As 1909 drew to an end, Miss Beatrice Mary Jane Banks was in her early thirties and living in East Sussex. Her routine sounds agreeable: she made her home in a country house on the outskirts of a small village, she went out for a walk twice a day, and slept well. Sometimes she painted or drew, and some of her artworks have survived. It is recorded that she was putting on a little weight: she had been through some traumatic times earlier in the year, so this is not necessarily a bad thing but probably in fact a sign that she was more at ease. All this we can glean from medical notes made in mid-October. The one jarring note comes with the observation that she “had not since previous notes made any assaults on her nurses”: the country house is a private asylum, and Miss Banks is a patient, certified in July 1909 as mentally ill and in need of admission to the asylum for her own safety.
[She] wandered restlessly and aimlessly about room… Nurse Elizabeth Doland said patient has been violent on several occasions…that she at meals takes food into her mouth and spits it out anywhere…
July 1909: first medical certificate, relating her behaviour just before admission
Archive material plunges you into the past with sometimes startling immediacy: written not in retrospect but in the moment, satisfying the needs of the time rather than written with an eye on posterity, archive documents are the closest any of us will come to time travel. They drop us into the middle of other lives, of people who may be distant in time but who otherwise are like us, sharing our hopes and fears.
She seemed to realise today for the first time… where she is: she was much upset, shrieking and crying: “I know now why I am here”, “I would like to set fire to this house”
18th July 1909
Many of the Wellcome Library’s archives, of course, deal with people in extremis, people who are ill or suffering, and are all the more immediate for that. This Ticehurst case book (MS.6408) chronicles how Beatrice Banks stayed in an asylum for a year, from 1st July 1909 to 25th June 1910, reporting day by day on her condition.
Miss Banks had five hours sleep but is noisy and troublesome today, throwing things about… she threw a small flower vase out of the window, she is dirty with her food, e.g. putting her hands in the butter and then smearing her face with it.
2nd August 1909
Miss Banks is one of the many patients to pass through Ticehurst House Hospital, an upmarket private asylum in the Sussex countryside which was opened in the late 18th century. It continues its work today as part of the Priory Group.
The archives of Ticehurst House are one of the Wellcome Library’s most significant collections (MSS.6245-6790, 8408-8409, 8591 and 8928). Now, as part of the Library’s digitisation programme, they are freely available to anyone. Over 600 items (files, volumes and so forth) have passed under the camera, yielding over 90,000 images. The catalogue offers a list of Ticehurst archives online.
This digitisation project covers not just Ticehurst but other hospitals too; a range of institutions whose archives are held at the Wellcome Library and at five other record offices across the United Kingdom. Some hospitals, like Ticehurst, deal with relatively wealthy clients who can pay for comfortable surroundings; others deal in the urban poor. Some are private sector institutions and others public: the range is wide.
London Metropolitan Archives contributes the records of St Luke’s Woodside, whilst York University’s Borthwick Institute has digitised the records of The Retreat in that city: a key institution in the movement towards kindness and empathy as key in the treatment of mental illness, rather than discipline and restraint.
The NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives add the records of Gartnavel Royal Hospital, originally Glasgow Lunatic Asylum; while Dumfries and Galloway Archives contribute Crichton Royal Hospital, notable for hosting pioneering work in art therapy.
Finally, in an example of how digitisation and remote access can sometimes improve on the original, the few surviving records of Camberwell House Hospital in South London, which are split between the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Wellcome Library, will be brought back together by this project.
The work of photographing these records and making them available to researchers will carry on into 2016, with material released gradually as the work progresses. To find out about the breadth of records being digitised, you can read more on the Guardian.
… has attacked her nurse with a knife today.
22nd August 1909
Beatrice Banks, by the way, was discharged as recovered in June 1910. This was her second period in an asylum – she had had a similar attack in her early twenties – so MS.6408 leaves us on something of a cliff-hanger, uncertain whether her recovery would be permanent or not: another example of the immediacy of archives.
Authors: Christopher Hilton and Rada Vlatkovic