The great and the good visit the asylum

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By | From the Collections

Philippa Smith from London Metropolitan Archives introduces the St Luke’s Hospital papers, the latest collection to go online from our mental health archives digitisation project.

When asked by the Wellcome Library whether we had an archive of a private asylum that would contribute to its mental health digitisation project, St Luke’s Hospital immediately sprang to mind. This archive had been deposited at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) in 2005 by Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust and fitted the bill precisely. Although it is relatively small for a hospital archive (around 14 linear metres), it is pretty much complete. Even more importantly, it casts a unique perspective on the treatment of the mentally ill from the mid-18th century.

Rowlandson print of St Luke's Hospital

St Luke’s Hospital, London: the interior of the women’s ward. Coloured aquatint by J. C. Stadler after A. C. Pugin and T. Rowlandson, 1809. Wellcome Library reference: 26055i.

St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics was founded in 1750 by City of London philanthropists to cure ‘lunacy’, as well as to make treatment accessible to poorer people. The hospital was named Saint Luke’s due to its proximity to Saint Luke’s, Old Street. Previously the only provision for the poor in London was Bethlem Hospital, but waiting lists were long and the private ‘mad houses’ were beyond the means of most people. At Bethlem, the public were allowed to come and look at the ‘lunatics’ on public holidays, as a form of leisure. One of the first rules of the new hospital was “that patients in this hospital be not exposed to publick view”.

Charles Dickens entry in St Luke's Hospital visitors book

Charles Dickens’ entry in the Visitor Book, 1858.

In spite of this aim, such was the reputation of St Luke’s that it was much visited; visitors came as far afield as Europe and the United States. The comments of these visitors from 1829 to 1891 were recorded in a visitors book. One regular visitor was Charles Dickens who wrote after a visit on 15 January 1858: “Much delighted with the great improvements in the hospital under many difficulties, and with the excellent demeanour of the attendants, and with the benignant and wise spirit of the whole administration.” Dickens had visited previously and the description of what he had found, published in Household Words in 1852, as A Curious Dance Round A Curious Tree, is much more critical referring to “a curious degree of unconscious cruelty”.

Portrait of Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry. Colour photogravure after G. Richmond, 1843. Wellcome Library reference: 3282i.

The visitors book also records the visit of the Quaker social reformer, Elizabeth Fry. Her very detailed letter of 7 April 1831 to the Matron is copied into the book and in it we see some of this “unconscious cruelty”. However, she too reports a material improvement since she last visited the female side, and kind and judicious treatment of the lunatics. She makes suggestions: “I think advantage would result from a great variety of books of rather an amusing nature…it is very important to have the mind properly occupied & the attention engaged as far as it can be”. However, she also refers to some short-comings including the “dirty patients” having no garments on “a deficiency which I could not but regret, as there is not only a want of propriety in it … but the straw must irritate the skin.”

Read Elizabeth Fry’s letter for yourself in the visitors book below, and explore the rest of the St Lukes Hospital papers in our Mental Healthcare digital collection.


Author: Philippa Smith is Principal Archivist (Collections and Systems Management) at London Metropolitan Archives.

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