Change Minds Norwich – Richard’s Research

Change Minds

by Richard Johnson

I was alerted to the Change Minds project by my treating psychologist. Her timing was impeccable – the timetable for 2018 was due to begin shortly and this year it was the turn of Norwich. I enrolled. I was enthused. I was asked to write something for the blog.

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Where to Start?

What form should my research take? What do I want to get out of the project? What would be interesting? How can I use my personal experience (both work and mental health issues)? How could my research benefit the project as a whole – whether currently or for future years?

There is nothing disciplined or academic about my initial research. Grab a book and let yourself be carried away!

Ideally I should have started with the very good summary of the asylum in the 1880s by Laura Drysdale (extracted from Stephen Cherry’s history of the asylum) on the Change Minds website (under News, dated 22 July 2016). Other basic information regarding the building itself can be found at   and

Cherry’s book is available in the reference section of Norwich Library – Cherry, Stephen; Mental Health in Modern England: The Norfolk Lunatic Asylum, St Andrew’s Hospital 1810-1998)

Legal Matters

Having been fired up by the prospect of exercising my brain again, I set to work with some pre-project research. Given my previous experience within a legal environment, I naturally immersed myself into Victorian lunacy legislation and identified what evidence, theoretically at least, I could expect to find. Although the project is based on the 1880s, the 1890 Lunacy Act is extremely useful as it principally confirmed and consolidated existing law rather than introduced new legislation. Archbold’s Lunacy (1895) includes the act itself and regulations as to what records ‘should’ be kept and gives an idea of mental health treatment from a legal point of view.

Odds and Sods

I was able to download Archbold’s and various other legislative works from that  researcher’s goldmine that is the Internet Archive (a free on-line collection of old books, papers, music etc with a very good search engine!). Other ‘gem’s’ included:

– two volumes of The Asylum Journal of Medical Science (the ‘in-house magazine’ of the Association of Medical Officers of Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane). Unfortunately only for the 1850s but Norfolk gets three (dishonourable) mentions in volume 2: Neglect of a Lunatic in the Asylum of Norwich Workhouse, Misgovernment of the Norfolk County Asylum and Inquest at the Norfolk County Asylum, pp78-79, 99-102 and 143-144 respectively. The last entry concerned the ‘mysterious’ death of a patient William Sizer in 1854, and interestingly was also covered by the Daily News of London (see Norfolk Library Service – 19th century newspapers). Perhaps Norfolk Record Office (NRO) can reveal more information? Other topics in the journals include types of lunacy, treatments, bed sores, restraint, forced feeding, how to clean urine-saturated floors, a lengthy discourse on suitable headdress for male pauper lunatics and …werewolves! Very informative as to the mindset of the medical ‘experts’ and the progression from the horrors of the imagined Victorian asylum to a more humane approach.

The Bastilles of England by the former secretary of the Lunacy Law Reform Society (1883) and Mad Doctors by ‘one of them’ (1890) – being a criticism of mental health care and a defence of asylum doctors respectively.  

– The detailed account of a court case into the mental state of a Norfolk man in 1861-1862.  Admittedly a wealthy man and not your typical ‘lunatic’ picked off the street but interesting nonetheless. The spectators appeared to have enjoyed themselves.

“Facts! Facts! Facts!”

The following is by no means a complete review of the records held at NRO for the 1880s but I hope it gives some idea of what information each group may contain. I have compiled a list of the records available for the 1880s in NRO, if anybody is interested. The years which appear ‘best-covered’ by the records are 1884, 1885, 1886 and 1887; NRO does not have a copy of the annual reports for 1887 but Norwich Library does.

Annual reports of the medical superintendent and the Commissioners in Lunacy (CIL) –  formal reports drawn up by ‘the boss’ and by independent inspectors. Printed, although the latter is also supported by the original handwritten account. Includes lots of statistical tables. A good source for getting the feel of the general management of the asylum.

Medical Superintendent’s journal – handwritten account of events within the asylum, eg, deaths, escapes, transfers of patients, visits by CIL etc.  

Reception Orders – the original court order authorising the person’s removal to the asylum. May give additional information regarding reason for sending the person to the asylum and/or family details.

Admissions’ Register – ledger of admissions in chronological order. Notes if any previous admission and, again, may contain additional information regarding the patient.

Case Books/Chronic Case Books  – the point of the project; case studies of the patients themselves. The Chronic Case Books go back to the 1860s with some patients being in the asylum for over 30 years. Some chronic cases are carried over to later volumes which are time-restricted.

Registers of Discharge, Death, Burials etc – not seen as yet but probably self explanatory

Post Mortem Book – not seen as yet but probably self explanatory (and a bit gruesome).

There are also wage books and accounts. Sadly there is no direct evidence from the patients themselves. Norwich Library also has several contemporary reports from other asylums including the city asylum at Hellesdon and the ‘Idiot’s’ Asylum for the Eastern Counties at Colchester.

A Victorian Sampler

A selection from the records:

The medical superintendent substituted water for beer at dinner (1880) and expressed satisfaction that patients’ appetites had improved as a consequence; beer continued to be given to working patients. The Commissioners in Lunacy noted that this issue was the subject of a complaint by (only!) one of the patients.

Probable causes of disorders for one year included previous attacks (29), ‘hereditary influence ascertained’ (27), ‘religious excitement’ (1), sunstroke (2), ‘love affairs’ (5) and ‘immoral life’ (2)!

In 1880, two attendants were dismissed for ‘gross neglect’ with respect to the separate deaths of two patients; an epileptic patient died of suffocation in the absence of supervision and another patient died of scalding after being placed in a bath without checking the temperature. It is interesting that another attendant was dismissed in 1881 for stealing calico but in this case they were also prosecuted and imprisoned for two weeks.

The Commissioners in Lunacy expressed concern regarding the ‘serious want’ in the absence of a cricket field! (1882). By 1885, the cricket pitch was under construction. Football and/or rugby are not mentioned.

Henry Self escaped at midday. He was found in Norwich in the afternoon, quite drunk, in the hands of the police!

Attendant given notice to leave on account of ‘great irritability’ displayed to the patients. Notice withdrawn on her promise to control her temper for the future.

By the ‘thoughtlessness’ of a workman, Edward Wright and William Bullen escaped from the airing ground but were soon followed and caught by the attendants.

Oliver Wood was committed to the asylum supposedly for the sole ‘offence’ of pestering the local post master to send a telegram to Mr Gladstone, the then Prime Minister!

Male patient sustained leg fractures ‘while wrestling with and endeavouring to throw an attendant heavier than himself’.

Several patients allowed to spend Sunday with relatives.

Although the Commissioners in Lunacy were generally positive regarding the management of the asylum and considered the case books ‘well kept’ (1885) there were a number of general criticisms.

In 1880: ‘asylum can no longer be properly worked or the patients fully looked after with only two resident medical officers’, and deaths are ‘undoubtedly high and, no doubt, attributable to the crowding which existed last year’. In 1882: ‘we do not usually find an asylum worked with so small a staff, and we can hardly deem it adequate’. In 1886: ‘proportion of attendants to patients is here lower than is found in many county asylums’. Notwithstanding the negative comments, from my reading of the medical superintendent’s journal, he (Dr Hills) comes across as a basically good, humane man. Perhaps, as Stephen Cherry suggests, he was suffering from fatigue having been in post since 1861.                                                                             

Now What?

I end where I started: What form should my research take? What do I want to get out of the project? What would be interesting? How can I use my personal experience (both work and mental health issues)? How could my research benefit the project as a whole – whether currently or for future years?

My thanks to the Restoration Trust and the members of the Change Minds team for giving me this opportunity.