The Last Institutions?

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.

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8 thoughts on “The Last Institutions?”

  1. A very good article!
    In Buckinghamshire the Council decided to provide day services in a few smart new buildings in out of the way places (without any signage) for people with Learning Disabilities, Dementia and Mental Health problems. I think this is so that they could lump all the “undesirables” together somewhere where the general public wouldn’t have to see them or even know that they were there.

    1. I believe these services – are yet again (as we would say in Scotland).on a. ‘shoogly peg’ – and under……what is usually called.. ‘consultation’…?

  2. Excellent post.

    In 1873 they probably used chains to contain people who were deemed to be ‘challenging’ . Now they use powerful medication. Finola Moss reminded me that chains can be removed but removing medication is more difficult. In fact overmedication can damage a person indefinitely. In many cases it can never be removed. The damage can be long lasting and forever.

  3. Mark. I would like to use a little bit of space here – please. Your blog, as always has moved me beyond competent expression..but:

    I have been attempting to understand my family tree. I have found as others have, hardship and poverty in my x grandparents lives. My x 2 great grandmother, killed herself with sulphuric acid aged 38. She had had another child and her husband, a tallow chandler, disabled from this unhealthy work was unemployed. She chose not to live – as an option.

    Her daughter my x 1 great grandmother died aged 24 of typhoid, having just given birth to my granny a twin, her brother died at a few weeks old. My granny was abandoned by her father and unhappily fostered, to an aunt.

    Institutions flourished amidst all this hardship and misery. What is not clear in the records is just how much these, mutually impoverished, communities could help each other.

    This year – support wis, it has been too easy to believe no one cares.

    My car broke down two days ago and it was pouring with rain. I did not have phone. A kind young mad called the AA for me. I was told was a long wait as Christmas period. A battered white van pulled up – I felt a bit afraid. A young man got out and asked if he could help. The car was dead – but he tried. As he was leaving he offered to bring a cup of coffee back to me. The AA came and I shakily steered my car on tow to a garage who gave me an eyewatering assessment for cost of repair – told this could not happen till after Christmas. I left car and booked a taxi to take me home. The young taxi driver asked me what had happened. He was shocked at the garage cost of repair; said he knew a garage used by the drivers that would fix my car next day for far less. I took a chance and he sorted all out. He kept in touch with me as he did so.

    My car was collected taken to the other garage all sorted by taxi driver. He picked me up today and took me to Vladimir – who had fixed my care for less than half the proposed cost of the other, National chain, garage, My taxi driver firmly refused a tip and gave me a card – telling me to contact him if I was ever in trouble.

    My car drove away from Vladimir’s garage in better shape than for months.

    Three young men at a very busy time in the year – with families of their own – had all offered me such unexpected kindness, Plus lovely Vladimir who is Russian. He pulled out all the stops – fixed my car over night – and at such a very fair price – so that I had my car available to visit my learning disabled son and his little wife, for Christmas.

    We/me/us – people, always under pressure – battle ..too often for just a little help.

    I recognise now – that over these too hard years, I had lost my belief in the goodness of my fellow man.

    These 4 kind men gave it back to me.

    In our Political climate – where countrys – never mind communities – can seem introverted and distrustful – my rescuers – 3 British Asian and a very large and smiling – Russian, .Vladimir – disproved this.

    They – the miraculous four – did more for me over the last two days than mend my car…bless them.

    They mended me.

      1. Thank you. A totally miraculous 2 days…I went from deep and desperate despair (been a very hard year on top of too many similar) – to renewal in spirit and hope. x

  4. I think institutions were a Victorian disease, not only because of repulsion towards disabled people but also because it was an opportunity for philanthropy – rich men wanted their names on buildings and they wanted to be seen doing good, so they built big institutions such as orphanages and schools for the blind and deaf. Bear in mind that the very rich always sent their children away to school, so it was not much of a stretch to send disabled children there too; it was seen as a privilege rather than a form of abuse. The use of institutions for people with learning disabilities intensified in the early 20th century because of Darwinism; a person with a disability which could be hereditary (even if in fact it wasn’t) had to be hidden away because the beliefs of the day made them a social liability. This is why they were the default means of ‘caring’ for a disabled person until very recently.

    These days, I think the existence of places like St Andrews and the various ATUs is down to money as much as to revulsion. As a society we have become conditioned to expecting to pay as little tax as possible and no politician can win an election on a promise to put up taxes to pay for things which will benefit “other people”. Hence, local authorities are starved of funds (because council taxes, which are not income-based, are particularly unpopular), the NHS (paid for centrally) picks up the bill and then contracts to the various private operators who all compete on price, which is why they do not hire sufficient staff to make life decent for the people they house. Ironically, NHS mental health wards have been closing since the 80s and that’s considered a good thing, until they do not have sufficient beds and turn to the private sector.

  5. This article got me thinking about my uncle . When I was a child in the 1950,s my uncle was locked up in soss moss for years . All he had was epilepsy. I’m sure being in there made him worse . He was institutionalised. He really couldn’t cope and was in and out of hospitals for years .
    This day and age you’d think these places would be better run but they’re not they are just the same cruel places as they were all those years ago . Carol

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