Wakefield man shines light on early asylum life in West Yorkshire

10 May 2016

Real life tales of murder, delusion and despair are featured in a new book which shines a light on the patients held in a Wakefield mental asylum 200 years ago.

Wakefield resident David Scrimgeour has put the experiences of patients at the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum under the spotlight in ‘Proper People’, which he wrote after discovering his great grandma was held in a similar institution in Scotland.

The book uses extracts from hand written historical case notes and newspaper reports to paint a picture of what life was like for the people admitted to the asylum between 1818 and 1869, the first 50 years of its existence.

It reveals how the ‘pauper lunatics’ came to be incarcerated, and describes some of the treatment methods of the time, which included swinging patients from the ceiling and the use of mechanical restraint chairs and straightjackets. Mental health nurses were known officially as keepers and the patients were identified in medical notes by names such as ‘congenital idiot’ or ‘imbecile’.

After retiring from a lifelong career in IT sales in 2012, David, who grew up in Scotland, began researching his family history and discovered his great grandmother Elizabeth Scrimgeour had been held in an asylum near Glasgow.

With a growing interest in social history, he began to wonder what could also be discovered about the people held in the asylum in his adopted home town of Wakefield -  where people old and young were admitted from across South and West Yorkshire.

One of the accounts in Proper People describes how 17-year-old Sarah Riley from Sowerby was held in the asylum for believing she was Queen Victoria. She was detained in a room with another girl who believed the same, until she realised it was impossible for them both to be the same person – therefore curing her of her delusions.

Another account tells the tale of a child aged just eight who was admitted for being ‘insane from birth’, and died in the asylum age 45. Some patients stayed for most of their lives, like Patrick Gannon from Huddersfield, who died after being held for 54 years.

Using letters from the time, the book documents some of the relationships that patients had with their family and loved ones. Joseph Hoyle, who was found wandering the streets with a knitting needle, pricking those who passed, wrote poetry for his wife -  and was once allowed out for the day to visit her.

The asylum was one of only a handful in the UK to take people with mental conditions out of society to an institution where they were helped to recover. Previously, they would be chained to walls in workhouses, or held in cells or bedlams.

David, age 59, said: “Some of the cases make very sad reading but although some of the treatment of the patients there may seem barbaric by modern standards, the asylum actually led the way in terms of the ethical treatment of mental health patients. For example, they were encouraged to do some type of work as part of their rehabilitation, which included cleaning the wards and labouring on the farm.”

David, who has self-published Proper People, will be showcasing the book at the Wakefield One library on Friday 20th May, as part of an educational event to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week.

Taking place at 5pm, the free event will include a talk by Cara Sutherland, curator at the Mental Health Museum in Wakefield. Cara will discuss how the stories in the museum’s archives collection contribute to modern day debates about mental health, and helped inform Proper People.

David Scrimgeour will close the event with a look at how the relationships of those held in the asylum aided their recovery.

He said: “The research of this book has been a real labour of love. Although it was tough going at times trawling through realms of hand written doctors notes, I’m pleased that people are able to find out more about the lives of those held at the asylum. I’m really looking forward to sharing some of their stories during Mental Health Awareness Week.”

West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum later became Stanley Royd Hospital, which closed in 1995 and was converted into housing.

More details about Proper People and early life at the asylum can be found by visiting David’s blogs at  www.davidscrimgeour.co.uk and www.earlyasylumlife.uk.

Notes to editor

Attached photographs show David Scrimgeour, Elizabeth Scrimgeour in 1909, the exterior of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in 1818 and an example of the case notes used to research the book. Larger images of the patients described in the case studies are available on request.

For more information about David and his book, visit www.davidscrimgeour.co.uk or call 07702 678128.  

Additional media contact: Mary Ferguson on 01226 766900 or at mary@capitalbmedia.co.uk

This press release was prepared by Capital B Media, a public relations and media training agency based in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. For more information, please visit www.capitalbmedia.co.uk 

View current news