 1884, first through solid fuel and then by gas. Similarly oil and gas lamps were used for lighting the communal rooms and the corridors until the end of the 19th century, but there was no artificial lighting in the patients’ bedrooms. Patients changed their clothes at least twice a week, were washed daily and bathed once a week in the block’s bathroom, always under the careful eye of an attendant. And the male patients were also shaved by an attendant when another attendant was always nearby to keep a close eye on proceedings. Patients were fed four times a day. Again they were fed in their block, as each block had a dining room for its own use. Every item of cutlery was counted out by one of the attendants before a meal and then counted back again at the end. For breakfast every day patients had tea and bread and butter, lunch was bread and cheese, then in the early evening the meal would be mutton, beef or pork with vegetables if in season, or otherwise potatoes, followed by a steamed pudding and three-quarters of a pint of beer was given with the evening meal. Lastly a further helping of bread and butter with tea was offered for supper.

So as you are already getting to start to feel, the hospital was quite different then to the way it is now. Broadmoor’s early years were a learning experience for the asylum staff too. Under the direction of Medical Superintendent Doctor John Mayo was a very small medical team; there were only two other doctors, assisted by a matron, with a much larger number of male and female attendants. And these attendants were effectively the nursing staff, although many of them had no previous medical background, and the male attendants in particular were often retired soldiers or from the prison service. And altogether during the Victorian period you can estimate there were roughly at any one time, about one hundred staff working in the asylum. And this photograph is of the male staff around 1885. I think this is the retirement photo for the gentleman in the middle of the front row who is Dr. William Orange who was the second medical superintendent. Sitting to his right, is his deputy at the time, who is called David Nicholson, who would succeed Orange after Orange retired. You may also be able to make out the gentleman four in from the left with the dog collar who is Thomas Ashe, who was the Chaplain at the time. This very rotund gentleman here is Charles Phelps who was the Steward. He was in charge of the estate management, building maintenance, that sort of thing. And then in the middle of the middle row, the gentleman with the peaked cap was Samuel Rawson who was the head male attendant. I don’t know where the female staff were, I don’t know whether they were running the male side at the same time as this photograph was taken.

Now it could be a risky job, working in the asylum, as you might imagine. All the Victorian superintendents, including Orange, were attacked at least once and many of the staff were too. Now the first attack on a superintendent was in March 1866 in the asylum chapel. On that day, an unpredictable patient called John Hughes, insisted on sitting on the front row close to John Mayo, Broadmoor’s first leader. Mayo’s journal then describes what happens next, and he writes: ‘a somewhat serious attack was made upon me in the chapel during morning service. John Hughes, a patient not hitherto known to be at any time dangerous to others, had placed himself on the bench in front of the fixed seats in the centre of the chapel. As the service was drawing to a close, Hughes sprang up with a whoop, rushed towards my pew and struck at me with a stone, weighing 14 ounces, in a handkerchief. The attendant reached the pew with Hughes and threw his arms around him in that manner, breaking the violence of the blow. I was kneeling but raised my head and received the blow just over the left temple. It is a mercy that I am here to write this account if the occurrence’. And this was very much the Broadmoor weapon of choice when tackling authority, a heavy object in a sling; it’s very David and Goliath. And as I said earlier, both Orange and indeed Nicholson suffered similar attacks in their time. Mayo was badly injured and he sent months recovering. Hughes was moved to solitary confinement. He said that Mayo had accused him of murdering the Queen of Heaven and that he wished to avenge this insult.

So you may also not be surprised to hear that staff turn-over was quite high to begin with. It approached 50% annually during the 1860’s. And most staff who left resigned of their own accord, particularly female attendants when they left to get married. But staff discipline was also a serious problem, with the number of dismissals a year often in double figures. And a glance through the annual reports lists some of the reasons why staff were dismissed. And these included, dishonesty, incompetence, drunkenness, sleeping on night duty, using abusive language and letting patients escape. And there were a number of attempted escapes in the early years. In fact there were 26 in total between 1863 and 1873. Now rarely of course, did an attendant connive with an escape. The escapes could mostly be put down to either the boundary wall being inadequate, or the bars on the windows being defective. Work was undertaken to improve both those things and the escape rate tapered off.

And I am going to give you now one of my favourite escapes of the Victorian period, which belongs to a gentleman called Richard Walker and he tried to get away no fewer than three times during 1865. Well on this particular attempt in spring 1865, Walker waited until after lights out one evening and then he took his bedstead, he upended it and he placed it under the window in his single room. He climbed up the slats of the bedstead and used the stone he had hidden in his room to punch through one of the panes in the window glass. And he knew that now, if he passed his hand outside and round, he would be able to unscrew the retaining nut and boot in the centre of the window frame. So he did this, he drew the bolt back inside and then used that to hammer at the rest if the cast iron frame until he had broken enough of the bits of iron to make a man-sized hole. So the gap was just large enough for Walker to squeeze through and he dropped down the other side of the window and into the airing court. Now at the time, the internal walls dividing the different blocks were only six foot high, so Walker was able to stretch, grab the top of the wall with both hands and pull himself up. He walked along the top of that wall until he came to the join with the boundary wall. And then he was able to jump up from the one to the other and then the rather longer jump down the other side and to freedom.

Now he was outside the asylum. So he made for the asylum stables, took a horse and galloped away to Yateley, which was a village a couple of miles nearby. He knew that there was no peep hole in his bedroom door and so he would not be missed until dawn. It was an intricate and well considered plan. But despite his cunning, Walker had overlooked one crucial detail. He was dressed only in his nightshirt and was naked from the waist down. Now not one to be put off by such trivialities, Walker hailed the village postman and said he had been drinking all night in London, somehow had lost his clothes and missed the last train home; some breakfast and trousers were found for him. However, the postman was immediately suspicious of his new friend who had been behaving rather oddly. He discretely sent a colleague back to Crowthorne to just check to see if anybody was missing from Broadmoor. A search party was dispatched and Walker was back inside the asylum in time for lunch.

And like Walker most escapees were caught, but there are in fact three who were never seen again; their names are David Maclean, Alice Kay and William Bisgrove. And David Maclean and Alice Kay were both convict patients and the convict patients are distinct from what is known as the pleasure men and women, those who were detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. The convicts were serving a fixed term sentence in prison, during which they suffered an episode of mental illness and were then transferred to Broadmoor until either their sentence was up or they were well enough to go back to the gaol. And there was a hierarchy at the hospital and the pleasure men and women considered the convict class to be distinctly inferior to them. Well both David Maclean and Alice Kay were well into their sentences when they escaped and in the great scheme of Broadmoor escape attempts, it does look as though the efforts to recapture them were comparatively small scale. Most escapees did in fact turn up, like Walker, fairly soon after they had gone and when these two didn’t, only token efforts were made to find them. And indeed the authorities stopped looking for them altogether once their sentences had expired and they were just written off the books.

Well William Bisgrove was also a convict, but he was a killer too and he is in fact the only murderer in Broadmoor’s history to escape and never return. When he was nineteen and working in a coal mine near Wells in Somerset, he had come across a fellow worker asleep in a field and then smashed his head in with a stone. And he escaped by doing something broadly similar, in July 1873 when he was taking exercise in the asylum grounds with an attendant. After knocking the attendant unconscious with a stone and then trying to strangle him, Bisgrove made his way over the fields and into the woods surrounding the asylum. Now it’s possible he may not have lived much longer. Now he was a very distinctive looking man with black curly hair and beard, not to mention that he was wearing dark blue clothes with ‘Broadmoor’ tagged on them, and he was in fact spotted in Basingstoke later that day. One witness suggested that he had thrown himself into the Basingstoke canal but no body was ever found. So as a result, he did remain on the asylum’s wanted list and we know that the authorities were still looking for him at least as late as 1891, but his fate remains unknown.

However, the most famous escape in Broadmoor’s history belongs to a gentleman called James Kelly. Now Kelly was also a murderer who had killed his wife by stabbing her in the throat with a penknife. He had suspected that she was being unfaithful to him and so he attacked her one day in the house that they shared with his mother-in-law. And his is a typically sad Broadmoor story of someone who killed the person closest to them. His wife lingered for some days in hospital after the attack and although she gave the statement that convicted him, she had also forgiven him before she died. But in January 1888, Kelly escaped from the asylum using a false key that he had made with another patient. And this key got him out of his block and into the kitchen garden and from there he scaled the wall. And not only did he manage to scale the wall but like David Maclean, Alice Kay and William Bisgrove before him, he also disappeared. He had roots in both London and Liverpool but could be found in neither. Well years passed, the occasional letter arrived from other asylums or prisons saying that someone who fitted Kelly’s description had been brought in, but it was never him. Perhaps he was dead, but of course he was not dead. In eight years later in 1896 a man presented himself at the British Consul’s Residence in New Orleans and said that he was an escaped lunatic from Broadmoor and also that he wanted to go back please. Well contact was made with the asylum and an affidavit taken of the man’s history; he was called James Kelly, he had murdered his wife and he had escaped from Broadmoor in 1888. When the Consul staff were satisfied that they had their man, he was duly put on-board a ship to Liverpool to be arrested at the other end, and the date of the ship’s arrival was notified to Broadmoor and two attendants dispatched to pick up Kelly. Except that the ship arrived in Liverpool a day early and they weren’t there. So Kelly hung around for a while on the deck and at the port but eventually decided that if no one was coming for him he would make his own luck and he took off into Liverpool to vanish once more.

The 19th century gave rise to the 20th. Gas lighting came to Broadmoor, then central heating, the telephone, electricity. The Victorian age ended, the Edwardian era passed, then the First World War came and went. Those who knew Kelly at Broadmoor had retired or died so he too was written off the asylum books as another one that had got away. But if Broadmoor had given up on Kelly, he had not given up on it. One day in February 1927, nearly 40 years after he absconded, the old man presented himself back at the main gate of Broadmoor and said, ‘could he come back in please?’ Well, ‘who are you?’ was the immediate response, ‘you’re not one of ours’. So he was taken off to spend the night at Wokingham police station. And the next day, the Broadmoor staff sent out for a retired attendant who still lived nearby and he identified the man as Kelly. Well, Kelly had wandered the globe, he had carried on a trade as an upholsterer but he was now deaf and decrepit and unable to work. He saw no option but to return to Broadmoor and ask for food and shelter. And they let him back in. And he spent the last two years of his eventful life residing at His Majesty’s pleasure once again.

But Kelly has become a patient of greater note in the last ten years as he has been accused posthumously of being Jack the Ripper. Now this is based largely on circumstantial evidence that he had lived in the East End of London, he was a convicted murderer and a lunatic and was indeed at large during the Ripper killings. One or two authors have made much of the fact that the Metropolitan Police actually raided his mother-in-law’s house at the height of the killings and the suggestion is it’s unclear precisely why they decided to do so. However, that raid did coincide with a Home Office memo that survives on Kelly’s file and that asks ‘would it not be well to make enquiry as to what steps have been taken to recapture this man? It’s not likely he’s the Whitechapel murderer but his offence was cutting his wife’s throat and he escaped last January. It would be well to know what has become of him.’ Well certainly the Broadmoor staff were clear that Kelly was not the Ripper. They considered him a fairly depressive but stable character and they’d never seen any violence from him.

But he is not the only Broadmoor patient to have had this allegation levelled at him. The escaped William Bisgrove was also suggested as becoming a man called James Saddler who was accused of murdering a Whitechapel prostitute a couple of years after the Ripper murders. Broadmoor though dismissed the claims that Saddler and Bisgrove were the same man. And the other patient who has been named as the Ripper was Thomas Cutbush. Now Cutbush was allegedly outed as the principal suspect in a newspaper article in 1894. Although he wasn’t named, his case was described in some detail. He had been admitted to Broadmoor in April 1891 having stabbed one young lady called Florence Johnson in the buttocks and tried to stab another called Isobel Anderson. At the time he was 25 years old and the attacks took place in Kennington, South London which is certainly near enough to Whitechapel to make him a possible suspect. Cutbush’s relatives testified that he had been violent for some time, since at least 1888 the year of the Ripper killings. He believed that he was poisoned and had delusions of persecution. And a superintendent, Dr Nicholson, noted at his admission interview ‘he is very insane’. Well Cutbush was generally uncooperative in Broadmoor and he remained closely guarded. He would shout out threatening abuse from his room. He refused to receive letters from his close family and reacted badly when he saw them; at one visit tried to bite his mother’s face when she lent in to kiss him. And he never regained his freedom and he died in Broadmoor in 1903 from kidney failure. So that’s at least three Ripper candidates: I’m sure I can find more given enough time.

There are some other well-known patients from Victorian Broadmoor too and I’m going to talk about them now. I will start off with a man who could be indirectly credited with defining who could become a Broadmoor patient, who was Daniel McNaughton. McNaughton was first a patient in Bethlem where he’d been since 1843 and he was transferred to Broadmoor together with the other Bethlemite men. Described as shy and retiring, at Bethlem he would apparently hide in the toilet if any stranger entered onto the ward. And very little survives from his time at Broadmoor because he died shortly after he arrived in 1865 and this picture of him was taken of him when he was at Bethlem. Well Daniel McNaughton was a wood turner and political radical in Glasgow who believed that the Tories were his enemies. And in 1843 his belief led him to commit a crime to shoot a man called Edward Drummond who was the Private Secretary to Sir Robert Peel, the Tory Prime Minister. And almost certainly McNaughton sought to kill Peel because he had staked out his house but he got the wrong man. Well McNaughton was charged with murder and he was tried at the Old Bailey, but the defence produced nine experts to testify that McNaughton was insane. The prosecution could find no-one to testify otherwise and so McNaughton was indeed found not guilty but insane and was sent to Bethlem rather than the gallows. But the acquittal caused a public outcry along the sort of lines you get in the media today when it is perceived that somebody has been let off from a crime that they’ve committed. There was a general feeling that McNaughton might be mad but he was not mad enough to cheat death. Now the law on the subject had been unchanged since James Hadfield’s case and at this point it was felt to be inadequately defined. Some sort of action was called for and the result was that the entire English judiciary delivered what became known as the McNaughton Rules for Judging Insanity. The principal one of which was the inability to reason right from wrong. And until 1957 these rules were used as the sole test of criminal responsibility in insanity cases in this country and in fact they’re still used in the U.S. Over here our McNaughton Rules are now caught up with the notion of diminished responsibility that is used as a defence instead.

Now back to the artist I mentioned earlier and probably the best known patient in Victorian Broadmoor was the artist Richard Dadd. Because Dadd was an artist of some repute and his paintings included scenes based on literature and folk-lore and in the 1840’s he gained a reputation for his fairy paintings. And his painting the ‘Fairy Fellow’s Master-Stroke’ is now in Tate Britain along with around half a dozen of other of Dadd’s works.

In 1842 Dadd went on the Grand Tour of ancient classical sites and it was during this tour that Dadd first exhibited signs of mental illness, believing that he was controlled by the Egyptian God, Osiris. He was sent home to London to recover and doctors suggested that Dadd should be committed to an asylum but his family were very keen to look after him themselves. Then one day in August 1843 Dadd’s father took him to Cobham in Kent where they ate in a local pub and then walked out into a nearby park. And at this point, if not before, Dadd was consumed by the belief that his father was the Devil in disguise and so he also believed that Osiris wished him dead. He hacked at his father’s throat and when that did not kill him he stabbed his father to death. Well Dadd immediately fled to France. After he went his room was searched and many portraits were found that he’d painted of friends and family, each one with a bloody slash painted across their throats. And he was soon captured in France after he tried to cut the throat of a fellow traveller in a coach. After he was arrested, Dadd stated that he had seen two stars moving closer together in the heavens and he’d taken this to be a sign from Osiris that he should kill his travelling companion. And a search of Dadd’s clothes at the time revealed a list of people who must die, with his father’s name at the top. So he was sent back to England, he was found by the courts to be insane and in 1844 sent to the criminal lunatic ward if Bethlem. So he was also one of the first intake of men from Bethlem when the male wards opened at Broadmoor. And he stayed at Broadmoor until his death in 1886 from tuberculosis.

Well Dadd continued to paint throughout his time in asylums and at Broadmoor he painted pictures and decorations for the central hall as well as a portrait of Doctor William Orange, the second medical superintendent. Dadd was allowed to spend as much time as he wanted painting in block two, the privilege block. Although he remained convinced Osiris controlled him he bothered no-one and conjured many fantastical scenes based on his own imagination.

Now comparatively recently, vying with Dadd for the title of best known Victorian Broadmoorite is Doctor William Chester Minor who was the subject of the best-selling book, ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne.’ William Chester Minor was born in Sri Lanka and he graduated from Yale University as a surgeon. He fought for the Unionists in the American Civil War, but he became insane and he was sent to America’s equivalent of Broadmoor. But then he was released from both that asylum and the U.S. Army in 1871 and he decided to move to England. Well Minor’s lifelong delusion was that men entered his room at night through the voids in the ceilings and the floors and then abused him. Now one night in Lambeth in February 1872, he woke up and believed that he could see one of his abusers at the end of his bed. The figure ran and Minor followed it into the street where he saw a real man walking to work at a brewery nearby. George Merrett had six children with another on the way and that night he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Minor shouted at him, pursued him as he ran and then, near Waterloo Station, he shot and killed him. It was of course mistaken identity, Merrett was not the man he thought he saw.

Sent to Broadmoor, Minor also pitched up in the privileged block too. He was a man of some substance and his family made sure that he wanted for nothing. He employed other patients as servants and he enjoyed fine dining and wines from his personal income. And eventually he would even have two rooms in block two, a bedroom and a day-room for his books. And his fame springs from his work on the first Oxford English Dictionary, because when he came across the appeal for voluntary readers which was sent out by Sir James Murray, the dictionary’s editor, Minor set to work assembling lists of quotations for word use. And using his personal library at Broadmoor he extracted thousands of examples from classic literature and then sent these in to the O.E.D. Team. And at some point Murray discovered Minor’s situation and decided to visit him at Broadmoor and there is an apocryphal story about this that goes roughly as follows: Murray was received into the medical superintendent’s office whereupon he thanked the head doctor at Broadmoor profusely for his contribution to the dictionary, ‘you must be Doctor Minor’. ‘Oh no’, the Superintendent says, ‘it’s not me that you should thank’, whereupon Murray is escorted through the blocks of Broadmoor, in and out of locked doors, the noise of keys reverberating through his head, until finally he is taken down the corridor of lunatics in Block Two to find Minor working at his desk. Murray is if course shocked and amazed. But sadly for everyone the truth is more mundane than that and Murray knew all about Minor before he visited the asylum. However, a connection was made and the two men carried on a correspondence for around twenty years, with Murray making occasional visits to Broadmoor.

Now despite the therapeutic effects of his work on the dictionary, Minor’s condition did deteriorate over the years and he continued to suffer from the same dilutions. And I think the approach of night must have been a very frightening thing for him because he barricaded his door every night without fail, pushing his writing desk across it, but of course it would never stop his imaginary abusers gaining entry to his room. He must have been desperate for some sort of release from his nightly torment, but he never gained any. Gradually he became an old man in Broadmoor, still a slave to his delusions and at the age of 75 his family arranged for him to be released and deported back to the Washington asylum he had stayed in some 40 years before. And he died in America in 1920.

Now probably the best known Victorian female patient is Christiana Edmunds, the woman the tabloids christened the, ‘Chocolate Cream Poisoner’. Stuck in Brighton with her well-to-do family, Christiana was a lady of leisure until she fell in love with her doctor, Charles Beard. Although Dr. Beard was married, it appears that he and Edmunds carried on some form of romantic relationship for about a year and then, possibly worried about the implications of his actions, Dr. Beard called a halt to it all. Shortly afterwards Edmunds visited Dr. Beard’s wife with a gift of chocolate creams. Mrs Beard ate the chocolates and was promptly and violent sick. Dr. Beard accused Edmunds of poisoning his wife, but Edmunds refuted the allegations. There was a row and Edmunds was banished from the Beard’s home for ever. And that might be that, except that over the next few months there were many other cases of Brighton residents eating sweets bought locally and then falling ill. Soon a four year old boy called Sidney Barker died after eating chocolate creams from a shop called Maynards. There was a coroner’s inquest and strychnine was discovered in the sweets. The death was presumed to be an accident, but the poisonings continued. In summer 1872, the Brighton police, without a lead and with an increasingly anxious population, placed an advertisement in the local paper asking for anyone with suspicions to make contact. Dr. Beard did. Edmunds was arrested and gradually the whole story came to light. She had employed local boys to act as her runners to chemist shops to collect prescriptions for poison and to Maynards to purchase sweets. Once she received the sweets she would inject them with the poison and then return them on the grounds that she wished to exchange them for something else. She was sentenced to death but she was reprieved from the gallows after an examination by Dr. Orange who thought that she was quite mad, because whilst she accepted responsibility for poisoning the sweets, she somehow felt her conduct was entirely justified.

Now once in Broadmoor, Christiana was a bit of a handful and amongst other things, she hoarded false hair sent in by her sister and others. The Matron complains at one point that Edmunds room is literally full of hair. She loved to hide things from the staff and to try and carry on clandestine correspondence even though the doctors were happy to let her continue with it. And Dr. Orange once wrote of her that she deceived for the pure love of deception. Now she remained in Broadmoor for 35 years until she died. She sewed, she painted and she also made herself up to gain attention from the male doctors. Though she showed no active indications of being dangerous, her obsession with her personal appearance and lack of remorse for her crimes, led the staff to conclude that she remained a risk to the public, but her motive, however, remains a mystery.

But Christiana is quite an unusual example of a female Broadmoor patient. A far more typical is the case of Margaret Davenport who was a 31 year old housewife from Warrington when she arrived at Broadmoor in the autumn of 1872. Margaret was born in Shropshire; she had married Joseph Davenport in 1862 after they met while working as servants in a country estate in Cheshire. Then they moved north into urban Warrington to be near to Joseph’s family where they had four children: two boys and two girls. And sadly the two boys died in infancy. Margaret had begun to behave strangely after the birth of her youngest daughter, Elizabeth. She had twice been found wandering the streets at night, once in her nightgown, once naked and twice, both times, she had been taken back home by the police. It was said that she had domestic troubles. And one day in June 1872 while at home, she filled a pan-mug, which is a large tub, with water, she fetched her eldest girl Margaret, age six and Elizabeth, now nearly two and then held the girls heads under the water in turn until they drowned. She tried to drown herself, but she failed. So she then threw a rope over the bannister of the staircase and tried to hang herself, but she failed. She tried to cut her wrists with her husband’s razor, but she failed. So she then took the two girls’ lifeless bodies into her own bedroom and laid them out in their nightgowns in the bed and then went back downstairs and made tea for her husband. In front of the magistrates, the only thing she would say in her defence was, ‘I was very much provoked before I did it’.

Now committed to Broadmoor, it was soon apparent that there was also an additional complication in that she was pregnant. She would not be the first Broadmoor patient to give birth in the asylum nor the last; her child, another daughter, was born in early 1873. Margaret expressed the hope that it would die. So the girl was taken from her at birth and instead reared on cow’s milk elsewhere in the hospital. But her husband, Joseph, did not want the child because he was too poor to look after it, he said. The Union Workhouse at Warrington did not want her either because she would only be a burden on the rate payers. So the result was that there was an unseemly standoff for over six months until the Home Office compelled Joseph Davenport to take custody of his daughter. A female attendant from Broadmoor took over the infant girl north on the train and handed her over to her reluctant father. The girl lived only two more years before she also succumbed to illness and Joseph Davenport then lived on alone in Warrington until he too died in 1889.

Margaret lived on. She stayed in Broadmoor continuing to write to her dead husband. She was removed north in 1890 to the Liverpool Asylum at Rainhill, where she would live on a further 22 years before she died from choking on her dinner. So she was the last member of her family of seven to die and now they were all dead, the Davenport line completely extinct. And it’s these sad stories like Margaret’s which, for me, define Victorian Broadmoor, because essentially the story of Broadmoor is one really about ordinary people and their ordinary lives. Now they’re not glamorous stories like Dadd or Minor, but they’re stories of desperation and fear, of families destroyed and also of tragedy brought about by mental illness. Because, for every Dadd and Minor, there are probably 50 patients who have stabbed their sweethearts, or wounded their wives, or killed their children. All unremarkable Victorian people, who worked in offices, factories and farms until one day they experienced an overwhelming and irrational desire to do something dreadful. So there’s nothing new in infanticide, there’s nothing new in stranger killings by the mentally ill and nothing new indeed in delusions and obsessions. The methods in the media are different now but it’s all been done before. These are people and crimes that we still struggle to deal with satisfactorily, we still debate to what extent Broadmoor should be a place of public protection and to what extent it should seek to treat and rehabilitate. But the Victorian version of Broadmoor is now giving up its secrets and showing us a glimpse behind the walls of England’s first criminal lunatic asylum. It allows us to remember many things that have been forgotten and also to connect, I hope, with both the victims and the perpetrators of some terrible crimes. So for everything that I’ve told you over the last hour, I’d say the stories are true, the people are real and the history is there to be discovered.

Thank you.

The Photograph referred to, used as the thumbnail image for this audio podcast, can also be found on the Berkshire Record Office website, along with some more information about the photograph:

Transcribed by Matthew Vernon as part of a volunteer project, February 2015.