The rat that was executed for murder!

It’s hard to believe that a rat was once executed for murder. The judge in this bizarre trial was Tsar Peter III. He was an adult male, already in his 20s, who retained a childlike fascination for his set of toy soldiers. And when he found a rat chewing the head off one of his model infantry – he saw red.

The rat was put on trial, found guilty of murder and ordered to be executed by hanging. Peter then constructed a mini set of gallows and carried out the grim verdict.

His queen, Catherine, chanced upon the grisly spectacle and decided to bring forward plans to overthrow a husband she totally detested. With him out of the way, she would become sole ruler of Russia. Which is exactly what happened. Peter was discreetly bundled away and most likely murdered.

However, we do have to question this story. On the one hand, it could be entirely true that Peter was a sadistic simpleton as portrayed in later propaganda from Catherine’s supporters. Conversely, Peter was the subject of a campaign to portray him as entirely unsuited for high office. Therefore everybody should thank his wife – sorry, widow – for getting rid of the idiot.

Catherine herself turned out to be a more than capable ruler. But some revisionist historians have pointed to Peter’s impressive legislative record or reform – achieved despite the fact he was only tsar for six months. The suggestion is that far from being mentally impaired, Peter was just as capable as his very driven wife.

DISCOVER: Most power crazed rulers in history

But what’s come down to us is an image of a petulant and grossly immature young man who put a rat on trial for murder in a fit of pique. And in truth, it’s a far better story than the alternative. Getting people to believe that he’d carried out such a morbid exercise wasn’t difficult as Peter had made plenty of enemies among the church, nobility and peasantry with his progressive views. And Catherine kept these stories about him going for the rest of her life.

This is an episode in my new YouTube series Weird Historical Facts – so view and enjoy!

How a horse became a Roman senator!

In my new YouTube series Weird History Facts I’m taking one episode to look at how a horse became a Roman senator. What on earth possessed the Roman emperor Caligula to declare his favourite nag Incitatus both a priest and a member of the senate?

By all accounts, it had an unremarkable record of public speaking and legislative activity. Largely on account of being a horse. But it certainly got under the noses of the senators. Apparently by liberally defecating on the senate floor, according to one Roman historical source.

Caligula was, if we are to believe the historian Suetonius, besotted with Incitatus. The horse was part of his favourite chariot racing faction – the greens – and ahead of a race, the entire neighbourhood around his stable was ordered to be silent throughout the night. Incitatus was then able to get a good night’s sleep in a manger made of ivory housed in a stable constructed of marble, covered in purple blankets.

Suetonius, who loved to combine history with lashings of gossip, claimed that Incitatus had a staff of eighteen servants, was fed oats mixed with gold flakes and was allowed to invite guests to quite elaborate dinners. Caligula also declared that the horse had divine status.

This story was circulated to prove that Caligula was insane. And by the time historians like Suetonius and Cassius Dio were writing about Caligula, he had been assassinated and damned by the Senate. So – we are entitled to question the impartiality and veracity of this story. Was a horse really made a Roman senator? And if so, was it an insane act or was Caligula making some kind of statement?

DISCOVER: Roman and American slavery – how did they differ?

The preferred theory these days seems to be that Caligula did indeed make Incitatus a member of the Senate and proposed him as Consul but the reason was to show his utter contempt for Rome’s senators. Of course they were in an invidious position. The emperor could ask all he wanted for better quality advice and guidance but when he executed people at a whim, it’s hardly surprising senators just kept their heads down – as opposed to losing them.

Incitatus somehow seems to have remained a senator until the reign of Claudius when he was removed on a technicality. He failed to meet the financial requirements for sitting in the Senate. And was later put down after injuring his leg.

Enjoy this episode of Weird History Facts!

The shortest war in history – just 40 minutes!

The shortest war in history was between the British Empire and the sultanate of Zanzibar. A David and Goliath struggle in which Goliath won – in just over 40 minutes. It was enough time for the British to inflict 500 dead on the enemy while only sustaining a single casualty on their side.

The reason for the shortest war in history was a dispute over the appointment of a new sultan. The previous holder of this title and ruler of the idyllic island off the east African coast had died in rather suspicious circumstances. His nephew then took power. But the local British consul took the view that no new sultan could be appointed until Queen Victoria’s local representative said so.

However, the newly enthroned sultan thought different. He told the British to mind their own business. However, the British felt they were indeed minding their own business. Zanzibar was a protectorate. And the British were intent on protecting Zanzibar from German expansion in Africa. The new sultan wasn’t trusted on the German issue and so had to go.

Neither side was prepared to back down. And so the British embarked on what is euphemistically termed ‘gunboat diplomacy’. That meant positioning three cruisers, two gunboats and 150 marines in the harbour of the sultan’s capital and then bombarding his palace. That kind of diplomacy!

DISCOVER: Medieval buildings bombed in World War Two

The sultan responded by firing back with a Gatling gun that – ironically – had been a present from Queen Victoria. He also mustered a 17th century cannon and a couple of field guns. Needless to say, he couldn’t match the firepower of the British Empire.

The war kicked off at 9am and was over by 9.40am – making it the shortest war in history. And it’s the theme of an episode in my new YouTube series, Weird History Facts. Do please watch and enjoy!

The woman who gave birth to rabbits

In the early 18th century, a woman called Mary Toft claimed to be giving birth to rabbits. In the heady gossip-ridden world of Georgian England, this story was taken up with relish. It dominated the gossip sheets in London. And even made its way to the ear of King George the First.

The king was so intrigued by the thought of a woman giving birth to rabbits that he sent his physician down to the market town of Godalming to meet Mary Toft. And not only was his physician convinced of her story, but helped to deliver a fifteenth rabbit. Then he wrote a book on the topic.

All of which made the king absolutely furious when he discovered the whole thing was a hoax. He fired his physician and Mary Toft disappeared into obscurity.

The aftermath wasn’t good for the medical profession. Doctors were ridiculed as dirty old men. And the fact that the king’s physician was Swiss-born opened the doors to some unpleasant xenophobia. Toft’s motives were interpreted as purely financial tinged with a complete absence of morals.

DISCOVER MORE: Women in history, scandal and myth

One cartoon of the day depicted Mary Toft held aloft by the lascivious male doctors enjoying an examination of her private parts. See that image below. The fact this ever gained any credibility is because of some very odd pseudo-scientific theories circulating at the time. One was the notion of ‘maternal impression’ – that a woman could alter what was in her womb through her thoughts and dreams.

Completely mad but these were the early days of modern science.

This is one of several bizarre stories I’m going to be investigating in a series on my YouTube channel called ‘Weird History Facts’ and I invite you to watch this episode below and enjoy!

The Pope alleged to be a woman!

One of the greatest scandals to ever befall the Roman Catholic church was the story that a woman was elected to the papacy as Pope Joan. Her deception was only uncovered when she collapsed in the street heavily pregnant and gave birth. The surrounding crowd was so profoundly shocked that she was lynched on the spot. But is this story – once widely believed – actually true?

The story originates in the Middle Ages about a woman who followed her lover into the clergy to stay close to him. It’s normally claimed this happened in the 9th century. Talented and intelligent, this woman – disguised as a male cleric – just couldn’t help rising up the ranks. Until, unintentionally, she ended up as Pope. And once in the top job, she had to keep up the subterfuge or face certain death.

It’s normally assumed that had she existed, Pope Joan would have reigned between Pope Leo IV and Pope Benedict III in the 850s. This was a very turbulent time in Rome with Arab armies sacking the city and destroying churches. It needed a bright and courageous person to lead the church and a cardinal called John Anglicus from the German city of Mainz was elected. Problem was – John was actually Joan.

DISCOVER: The Countess who was a vampire…allegedly

Pope Joan gets pregnant

This might have remained a secret had Joan not got pregnant. Not from her original lover – a monk who had now died – but a cardinal with whom she’d had a secret affair. As her belly grew, Pope Joan needed to use her rich vestments to hide the truth. But eventually while processing from St Peter’s basilica to St John the Lateran – the papal residence at the time – she had contractions and went into labour.

A Dominican friar called Jean de Mailly writing in the 13th century claimed Pope Joan gave birth while mounting a horse to ride in that procession. The sudden exertion brought on labour. The crowd was so appalled that they tied her to a horse and stoned the poor woman until she passed away and was buried.

The exact location of her giving birth and dying shortly after is normally pinpointed at the church of Saint Clement near the Colosseum on a road known as the Sacred Way – Via Sacra – but subsequently dubbed the ‘shunned path’ because of its association with this abominable sacrilege.

In the year 1415, a heretic called Jan Hus was on trial for his life – facing the prospect of being burned to death for defying the teachings of the Catholic church. At one point, in his defence, he made a reference to Pope Joan and her time as pontiff. Despite his trial being attended by 20 cardinals and a large number of bishops and theologians, nobody appears to have disputed that Joan existed. Although Hus did go on to be found guilty and executed.

DISCOVER: Women in history – scandal and myth

Proving a Pope was a man

So concerned was the Vatican about the prospect of another woman being elected pope that they reportedly used a special seat with a hole in the middle to test whether a newly elected pope had fully descended testicles. This seat was called the sede stercoraria and a cardinal would reach underneath to feel for the correct genitalia then announce joyfully that they were there and the papal coronation could proceed.

Pope Joan as the Antichrist

As the story developed, it became increasingly unacceptable to suggest Joan had become pope by accident. She must have been in league with Satan. After all, papal elections are guided by the Holy Spirit so that election must have been subverted by some enormously evil intervention. And so we get the idea that Pope Joan was none other than Antichrist, the being that will rule before the end of times.

During the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, the story of Pope Joan was taken up with relish by Protestants. It was a great way to goad Catholics and jeer at the power of the papacy. So corrupt was this institution that a woman had even once held the position! And as for the father, it wasn’t just some or other man but a cardinal or even….the devil.

Given that today her existence is flatly denied by the Catholic church, it’s unusual how prevalent belief in the story was for centuries. Although her name changed in some tellings to Agnes, Gilberta, Joanna, Margaret, Isabel and the rather curious “Jutt”.

She also becomes English in one account. But if it was made up – who concocted the story and why? One theory I find quite plausible is that the story started in the Byzantine Empire. The Patriarch and the Emperor in Constantinople disputed the claim by the Pope to be the undisputed ruler of the church. How better to undermine the papacy than to claim a woman had once sat in St Peter’s chair?

There have been two movie versions of her life – one in 2009 and a classic in 1972 with a horrific depiction of her murder by the mob.

dead bodies museums

Should the dead be on display in museums?

Must admit I’ve seen my fair share of dead bodies in museums. Like all children, when I was first taken to see the ancient Egyptian mummies in the British museum back in the 1970s – I was eyes out on stalks! Take for example this chap below they used to call the “orange man”. He dates from about 3,400BC – also in the British Museum – and from what we call the pre-dynastic period. Now, as a result of seeing him, that term was embedded in my mind aged seven or eight.

Image courtesy of the British Museum

His excellent state of preservation is because in the pre-dynastic period – a thousand years before the pyramids you know and love – bodies were buried in the sand. And that was a great preserver! You can still make out his ginger hair.

However – informative though this may be – some think orange man should not be there for us to gawp at. And this issue is becoming ever more pressing.

DISCOVER: Gruesome body of a saint on display!

Goodbye shrunken heads!

About five years ago, I visited the Horniman Museum in south London and was unable to find a particular exhibit that exerted a ghoulish hold on me when I’d first come to the museum as a child in the 1970s. Back then, a large glass case displayed several shrunken heads.

When I asked a curator where they were on this recent outing, she grimaced and said: “We don’t really put that kind of thing out anymore.” The shrunken heads are still shown in graphic detail on the museum website but are labelled as being “in storage”.

And the Horniman isn’t the only museum vexing over the ethics of corpses in cases. There’s a very heated debate going on behind closed doors about the morals as well as the potential negative PR that is attaching to having heads and bodies for the public to ogle at.

FIND OUT MORE: Galvinism and the science behind Frankenstein

Tribal groups demand their ancestors back – no more dead bodies in museums

Indigenous peoples, tribes and nations are increasingly animated about their ancestors being exhibits. Concerns have been raised from tribal nations in the United States to aboriginal peoples in Australia – and lots of places in between. And you have allegations of racism or colonialism attaching to the display of Ancient Egyptian mummies or Inca sacrificial victims.

Those hostile parties may not be – for example – Egyptian in the case of the mummies but ‘feel’ or believe they have an affinity with these remains. No matter how tenuous one may feel their claimed link is – it’s now becoming difficult to ignore.

Guidance on displaying dead bodies in museums

The United Kingdom government has issued guidance in the past to museums on how to treat human remains. And since 1996, the UK has been committed to repatriating aboriginal remains to Australia and New Zealand. In one example in 2017, over a thousands remains including 13 skulls were sent back.

The British Museum lists its human remains online and it makes for fascinating reading:

  • From Australia: Human skull (adult, male?), covered with pigment; with grass plug in nasal aperture
  • From Borneo: Decorated human skull made of bone (human), wood, cane, shell (cowrie), gum.
  • From Chile: mummified child’s foot with sandal
  • From China: a skeletal human hand with a bangle on the wrist
  • From Ecuador: shrunken head with feathers and beetle wings
  • From Egypt: Fragments of bone and two teeth from infant sacrifice.

And so it goes on…

Egypt’s recent public display of new mummies

In 2020, the Egyptian authorities invited the media to snap at 59 ancient coffins just discovered. One of them was opened up in a flourish to reveal the mummified body within. In a sign of changing attitudes, many people registered their disgust at this theatricality.

Catholic shrines and death

For many Catholic shrines, removing bodies from display would effectively end their pulling power for both tourists and pilgrims. For example, in Palermo, Sicily you have the Capuchin Catacombs where hundreds of bodies, many in their Sunday best, are hanging from the walls. They date from the 17th to the early 20th century.

The Capuchin Catacombs includes the body of a girl, Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920. And yes, she is exceedingly well preserved. I have seen her myself (in 2019). Visitors claim that she blinks at them. I got no blink in case you’re wondering.

But I have to admit this display possibly crosses a line. Why? I suppose the relatively short amount of time that has elapsed since her death; her very young age which is rather creepy in of itself and the fact that the 1920s were not Ancient Egypt.

We were not routinely mummifying bodies at that time. So why not put this poor girl where she should be? In the ground.

Dead crusaders on display

In 1976, I was taken to see the desiccated remains of several bodies in the crypt of Saint Michan’s church in Dublin, preserved by the very dry air underground. In those days, you were invited by the guide to shake hands with one of the bodies. And being a child who liked to show off a bit, I grasped the bony fingers of an 800-year-old crusader.

However, times really have changed. Because two years ago, that wasn’t enough for some vandals who broke through a steel door, stole the aforementioned crusader’s head and “desecrated” the body of a nun. I don’t even want to ask!

It does beg the question though whether these kinds of displays, which have an almost Victorian fairground quality, encourage boorish and despicable behaviour and if their time has been and gone.

Or are we getting too sensitive?

But maybe we’re all being way too sensitive. In 2010, a survey by English Heritage found that only 9% of the public opposed bodies being displayed in museums. I will bet that percentage has risen however. But for museums, it’s not just the wider public that are a concern – but those activist groups representing tribes and nations that feel enough is enough.

What do you think? I’d love to know.

slavery lobotomised

Lobotomised and sold into slavery

This is such an unusual story that I’d certainly love to get more information from any of you. Recently, I was researching court cases from the 18th century and came across the most horrific example of people being forced into slavery. A London man called John Smith had kidnapped two youngsters, ‘trepanned’ them, and then shipped the unfortunates off into slavery. Lobotomised in other words and sent across the Atlantic.

I had to read the court account several times to see if I’d got the wrong end of the stick. But sure enough, there it was in black and white. Young men zombified in some terrible procedure and then sent out of their wits to a life of hell in the New World.

On 15 January 1700, the central criminal court in London – better known as the Old Bailey – heard the case against London labourer John Smith. There were two main crimes under consideration.

Firstly, he was accused of kidnapping a Jewish man from Ceuta in Morocco who had come to England to visit friends. His name was Joseph Portall. He’d arrived in the country about two days before and Smith bumped into him at the Exchange, a commercial marketplace in the old City of London.

Lobotomised into slavery down a backstreet

Presumably Smith befriended Portall after which he was lured back to an “office” near St. Mary-Hill. That’s a small street by an ancient church still standing though rebuilt be Sir Christopher Wren after the 1666 Great Fire of London.

There Portall became Smith’s prisoner and at some point, was trepanned. Now this is the word that is used in the court case and there’s only definition I have for being trepanned. That is a person’s head being bored into with an instrument in a similar manner to a lobotomy. If anybody has another definition for this term – I’m all ears.

DISCOVER: Bringing the dead back to life in Georgian London

The same fate befell a 16-year-old “Christian youth” called Samuel Cooper who was also sent off into slavery after being trepanned. Cooper’s parents had sent the young man off to church on a Sunday morning and never saw him again. The court heard that he was taken on to a ship with Portall bound for the British American colony of Maryland. This would have meant forced labour on a plantation in the New World.

Potentially hundreds lobotomised into slavery

Most disturbingly, it seemed that Smith had illegally transported potentially hundreds of people to the colonies from his office. Whether they were all trepanned or sent against their will wasn’t entirely clear in the trial. Smith tried to argue that they consented to what happened to them. Highly unlikely of course.

Smith was only apprehended because he was turned over to the authorities by a certain Jacob Kysor. In court, Smith couldn’t contain his rage towards Kysor and declared “he wisht he had his Heart Broyled on Coals, for he would Eat it, and Drink his Blood after it”. Original spelling from the court transcript by the way. That comment was good enough for the jury to find him guilty.

FIND OUT MORE: The truth about grave robbing

What shocks me is that he wasn’t condemned to death. Given how easily it was to be hanged for any number of crimes in 1700. But especially as he’d committed such an appalling crime. But instead, he was fined and put in the pillory to be pelted by the public. He may also have been whipped at the same time.

I would love to know your insights into this story. By all means have a look at the court case. Were these people actually lobotomised into slavery or is there another way of reading this story? Because if it’s true as reported at the time, then this for me is a new and sick perspective on the dreadful history of slavery.

Tudor treasure

Tudor treasure stolen in England

On Friday last week, a set of gold rosary beads carried by Mary Queen of Scots to her execution were stolen from Arundel Castle. Thieves smashed open a display cabinet and took the rosary plus other gold and silver items dating back to the Tudor period. This included coronation cups given by Mary to the Earl Marshal.

Mary had a tragic life. She became Queen of Scotland as a baby and spent her childhood in France while others ruled on her behalf. Once an adult, Mary returned to Scotland but her Catholic faith brought her into conflict with the rising Protestant faith and its leading Scottish firebrand, John Knox.

Her personal life was stormy to put it mildly. She married her first cousin, Lord Darnley, in what seems to have been a passionate liaison. But it turned sour and Darnley died after a very suspicious explosion at a house where he was staying and was found dead in the grounds, most likely smothered to death.

DISCOVER: The boy who kept stealing Queen Victoria’s underwear

Mary had a legitimate claim to the throne of England – which naturally concerned Elizabeth the First – who just happened to be the Queen of England! These two women, who never actually met, were set on a collision course. For English Protestants, Elizabeth was the defender of their faith while Mary was a French-raised Catholic who had to be crushed.

And crushed she was. Firstly by her own Scottish aristocracy who turned on Mary. Then she was abducted and imprisoned for nearly two decades by cousin Elizabeth. Initially, Mary thought Elizabeth might help her regain the Scottish throne. But when it became clear that was not going to happen, Mary took to plotting against Elizabeth.

A course of action that led with grim inevitability to the executioner’s block. The beheading was the subject of lurid tales from those present on that tragic day. Apparently it took more than one blow of the axe to take off her head. Then the executioner held up her head by the hair only to discover it was a wig – and her head fell to the wooden stage and rolled along.

And then a claim that for up to quarter of an hour, Mary’s lips continued to move. Plus a small dog emerged from under her skirts after the execution. So – quite a scene.

Tudor treasure – the gold rosary beads of Mary Queen of Scots

Very sad that the rosary beads she clutched on the way to her death should have been stolen by some total low life. The metal value is very low according to Arundel Castle. Let’s hope then that they haven’t been melted down. I will confess this kind of crime boils my blood. The thieves are lucky we don’t inflict Tudor-style punishments today for these kind of offences.

Ancient Greeks Buddhist

Ancient Greeks who became Buddhist

It may seem implausible but there was a group of ancient Greeks who became Buddhist. So how did this happen? Well, you have to go back to Alexander the Great’s conquest of just about everything from Macedonia to the river Indus. His Greek phalanxes proved unstoppable as they bulldozed their way through the Persian Empire and into India.

Ancient Greeks in modern Afghanistan and Pakistan

It’s tempting to think that once Alexander died and his empire fragmented, anything left in India would have fizzled away pretty quickly. So isolated from the beating heart of Hellenism thousands of miles away, how would a Greek polity have survived? The answer is that over the centuries that followed Alexander’s death, the faraway Greeks evolved a culture that blended ancient Greece and ancient India.

Alexander’s empire fragments

Once the huge Macedonian empire had lost its charismatic leader, Alexander, it broke up into several empires. The Seleucid Empire covered modern Iran and the Levant. the Ptolemaic empire was centred on Egypt and would last for three hundred years until Cleopatra committed suicide and the Romans took over. Out in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and western India – the Greco-Indian kingdom of Bactria emerged.

And it would enjoy a surprisingly long lifespan.

DISCOVER: When the Roman Empire lost battles

Soon-to-be Buddhist Ancient Greeks get cut off from Europe

Bactria was linked to the Greek world by the neighbouring Seleucid empire for a while until that was forced into a westwards retreat after defeats by Indian armies to the right and Ptolemaic forces to the left. So, the ancient Greeks out east effectively found themselves detached from the Hellenic world. And a man called Diodotus, who had previously ruled on behalf of the Seleucids as a “satrap”, declared Bactria to be an independent Greek kingdom.

And the Bactrians weren’t living in fear of their lives – as I used to assume. Quite the contrary, at times they extended their kingdom back deep into India. In fact, they got further than Alexander. And two important things happened during the second and third centuries BC. The Bactrians influenced Indian art and they adopted Buddhism. Plus the Hellenic influence reached its high point in the region. For example, representations of the Indian gods and of the Buddha point to heavy Greek cultural input.

Greeks made the Chinese terracotta army?

The Bactrians also extended their reach towards China. It’s possible that the first contact between Europeans and the Chinese was facilitated by these Indo-Greeks. It’s certainly not beyond the realms of feasibility. Look at a map and you’ll see what I mean. What is however open to question is the claim that Bactrian sculptors and artists could have helped the first Chinese emperor create the famous Terracotta army.

Could have happened….but needless to say, modern China thinks otherwise.

DISCOVER: Why Flat Earthers will find no comfort in history

Ancient Greek influence on Buddhist thought

It’s been conjectured that the philosophy of the Cynics exercised a huge influence on Christianity in the Levant. But the Cynics and other branches of Greek philosophy could also have helped shape Buddhist theology. And of course Greek thinkers might have absorbed Buddhist precepts so the intellectual traffic went in both directions.

Even the physical depiction of the Buddha shows the Greek love of the human form. Something that was avoided by many pious people in the east. Like the Romans, the Greeks also had a syncretic approach to religion – they mixed their Gods with local deities. So, the Buddha may have taken a de-personalised entity and given it a human body, possibly modelled on Apollo or one of the deified Bactrian kings.

I love this kind of historical mash-up of cultures.

Mainly because it blows apart the lazy assumption that ‘cultures’ develop in some kind of pure, hermetically sealed bubble. The idea that ancient Greeks and Mauryan Indians were not just warring against each other but exchanging ideas should be a lesson to our own time.

This melding of cultures is evidenced by my own collection of Bactrian coins with the one depicted below showing the Bactrian king with a Greek wording on one side and then the local Indian dialect on the other side of the coin.

lunatic asylum

Inside a British lunatic asylum

One building dominated the horizon near where I grew up in north east London. It had the distinctive, squat, red-brick water tower common to the Victorian era British lunatic asylum. This was Claybury Hospital, a vast complex covering 290 acres for treating the mentally ill of east London and the Essex suburbs.

Both my parents were on the medical staff at Claybury in the 1960s and in fact, it’s where they met – in the cafeteria. However, my father decided psychiatry wasn’t his bag and changed careers but my mother was there until the asylum closed in the late 1980s. Despite all the criticism and misinformation levelled at psychiatric hospitals, as well as the fear they inspired, she loved the work.

To go inside a lunatic asylum

As a child, I got a privileged look at life in an asylum. And it fascinated me. Every weekend, I’d accompany my father in the car to pick up my mother as she came off her Saturday and Sunday shifts. As with many psychiatric hospitals, the grounds were idyllic. Beautifully landscaped with pristine lawns, chestnut trees, a large willow, an eighteenth century manor house incorporated into the hospital, tennis courts and two big old churches – Anglican and Catholic.

As children, my sister and I would go and practice our serve on the tennis court, which I think was for staff, while outside the wire fence, patients would walk around in their dressing gowns in what could often look like a mildly zombified state. I assumed this is what they meant by a “chemical straitjacket”. Quite frequently, patients would wander out of the main gates and into the local town and then be returned by police officers or locals.

It’s hard to convey the scale of Claybury. But it was like a self-contained village even generating its own electricity up to 1929. The hospital was a combination of closed, semi-closed and open wards. There was therefore a large cohort of permanently resident patients for whom Claybury put on a detailed calendar of social and sports activity. In 1964, a Social and Recreational Centre was opened that put on dances with a small orchestra providing the music.

From lunatic asylum to therapeutic community

In the 1960s, the hospital pioneered what was called the ‘therapeutic community’ approach to its 2,000 patients. Patients and staff collaborated on day-to-day functions. And former patients were employed to work with nurses on the domestic chores to keep the wards clean and functioning. This was termed the “Claybury revolution” and not all staff, used to a more authoritarian regime, liked the new way. But it was mandated by two charismatic and reforming managers at Claybury – Denis Martin and John Pippard.

They wanted to break with the old stereotypes of the Victorian asylum. Decisions on treatment would be made through democratic discussion and, as far as was possible, patients were encouraged to take responsibility for their own behaviour. The therapeutic community approach at Claybury become an international talking point in mental health circles.

DISCOVER: Homosexuality and the abuse of psychology

I was always taken by the personal relationship that my mother had with patients at the asylum. She would bring their artwork and even cookery home to share. I’ll be honest, as a child I was reticent to eat the cakes made at Claybury. I remember blurting out: “What if they put a razor blade in there?” Seriously ignorant comment. And I’d get a telling off for saying such a thing. When a patient passed away, my mother was genuinely upset. There were strong bonds between some of the patients and medical staff.

Controversial treatments

In terms of the controversial aspects of Claybury – one can’t ignore the use of lobotomies for a period. My mother was present at one and the nurse next to her fainted during the procedure. This awful operation was thankfully discontinued but not before it had ruined many lives. What still continues to this day is the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). That is sending an electric current through the brain, normally to address severe depression.

I’m always amazed at the number of people who think ECT doesn’t happen anymore. It very much does. But way more sparingly than fifty years ago. I once asked my mother how ECT worked and she told me that a consultant had once summed it up to her: “We have now idea what it does but it seems to do the job”. In other words, ECT is based purely on the empirically observed, surface results without much idea of what it’s doing beneath the surface.

Contrary to what many people think, it’s performed under general anaesthetic – though in the old days that was not always the case. Having sadly lost a friend to depression (he jumped off a motorway bridge head first), I realise that for some people any cure is grabbed at when all else has failed. My mother recalled being on ‘suicide watch’ at Claybury when a patient in bed during the night tore a button off his pyjama bottoms, split it in half, and managed to slash his wrists. My mother told me this to illustrate how suicidal feelings can overwhelm some poor souls.

FIND OUT MORE: My father dies of Covid – a reflection

There is no doubting the asylum system was flawed and you wouldn’t re-invent it. However, nobody believes that we spend anywhere near enough on mental health or that ‘care in the community’ and the closure of the asylums was driven as much be cost saving as a desire for better therapies. And sadly, there is a high representation of mentally ill people in another institution these days: prisons.

Claybury – or the ‘loony bin’ as my schoolmates used to term it – is now a luxury housing estate. The wards of the one-time lunatic asylum are now bedrooms and dining rooms. One of the Victorian churches has a swimming pool in what was previously the nave. I own one of the pews, which I took with the vicar’s permission before the hospital gates closed for the last time. And the patients and staff are ghostly memories.