A Victorian lunatic asylum begins to reveal its secrets

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By | From the Collections

Dr Richard Aspin pursues the dramatic account by a Victorian barrister admitted to a lunatic asylum in 1875 in the newly digitised casebooks of Ticehurst House Hospital.

“I was therefore ‘removed,’ half-dying, in a state of semi-consciousness, I can scarcely remember how, to the castellated mansion mentioned in my first chapter. The wrong should have been impossible, of course; but it is possible, and it is law. My liberty, and my very existence as an individual being, had been signed away behind my back. In my weakened perceptions I at first thought that the mansion was an hotel. Left alone in a big room on the first evening, I was puzzled by the entrance of a wild-looking man, who described figures in the air with his hand, to an accompaniment of gibber, ate a pudding with his fingers at the other end of a long table, and retired. My nerve was shaken to its weakest, remember; and I was alone with him! It was not an hotel. It was a lunatic asylum.”

Thus the barrister and author Herman Charles Merivale (1839-1906) recounted his first evening in the lunatic asylum that was to be his home for several months in 1875, in My Experiences in a Lunatic Asylum, by a Sane Patient, published in 1879.

Ticehurst Hospital

Ticehurst Hospital from the South East. Wellcome Images reference no. L0060548.

The “castellated mansion” of Merivale’s nightmarish recollection was Ticehurst House, an 18th-century pile in the depths of the Weald of Sussex, that had by Merivale’s day been in operation for about eighty years as a private madhouse run by a local family of medical practitioners, the Newingtons.

L0014756 Portrait of Dr Alexander Newington, 1891 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Portrait of Dr Alexander Newington by a patient in the Ticehurst House (lunatic asylum) Pencil drawing 1891 By: Francesca Josephine SharplesTicehurst House Case book Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Portrait of Dr Alexander Newington by a patient. 1891, Ticehurst House casebook. Wellcome Library reference: MS.6393.

Merivale’s records are among those of some one thousand or so patients, treated at Ticehurst between 1793 and 1925, that have been digitised by the Wellcome Library and are freely available through the Library catalogue.

The Ticehurst casebooks reveal that Merivale was admitted to the asylum on 23 February 1875 and from that date until his release there are regular bulletins from the superintending physician on his mental state, attitude to the staff, sleeping habits, drug treatment, food intake, bowel movements, trips into the country, and a host of other indications of his progress, at first on a daily basis and gradually reducing to an intermittent, perfunctory note.


On release on 8 September he is described as ‘relieved’, although there is little evidence in the clinical notes of the previous six months of any improvement in his condition, beyond his eventual agreement to attend church.


Sure enough, Merivale was back in Ticehurst within a year and unsurprisingly described as ‘never thoroughly cured’. His situation had apparently taken a turn for the worse: he was now not only suicidal but a danger to others, having attempted to strangle his companion. His notes conclude with a copy of a letter to the Commissioners of Lunacy from Dr Newington advising against Merivale’s transfer out of the asylum to ‘single care’, in other words care at home, in view of his violent tendencies. This recommendation was evidently ignored as Merivale was transferred out on 9 March 1877, ‘not improved’.

Merivale’s book gives a rare personal account of the asylum experience. For most of the thousand patients treated at Ticehurst, there is no patient’s voice to set against the institutional record, but there are occasional glimpses into their world in the written ramblings or disturbing sketches that were included in the casebooks as evidence of their mental condition. Here there may be more secrets waiting to be revealed.

Author: Dr Richard Aspin is head of Research and Scholarship at the Wellcome Library.

Richard Aspin

Richard Aspin

Dr Richard Aspin is Head of Research in the Wellcome Library. An archivist and manuscripts curator by training, he has spent many years working with the Library’s collections, as both custodian and researcher. His main motivation for studying the past is to help rescue forgotten lives from the enormous condescension of posterity.

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4 comments on A Victorian lunatic asylum begins to reveal its secrets
  • Nicky Charlton


    I worked here as an auxiliary nurse in 1976. I have recently started researching and the digitisation is great news.

    • elliott


      Hi Nicky, I am producing a project on the history of mental health treatment with young people. We are looking to interview people if you are interested?

  • Rachel Gardiner-Hill


    I found this very interesting, my family are directly descended from Robert and Hugh Gardiner-Hill – pioneers of the use of non-restraint in Victorian lunatic asylums. My husband’s grandfather grew up in the grounds of Springfield Hospital and Hugh, his father had also worked at Bedlam.

  • Samantha Tucker


    I would like to thank Wellcome for opening these archives and putting this historical information on line so that non academic researchers can access it. Find My Past has also scanned Croydon Mental Hospital and Bethlem Hospital records with photographs and put them on line it is subscription based but a great resource along with Wellcome records. Great that you are including us novices when planning access Thankyou!

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