Reviewed by Graham on 10th June, 2016
Mark Stevens, County Archivist for Berkshire with access to the early
Broadmoor archives set the background for his talk by describing the
changes in moral attitudes to the mentally ill and changes to the law
that predated the establishment of Broadmoor.
He gave a most interesting insight into life as a patient there and then
presented fascinating stories of some of the patients.
18th century mental asylums, such as the Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam),
notably illustrated by William Hogarth, were dreadful places. The
patients were frequently chained, hungry and dirty. Visitors were
often welcomed as if to a zoo.
Appalled by conditions in the York Lunatic Asylum, William Tuke
and the Society of Friends (Quakers) founded in 1796 "The York Retreat"
with the aim of providing humane care for the mentally ill. This
attitude to mental illness became increasingly accepted. An Act of 1808
empowered, but not compelled, the building of hospitals in every County town.
The 1815 Parliamentary Committee on Madhouses further consolidated this
caring attitude rather the inhumanity of Bethlem Hospital which was rebuilt
at Southwark and opened in that year.
It was, however, not until 1863 that Broadmoor was opened. The site at
Crowthorne was chosen as near London (but not too close) on elevated
ground, a light airy location with the advantage that as Crown Land
it was free.
Mr Stevens next described some high profile incidents that led to
changes in the way that insanity was regarded in law.
In 1800, James Hadfield, attempted the assassination of George III.
Hadfield led a normal family life, but an ex-soldier who had suffered
severe head injuries, having been struck eight times with a sabre.
He had a specific delusion that the second coming of Christ would
result from his death by order of the British Government. The assassination
attempt was simply a means to bring about his execution. His trial
was halted by the judge who declared the verdict "was clearly an acquittal"
but "the prisoner, for his own sake, and for the sake of society at large,
must not be discharged". Parliament speedily passed the Criminal Lunatics
Act 1800 to provide for the indefinite detention of insane defendants
and Hadfield was detained until "His Majesty's pleasure be known" i.e.
indefinitely, in Bethlem Royal Hospital.
In 1840, Edward Oxford fired two pistols at Queen Victoria (who was
pregnant with her first child). He was charged with treason, but
acquitted by a jury declaring him to be "not guilty by reason of insanity".
Queen Victoria was not amused and privately believed that his hanging
would have deterred the seven assailants who subsequently attempted
to assassinate her.
In 1843 Daniel M'Naghten (or McNaughton) shot Edward Drummond, the
Private Secretary to Sir Robert Peel, the Tory Prime Minister who had
been M'Naghten's intended victim. Drummond died, but M'Naghten was acquitted,
using the defence of insanity leading to a public uproar. A panel of judges
was requested to establish the principles to be applied to mentally
disordered defendants. The rules established, usually referred to as the
M'Naghten Rules have been adopted in many parts of the world and allow for
the accused to be adjudged "not guilty by reason of insanity" or "guilty
but insane" and the sentence may be a mandatory or discretionary period
of treatment in a secure hospital facility. These rules have been modified
since with the introduction of the concept of "diminished responsibility".
Mr Stevens then returned to his main theme of Broadmoor
On 27th May 1863, the first patients, eight women arrived, the women's block
having been completed first. One petty thief, one had stabbed her
husband and the other six had all killed or wounded their children.
These six would now probably be diagnosed as suffering from post-natal
depression. The men's block was opened in February 1864. The inmates,
most of whom were murderers, all came through the criminal justice system
from a wide range of social status and age. The youngest, William Giles,
was just 10 when admitted to Broadmoor and died there aged 87. The eldest,
George Pursall, 78 on admission, lived with his wife for 60 years
before killing her with an iron bar.
The patients' day began early, with breakfast of bread and butter and tea,
followed by optional prayers. Lunch was usually bread and cheese,
the evening meal was usually meat and vegetables with 3/4 pint of very
weak beer and a further serving of bread and butter for supper.
Patients were encouraged to occupy themselves with work or a hobby.
In some respects Victorian Broadmoor was a self sufficient village
with patients undertaking chores.
Mr Stevens showed a photograph of male staff around 1885, probably
marking the retirement of the second medical superintendant,
Dr William Orange. Attacks by patients on staff were frequent and
staff turnover was initially high, nearly 50% annually. Also staff
discipline was a serious problem, the reasons for dismissal were
reported as dishonesty, incompetence, drunkenness, sleeping on
night duty, using abusive language and letting patients escape.
There were 26 escapes in the first 10 years, leading to the
raising of the boundary wall and stronger window bars.
Mr Stevens told interesting stories of some of the escapees.
One, Richard Walker, escaped in his nightshirt and was returned
to Broadmoor in time for lunch. Another, James Kelly, was
sentenced to death in 1883 for the murder of his wife, Sarah,
but just before he was due to be hanged he was diagnosed as
a paranoid schizophrenic and admitted to Broadmoor. In 1888
he escaped using a key he and another patient had made. In
1896 a man told the British Consul in New Orleans that he had
escaped from Broadmoor and would like to return. When his
story was confirmed arrangements were made for him to be put on
a ship to Liverpool. Broadmoor staff arranged to meet the ship,
but this arrived early. Kelly waited a while but then set off
and disappeared. In 1927, thirty nine years after his escape,
aged and sick, Kelly returned to Broadmoor and asked to be
re-admitted! It has been suggested that Kelly might have
committed the murders attributed to "Jack the Ripper".
Mr Stevens continued with fascinating stories of
other patients, including:
- William Chester Minor, a surgeon who served in the
Union Army during the American Civil War. He became insane,
attributed in part to his horrific war-time experiences.
He was admitted to a mental hospital in Washington but
subsequently discharged and travelled to England in 1871.
His deluded mind believed that men entered his room at night
and abused him. One night he woke up and chased the man he
imagined in his room. Reaching the street a killed a man
on his way to work. Sent to Broadmoor, his army pension and
his family allowed him to collect a substantial library which
was housed in a second room in addition to his bedroom.
Becoming aware of the need for volunteers to help with the
production of the Oxford English Dictionary he used his
library to provide quotations that illustrated the use of
words, becoming the most effective volunteer contributor to the
dictionary. His delusions became more extreme and he was returned
to the care of his family in America where he died in 1920.
- Richard Dadd, an English painter of the Victorian era,
noted for his depictions of fairies and other supernatural
subjects, rendered with obsessively minuscule detail.
On a Grand Tour of ancient classical sites he became convinced
that he was controlled by Osiris, the Egyptian God. Sent home,
his family chose to look after him, rather than commit him
to an asylum. Obeying his perceived wishes of Osiris he killed
his father. He was found by the courts to be insane and in 1844
sent to the criminal lunatic ward of Bethlem and became one of
the first group to be sent to Broadmoor. Most of the works for
which he is best known were created while he was a patient at
- Christiana Edmunds who became known as
The Chocolate Cream Killer after poisoning several people with
strychnine in chocolate creams, killing one.
and several more. These can all be found in fascinating
detail in Mr Stevens' book Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime
and the Lunatic Asylum, now in a second edition.