Lessons from history: asylum patients’ Christmas experience

Lessons from history: asylum patients’ Christmas experience

Diane Carpenter

British Journal of Nursing (2011), Vol 20, No 22.     


This article outlines the asylum building programme of the mid- to-late nineteenth century and focuses on case studies of the two Hampshire asylums built during this period, the subject of the author’s doctoral thesis. It demonstrates the plight of ‘pauper lunatics’ before asylum reform and contrasts this with the improved quality of life provided by the Hampshire County Lunatic Asylum and the Borough of Portsmouth Lunatic Asylum respectively. Asylum care during this period followed the moral treatment regime which became the Victorian blueprint for mental health, components of which are illustrated. Criticism of this regime is addressed briefly and arguments are made against anachronistic analysis. Comparison with contemporary in-patient care and treatment is made concluding with a call to reconsider some of the better aspects of earlier care delivery.The particular experience of patients in Hampshire asylums at Christmas is used to exemplify the points raised. 

On Monday 13 December 1852,William Wrapson had the distinction of becoming the first patient to be admitted to Hampshire’s brand new County Lunatic Asylum. Born in Chichester, he grew up to become a cabinet maker living in the Fareham area. Sometime before his 49th birthday in 1851, he became mentally unwell to the extent that he was unable to support himself financially and was admitted to the Grove Place Asylum in Nursling, near Romsey – a private lunatic asylum which accepted paupers from local Unions. On 8 December 1852, he and 11 fellow residents of that establishment were chosen by two Justices of the Peace, members of the Committee of Visitors to the yet unopened county asylum, as suitable for admission. Five days later, Wrapson and five other male patients were transferred. His name was the first to appear in the Medical Casebook, so it is probable that he was the first to be examined by Dr Ferguson, the Medical Superintendent.There must have been considerable optimism surrounding Wrapson and his fellow patients since only those deemed likely to respond to treatment were initially selected for admission.The asylum building was not entirely completed when William Wrapson first walked through its large panelled doors. Set in woodlands with vast grounds, the site retained the vestiges of building materials and equipment. If the sleeping accommodation was somewhat small, the communal rooms were large and the ceilings high, long casement windows filling those rooms with light.The large fireplaces would have provided a cosy atmosphere in the wards and it being just before Christmas, the staff would, as later records indicated, most probably have decorated the rooms for the festive season.

Click here to read this article from British Journal of Nursing

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