The Priory: an elusive asylum

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By | From the Collections

On 26 February 1909 the Coroner’s verdict in the case of the Roman Catholic priest Father George Stacey read as follows:

He died from cardiac failure consequent upon exhaustion from having plucked his eyeballs from their sockets, his death being accelerated by broncho-pneumonia

Stacey had died three days earlier in the Priory asylum at Roehampton, London to which he had been confined the previous year, suffering from mania. His gruesome self-mutilation is recorded in the pages of what would appear to be the sole surviving patient casebook from the Priory (MS.8455), which has recently been digitised as part of the Wellcome Library’s mental health archives digitisation project.


“As Lord [an attendant] was passing out of the room he saw the patient with his hands to his face and noticed some bleeding. He immediately called attendant Spillane and Father Stacey was restrained, until he was examined a few minutes later by Dr Wood-Jones, who found the orbits empty, both eyeballs being found on the floor to the right of the door.”

The Priory Hospital Roehampton still exists as a private mental hospital. It is often in the news thanks to its famous clientele. But for such a high profile institution its story is curiously elusive. It was founded in about 1872 but there is no published history. It is implicated in at least one of the more notorious Victorian scandals of false imprisonment but there appear to be no surviving institutional records through which such cases can be pursued. None of the entries in the national Hospital Records Database list records from the Priory.

The Priory Roehampton

The Priory, Roehampton. Image credit: Robert Smith, Wikimedia Commons.

The solitary clinical register of patients dating from 1905 to 1913 is therefore a rare survival. This large volume emerged on the open market in 2006 when it was purchased by the Wellcome Library. Then as now it appears the Priory attracted patients not only from the wealthier sections of society but disproportionately from the creative professions.

Out of 96 patients recorded in the register four are described as ‘artist’. One of these was Helen Fry (1864-1937), wife of Roger Fry, the art critic. Another inmate was Margaret Benson (1865-1916), the philosopher and sister of E.F. Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia novels. Also unusual is the proportion of Jewish patients, representing at four out of 96 a ratio considerably in excess of the Jewish population even of London.

If the circumstances of Father Stacey’s death were unusual, the cause of death of the majority of patients who expired in the asylum during this brief period was depressingly familiar – general paralysis or neurosyphilis was implicated in the deaths of seven of the patients, all male. An exception was a young student, Robert Mann, who died in May 1906 from pneumonia. The cause of his insanity was recorded on admission as ‘over study’, a sobering thought in this age of SATS and league tables.

Medical records Priory Roehampton 1906

Record of admission of student Robert Mann. Priory Roehampton case book, 1903 – 1913. Wellcome Library reference MS.8455.

The casebook was clearly once one of a series of such registers that recorded the life of the asylum – it is numbered four – and its sheer physical dimensions make it difficult to imagine that all the others have perished. It would be nice to think that digitising this singleton and making it more widely known will eventually lead to the discovery of other survivors.

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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2 comments on The Priory: an elusive asylum
  • Elizabeth McGrath


    My great grandmother, Mary Anne Vernon Henrhyn died in The Priory in August, 1874. at the age of 21, after bearing my grandmother.She is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery but there is no tombstone on her grave., which is in a prominent position in the centre of the cemetery.I have the grave information from the Manager of the cemetery.
    It is a fascinating story.She and the Earl of Sheffield had a liaison for 4 years, he paid for my grandmother’s upkeep and left her money in his will.
    Mary Anne changed her name from Newton to Henryn.I have done the research and it seems she came from a humble background.
    I have tried many times to find any records concerning her, and after reading about the secrecy of The Priory records, now realise why I have had no luck.I live in Australia so that made the research a little harder!
    Hope you don’t mind me sending you this but thought it might put a little flesh on the bare bones of the asylum!

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