This is again for mental health awareness week. I spent some time today at the archives in Preston. I am currently participating in a local history/arts/creative writing/mental health project. It is based around the Whittingham Asylum at Preston and it aims to give a voice to the lives and stories that played out there. It was a very large Asylum and Preston was very proud of it, there were about 500 staff and often as many as 3000 inpatients.
I have learned a lot in such a few sessions and certainly had some of my own assumptions challenged. The Asylum opened in 1873 and had patients sent there from all over the north-west of England, many of the other Asylums, workhouses, almshouses were already bursting at the seams. It was regarded as a model Asylum and postcards of its external facade were sold as memorabilia. There were extensive gardens where fruit and vegetables were grown and it even had its own orchestra. Underneath this facade still lurked the very real horrors of Victorian poverty and the mental health of a scarred nation. End-stage syphilis was one of the significant causes of the mental and psychotic decline that resulted in many people spending their end of days in the Asylum and in the period of World War 1, both shell-shock and a form of hydrocephalus resulting from the Spanish flu were responsible for increased demand for spaces and places within the Asylum. The superintendent’s journal from 1873-95 was stark to begin with detailing the very worst events including the frequent dismissals of staff for what can only be described as physical abuse of the inpatients and the frequent outbreaks of scarlatina, diarrhoea and typhoid, whilst rules and regulations resulted in greater detail in later entries, including the deaths from misadventure, poor health and at their own hand.
The Asylum had its own cemetery. People came and went though, it wasn’t always the end of the road and when the photographer that came to capture the newly admitted, those well enough would ask to have images taken to show they were well and recovered to send to their loved ones with the plea to come and take them away.
Today we were considering restraint, emotional, physical and chemical.
I wrote this for Charlotte.
Into the light, beyond the bands that bind me tight,
Into the dawn, beneath the hands that hold me down,
Into the sunlight, the stench of starch and sulphur stings my eyes
Into the madness, my muddled mind festers in fetid fettered manacles.
© Alison Jean Hankinson