The care of pauper lunatics in Glasgow

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By | Digital Developments, The Researcher’s View

Gartnavel Royal Hospital is one of the institutions in our project to digitise mental health archives selected from across the UK, and make them freely available through the Wellcome Library catalogue. As the Gartnavel records begin to appear online, Archivist  Alistair Tough gives us a taste of what’s to come.

The term ‘pauper lunatic’ sounds Dickensian, but how were impoverished people with mental health problems treated in hospitals? Evidence from the records of Gartnavel Royal Hospital and the Govan Parish in Glasgow suggests a more positive view.

Glasgow Lunatic Asylum 1810

The first Glasgow Lunatic Asylum, founded 1910. Image from ‘Let There Be Light: a History of Gartnavel Royal Hospital’ published 1993. Wellcome Library reference: HB13/2/237.

Certainly, patients at Gartnavel were treated differently according to social class. Gentlemen ‘lunatics’ might spend their time writing poetry, staging plays or performing music. ‘Pauper lunatics’, in contrast, were encouraged (but not coerced) to help in the garden or with artisans’ tasks.

Formal occupational therapy was first introduced at Gartnavel Royal Hospital in the 1920s. However, parish patients got therapeutic benefit from working in the upholsterer’s workshop and with other skilled tradesmen in the hospital from a much earlier date.

Photograph of an Upholstry studio

Photograph of the upholsterer’s studio at Gartnavel Royal Hospital, c.1907. Wellcome Library reference: HB13/15/27.

Vegetable and fruit gardening was another popular employment with pauper patients at Gartnavel. When Govan Poorhouse and Asylum relocated from cramped accommodation near the city centre to the extensive site at Merryflats – where the new South Glasgow University Hospital is being built today – gardening was introduced there too. This was regarded as beneficial for patients and economical for the ratepayers at the same time.

Gartnavel hospital grounds

Photograph showing a high level view of the gardens and vegetable plots at Gartnavel Royal Hospital, early 20th century. Wellcome Library reference HB13/15/71.

Today allotment gardening is promoted as a part of community-based psychiatric care packages. The rationale is that vegetable and fruit gardening promotes both physical and mental wellbeing. So perhaps the ‘pauper lunatics’ were treated with greater insight than is commonly realised.

Author: Alistair Tough is the Archivist for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives, where the original Gartnavel archive may be consulted.

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