Gendered Conditions: The Northumberland County Lunatic Asylum.

Lois is completing her MA in Romantic and Victorian Literary Studies at Durham University, and will start her funded PhD at Edinburgh Napier later this year under the supervision of Linda Dryden. Her primary research interests are fin-de-siècle fiction, gender and sexuality studies and neo-Victorianism. This work on the Northumberland County Lunatic Asylum was inspired by the ‘Interiors’ themed gender Spring School with Newcastle University. She tweets @LoisMBurke.

Artist: Lezley Saar, ‘Edna Pontellier’ in ‘Madness in the Gaze’ exhibition, (2012).

Artist: Lezley Saar, ‘Edna Pontellier’ in ‘Madness in the Gaze’ exhibition, (2012).

Woodhorn Museum in Ashington, Northumberland is a hidden gem of Victorian heritage. Located just twenty minutes outside of Newcastle in the heart of the North-East industrial landscape, the pristinely maintained colliery buildings house an extensive archive.[1] Documents relating to the developments in medical humanities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries make for captivating reading, particularly the casebooks of the Northumberland County Lunatic Asylum, now known as St. George’s Hospital, in Morpeth. These records contain information about patients, staff, and the administration of the asylum which was built in 1859.

The construction of asylums was widespread in Britain following The Lunacy Act of 1845, which resulted primarily from the work of John Connolly and Lord Shaftsbury.[2] This act professionalised the asylum, and ensured that each institution was mediated by the local authority. It marked a paradigmatic shift, wherein ‘lunatics’ began to be considered as patients instead of prisoners. Although this act implemented changes in the way that asylums functioned, this was not the first effort to make such changes. The Madhouse Act of 1774 demanded that the treatment of the ‘insane’ was conducted by licenced practitioners, and not simply an unregulated, commercial enterprise as it had historically been. The County Asylum Act of 1808 enabled counties to levy a rate in order to fund the building of the institutions, but it was not until the mid-century that the rapid growth of the amended asylum began.

John Creswell, Northumberland County Lunatic Asylum, 1901

John Creswell, Northumberland County Lunatic Asylum, 1901

From the beginning of their professionalization, asylums were divided by gender. A large map of the Northumberland County Lunatic Asylum shows the respective male and female sides of the institution, both mirror images of the other, but split by the central administrative building.

A closer examination of the patients’ records also betrays a binary in terms of gender. The male and female casebooks reveal that recurring reasons for insanity in the men’s wing were things like ‘alcoholism’, ‘dementia’, and the patients in question were often admitted by their employer. Yet the prevailing female causes of insanity were related more to their reproductive faculty. These phrases alluded to menopause, or the death of a child, as the trigger for their psychological issues, and they were mostly admitted by either their husband or their father.

As there is not any great detail on the patients’ treatment while at the asylum in the Northumberland archives, it is unclear what the fate of these women was. This lack of information renders the extent of their ‘improvement’ uncertain.

Louis4Yet it wasn’t only women’s sexed identities that were subject to institutional constrictions. For example, one of the casebooks details one man’s admission to the asylum on 27th January 1889. In the column earmarked ‘Form of Mental Disorder’ is the single word ‘melancholia’ and under the next column for ‘Supposed Cause of Insanity’ is the words ‘Religious Mania’ crossed out in pencil, and in the same hand, on the line below: ‘Masturbation.’

This diminutive deletion, which evidences the disagreement between two medical professionals, speaks volumes. ‘Religious mania’ is quite a vague phrase, and is occasionally applied to women patients, but ‘masturbation’ is unambiguous, and a cause attributed exclusively to men in the asylum’s records. This was a cause of huge anxiety in the nineteenth century; French physician Tissot’s De l’onanisme (1760) first put forward a link between sexuality and insanity. Tissot also suggested that the act was associated with a poor upbringing, and, of course, these asylums, synonymous with the Poor Law of 1834 and the workhouses, have ‘pauper’ status.[3] Even as the turn of the century was approaching, masturbation was pathologised and psychically unpicked by sexologists such as Krafft-Ebing in Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). The classification of perversions proliferated in the nineteenth century, just as lunatic asylums did.

Crucially, and astoundingly, the format of the record could only allow a maximum two-word explanation of the individual’s psychological issue. For example, there is a man who spent thirty years in there, and the only detail we have about his ‘crime’ is that he was an alcoholic. Surely, during this time, the patient would not have had access to his vice. There was no kind of reformatory procedure to re-introduce him to society, no indication of progress in an age which concerned itself so greatly with that value.

Louis6In notes spanning the year 1891, doctors observed a
patient mumbling to himself, walking around aimlessly, and describe the patient as ‘absolutely idle.’ There is a tone of annoyance in this phrase, and certainly no indication of a desire to help this man. Again, the role of the asylum staff appears to be more regulatory than reformatory.

These casebooks suggest not only the tacit status of some patient information that was never documented, but also the reductive nature of psychological treatment in the nineteenth century. Additionally, as evidenced by the doctor’s textual disagreements in the ‘masturbation’ case, these records are also extremely unreliable.

Furthermore, it is perhaps puzzling that there is not much detail about the patient’s recovery and reintegration into society, as this was one of the Lunacy Act’s aims. Between the 1845 Act and the next Lunacy Act in 1890, over 60 asylums were built in the UK. Yet talking about progression of treating lunatics is a particularly problematic enterprise, as despite the moral treatment aims that emerged out of the eighteenth century, asylums increasingly applied more drastic and damaging measures to their patients. On the passage into the twentieth century, these include electric shock therapy and the lobotomy.[4]

Bertha Mason - Illustrated by Edmund Garrett, 1897

Bertha Mason – Illustrated by Edmund Garrett, 1897

These records bring to mind nineteenth-century literary responses to the asylum boom, in texts that feature sexually licentious women who are regarded as unstable. They are reminiscent of the experiences and fiction of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), and the polemical resurgence of the Victorian madwoman in twentieth-century feminist theory. Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) remains a key text for Victorian literature undergraduates, which challenges the problematic construction of women’s identity through language and culture.

Despite the inclusion of now outdated and unacceptable terms in the records, I don’t find a single mention of ‘hysteria.’ There are also no uses of the word ‘psychopath’, even though both of these were in use before the 1880s. The records of the Northumberland County Lunatic Asylum crystallised for me these connections between gender and madness; the reality that so much fiction is rooted in. Concepts of gender clearly informed the diagnosis of asylum patients, concurrent with the evolution of perceptions of mental health.


[1] Access the collection catalogue at, last accessed June 24th 2015.

[2] For an overview of the UK’s lunacy acts, see, last accessed June 24th 2015.

[3] See E. D. Myers, ‘Workhouse or Asylum: The Nineteenth Century Battle for the Care of the Pauper Insane’, Psychiatric Bulletin (1998), 22, 575-577.

[4] Foucault retrospectively suggested that physical oppression was replaced by moral oppression during this period. See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Sanity in the Age of Reason (London: Routledge, 2001).



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