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.

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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.

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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.

Maddest rulers in history

Who were the maddest rulers in history? We’ve not been short of a few in my lifetime. Though some have been insane but wily while others had become incapacitated through mental illness. Colonel Gaddafi is a good example of insane but wily. While poor old Boris Yeltsin seemed increasingly unstable in his last years.

Dynastic systems breed the maddest rulers

When you have a political system where somebody inherits the top job, you’re not always assured of the best person for the role. That’s especially the case when the new king or queen is completely insane. Yet that’s exactly what has happened many times in history when the mad have taken over.

Charles VI of France (1368 to 1422) believed he was made of glass and wore protective clothes to prevent his body being shattered. Think what happens to the Night King in Game of Thrones and you get the idea. In one incident while out hunting, Charles was convinced he was under attack and killed four of his own retainers before being restrained.

The reign of Charles VI was very long because he took power when he was very young. And there seems to be a connection between assuming the throne in infancy and coming under tremendous mental strain. Think about it. You have had no preparation for absolute power and when things go wrong, it comes as an overwhelming shock.

Maddest rulers: Henry VI and his fits of deep depression

So, child monarchs don’t tend to have happy reigns. Henry III, Richard II and Henry VI in England are good examples of this. Henry VI suffered what looks like fits of depression that made him completely unable to rule for periods of time. Stress seems to have rendered him like a rabbit in headlights – he froze while his advisers around him panicked.

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Juana La Loca (literally Joanna the Mad) was Queen of Castille, part of modern Spain, in the early 16th century. This was when Spanish power around the world was reaching its height with colonies in the Americas, across Europe and Asia. But Juana was way too mad to be allowed to rule any of that so she was “secluded” (locked away) in a castle.

Maddest rulers from the bible and ancient Rome

The biblical monarch of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar exhibited symptoms of a disorder known as boanthropy where an individual believes they might be a cow! Now it’s hard to know if this was propaganda used against him or the truth. But the condition certainly exists.

The Roman Empire threw up an extraordinary number of mentally unstable emperors almost from the start. The second emperor, Tiberius, retreated to the island of Capri where he reportedly tortured people in some pretty horribly ways.

He was then succeeded by Caligula whose madness is disputed by some historians but accepted by most. One of his oddest acts was to announce the appointment of a new consul, which turned out to be a horse called Incitatus.

In the 6th century CE, the Byzantine Empire was ruled by Justin II. A chronicler called John of Ephesus described how he was possessed by an evil angel that made him impersonate animals!

For suddenly it destroyed his reason, and his mind was agitated and darkened, and his body given over both to secret and open tortures and cruel agonies, so that he even uttered the cries of various animals, and barked like a dog, and bleated like a goat; and then he would mew like a cat, and then again crow like a cock: and many such things were done by him, contrary to human reason, being the workings of the prince of darkness…

Ecclesiastical History – John of Ephesus – Book 3

The only way to calm Justin down was to have organ music played all day and night, which must have driven his courtiers round the bend. He also had to be pulled through the palace in what’s described as a throne but I think a baby cart would present a truer picture.

And then no blog post on mad monarchs could leave out the maddest of them all – King George III. The king of England who lost America and his mind. Experts are still debating what the nature of his disorder was and views seem to change every year.

But the poor man was completely incapacitated for periods and would do things like greeting trees and shaking their branches as if they were human. You will all be familiar with the famous stage play and movie on this life story.

C’mon America – was King George really a tyrant?

It wasn’t just American colonists who though King George III of England was a tyrant. Many English radicals thought he was too. And that’s before we canvass the opinion of the French!

King George the tyrant – in American eyes!

I’ve now been to see the musical Hamilton twice and what’s not to like. Alexander Hamilton as a morally compromised hero. Thomas Jefferson as a vicious piece of work. And then there’s the hilarious figure of King George III – who prances on to the stage to rile the audience.

He loathes democracy. Thinks America won’t be able to handle everyday life once he’s forced from their stage. They’ll be crying to have him back soon – he jibes at the theatregoers. And we love it of course. Everybody adores a villain. Especially a villain with a big crown and velvet breeches.

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King George – not such a tyrant

I appeared as a contributor on the TV series Private Lives of the Monarchs presented by the co-curator of the Royal Palaces, Tracy Borman. We did one programme looking at King George III and posing the question – was he really THAT bad?

He was certainly a lot more complex than he’s given credit for. His correspondence points to a man who took kingship terribly seriously. In fact, he was very keen to be seen as a “good king” and a constitutional monarch.

Compared to monarchs in continental Europe, he was fairly benign. He had to work with a democratically elected parliament (well, elected by property owners at that time) and couldn’t make arbitrary judgments in the way that kings were able to in France – or the Tsar in Russia.

His Prime Minister imposed a stamp tax on the American colonies. The reason was to pay for the war that had just been fought against France in the Americas. Not only the cost of that war but also the continued stationing of troops in the colonies had to be paid for. Not that the English expected to see all that tax revenue as America had a shaky record on actually coughing up its taxes due to the British crown.

Well, as we know, Americans of an independent spirit saw things differently. They rebelled and achieved their independence. So how did King George the tyrant react to the loss of the United States?

George wrote a long letter on the subject full of remorse and sadness. Interestingly, his main point was a warning to British politicians that no overseas possession could be retained if those living there didn’t support British rule.

Americans had clearly turned their back on the king and Mother Country. But George wrote that he hoped they could remain friends – if for no other reason than mutual trading benefits.

I’m not going to completely whitewash King George III here or let him off the tyrant hook completely. But we’re all grown ups here and capable of a bit of nuance and acceptance of shades of grey in history.

George III’s main claim to fame was the onset of madness. Now we wouldn’t mock the insane today. Yet George’s mental illness was treated with hilarity at the time in a way that would make most of you squirm. For example, he was referred to by one English satirist as “Your Mad-jesty”.

The tyrant King George did end up talking to plants and addressing Lords as peacocks. The man’s condition was made worse by being treated with toxic substances like arsenic. Still, he did have an unusually long reign from 1760 to 1820 and very much shaped the era in which he ruled.