King's College London
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Mind Matters: neuroscience and psychiatry

The York Lunatic Asylum

The intertwined stories of the York Lunatic Asylum and the York Retreat are important chapters in the history of psychiatric institutions in Britain, for two reasons.

First, they demonstrated a stark choice of opposite treatments of patients. Second, the horrific tale of the York Lunatic Asylum contributed to the slow development of tight legal regulation by the end of the 1840s.

The York Retreat, from: Jonathan Gray. A history of the York Lunatic asylum: with an appendix, containing evidence of the cases of abuse lately inquired into by a Committee, &c. York: printed by W Hargrove and Co, for J Wolstenholme, York [et al], 1815 [Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection h/Gra]The York Retreat, from: Jonathan Gray. A history of the York Lunatic asylum: with an appendix, containing evidence of the cases of abuse lately inquired into by a Committee, &c. York: printed by W Hargrove and Co, for J Wolstenholme, York [et al], 1815 [Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection h/Gra] The York Lunatic Asylum was built in 1777, financed by the donations of prominent individuals in the locality. The unexplained death of a Quaker inmate, Hannah Mills, in 1790 led to her co-religionist William Tuke (1733-1823), a tea and coffee merchant, founding the York Retreat in 1792 (see plate). This became renowned as a pioneering institution in its humane treatment of patients and in the meticulous care devoted to securing an environment conducive to recovery.

As can be seen from the plate, the Retreat was small. A strict limit was imposed on the number of patients in order to maintain the therapeutic atmosphere.

The York Lunatic Asylum evaded inspection until 1813 (public asylums were inadequately inspected, if at all, and private ‘madhouses’ were outside the purview of the law), when Godfrey Higgins, a landed gentleman with a social conscience, joined forces with the Tuke family to investigate the persistent rumours of ill-treatment of patients. They discovered that the rumours were more than justified; their findings included physical abuse and neglect of patients, insanitary conditions, sexual relationships between keepers and patients and no separation of male and female patients. The subsequent public outcry led to the replacement of the governors of the asylum and the staff, an adequate inspection regime and proper supervision of the keepers.

The author of this short account of this episode has been identified as Jonathan Gray (1779-1837), a lawyer and an alderman of the city of York. He was both an enthusiastic amateur ecclesiastical musician and a member of the Evangelical movement. This copy was owned by the pioneering alienist John Conolly (1794-1866).

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