I’ve been thinking about the UK’s great love affair with institutions. Large or small, although we used to prefer them the larger the better. Different types of institutions but generally designed to meet the same principle – anything we don’t like seeing on the outside, send them in so we don’t have to unsettled ourselves by a daily encounter.
I was watching the Robert Rinder episode of Who Do You Think You Are. He was looking into the history of his great grandfather who came to London from Latvia at the age of 19 already traumatised by early experiences of unrest in his homeland. By the age of 29 and by now married with a few children, he was admitted to Frimwell Green lunatic asylum. The admission notes presented to Robert clearly showed his great grandfather suffered from what we would now call paranoid schizophrenia. He remained in the asylum for the rest of his life, dying 14 years later at the age of 43. The case notes in his last years became fewer and fewer and Robert sadly realised that the world gave up on him. The family had long stopped talking about him and the hospital had lost any interest in treating him, beyond a barren containment.
This story reminded me of my maternal great grandfather’s X 2 story. William Worley was born in 1800 and his life took a turn for the worse in 1833 when his young 29 year old wife died, shortly after the birth of their seventh child. One by one the children were taken in by various neighbours in the village as William turned to crime, presumably to support his family. He was out of prison by the mid 1850s but leading a solitary life until he was admitted to the Amersham Union workhouse in 1857. He lived there until he died in 1873. 16 years in such a wretched institution. They weren’t designed for such long periods of habitation (placement?) so one is left wondering how he came to be there for so long. A workhouse is different from an asylum although the Amersham workhouse seemed to have a wide clientele. William was classified as a “pauper” but James in the next bed to him was recorded as an “idiot”. Perhaps what they had uncommon was their unsavouriness to the sensitive Victorian eye and therefore had to be kept out of sight. Time became immaterial. The institutions were about containment rather than treatment or rehabilitation.
The Neary family had two further brushes with institutions in the 1950s and 1960s. My two cousins spent their childhood in the Margate residential school for the deaf. My Uncle Frank, who I’m pretty sure had a learning disability, spent the last two years of his life in Derby’s asylum from 1953 to 1955. Looking at the publicity material of both places from that time neither of them saw themselves as institutions, certainly not in the negative way asylums and workhouses had begun to be viewed. Spin was a less sophisticated affair back them but it’s pretty clear that both Margate and Derby believed they were providing a very positive service. The benefits tended to focus on the physical but nonetheless the general message was, “This is a good place for you. You’ll be better off here than anywhere else”.
On a side note, I’ve always wondered how Uncle Frank ended up in Derby, so far from his home in Southall. Now we know from 2018 experiences that placing someone 100s of miles from their home is commonplace but why Derby? The other day I discovered that two of the founders of the Derby asylum were previously superintendents at St Bernards Asylum. In Southall. It’s possible that Uncle Frank was known to them from their work at St Bernards and when they needed patients for this top of the new range facility, they traded in people from their old stomping ground.
Workhouses and asylums have long gone. But in the shape of assessment and treatment units, the nation’s attraction to institutions continues. Are ATUs the last vestiges of a particular British preference? Are we in the last knockings of that feature from the shadow of the British psyche – repulsion of disability and the disabled? Frankly, the Victorians were repulsed by pretty much everything so it’s not surprising that instititutions became so popular. Nowadays we are meant to be all inclusive with a warm empathy to the “unseemlier” members of our society. We’re not of course. The only thing that’s happened is for that repulsion to be pushed deeper into the unconscious shadows but it can’t suddenly disappear. It’s got to go somewhere. We’ve got to hang on to something to project the worst of our disability intolerance on to. ATUs serve a very useful purpose on that score.
1873, 1953 or 2018? Everything has changed. And nothing has changed.