Listening to the Voices of the Mentally Ill: Lessons from the Archive

Norfolk County Asylum
Images of Inmates of the Norfolk County Asylum from the 1880s (for more details and case studies, see the Change Minds website at:

Issues surrounding the care of those with mental illnesses are never far from the news. Rob Behrens, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, set out in a recent article in The Guardian details of a report highlighting serious inadequacies in care for mental health patients. He claimed that “[m]any European ombudsman organisations consider poor treatment of mental health patients, such as lack of care, the loss of liberty and the absence of the right to appeal, primarily in terms of human rights violations”. At the same time an inquiry commissioned by Theresa May into the “flawed” Mental Health Act found neglect and discrimination in the system. Rethink Mental Illness found that many people who had been sectioned “felt imprisoned [and] not cared for, because they had minimal involvement in their care and their choices were disregarded … [and felt] a complete loss of any sense of control over their lives” (The Guardian, 21/3/2018 & 1/5/2018).

Accounts of poor people who suffered under a variety of mental health problems in the nineteenth century are regularly found in the collections that form the basis of our project.  The administration of pauper lunatics in the nineteenth century was closely linked with the administration of the poor law.  Although the debates leading up to the New Poor Law focused on the able-bodied poor, only around 13-17% of workhouse inmates were of this class between 1848 and 1870 (Bartlett, 1999: 40), and the workhouse regularly became the home of many of those who suffered from mental illnesses. Between 1842 and 1890 around 25% of poor people identified as insane were institutionalised in the workhouse (Bartlett, 1999: 44). However, rather than taking the statistical view, this blog takes advantage of the research we have undertaken so far into pauper letters.

William Hunter was an inmate of the Rye Poor Law Union workhouse where, in 1852, he was 36 years and described as having been of “unsound mind” for 10 years. His case is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least because we can see through his writing his fluctuating mental state, from times of serious mental distress, where his writing becomes fractured, to periods of lucidity. The first letter he wrote was anonymous, signed simply an “Inhabitant of Rye”.  Handwriting comparisons with later letters and some further detection allow us to confirm, though, that this was from Hunter.  In this letter he wrote about himself in the third person.  The letter is not completely illegible but it is fairly incoherent and indicative of a troubled mind, prompting someone at the Poor Law Board to write on the reverse that “This letter seems quite unworthy of notice I can make nothing of it”.  From what we can make out, Hunter had recently been discharged from Haydock Lodge Lunatic Asylum and had, at one point, been a schoolmaster. Having failed to find employment, he wrote of a conspiracy to get him back in the workhouse.

Hunter’s handwriting contains several idiosyncrasies which mean we can see that he was also writing on behalf of, or using the name of, another pauper inmate, Henry Clark.  Two letters were sent in Clark’s name which complained about Mr Banks the medical officer, a bad case of the “Itch” going around the workhouse, and the withdrawal of Clark’s special diet.  These letters are somewhat rambling and not always easy to make sense of, but they are basically coherent and were clearly written in a more lucid time. The Poor Law Board took notice of the letters attributed to Clark and they asked the Rye guardians for their observations.  It seems that similar letters of complaint had already been received, and the guardians had already made an investigation into cases of the Itch. Intriguingly, they gave no indication that they recognised the involvement of Hunter in these letters.

Eventually we find a long letter signed by William Hunter himself.  This is a forceful letter and certainly no less coherent than those signed ‘Henry Clark’.  Having been refused liberty to “go and see My Uncle Humphrey of New Romney,” he repeated his demand and was eventually given his clothes, although he was refused shoes.  In the end he took a pair from one of the other paupers which were too small for him and caused his feet to be badly blistered.  He also complained that the food in the workhouse was being unevenly weighed, and grandly claimed that “[t]hey cannot Blind my Eyes as I Know the rules in these Houses and also the Laws with regard to the treatment of the poor both in the Workhouse and out just the same as the Schoolboy [Knows] A.B. C.”  He went on to complain about the incompetence of the guardians, and ended his letter:

I Hope My Lord you will excuse any harsh words in this letter for I will not mince my words [to]ward the parties or Eat Mince Pie for them … perhape if your Lordship was in my situation and had suffered as I have done your Lordship tongue would be Blaker toward the parties than the Pen and Ink which write this [to] you

Hunter letter
Letter from William Hunter to the Poor Law Commissioners, dated 1847

This letter was referred back to the guardians by the Board for its observations and their reply gives us a real insight into Hunter’s predicament. He had been moved seven years previously from the workhouse to Haydock lodge Lunatic Asylum, “for care and treatment in consequence of the disordered state of his Mind: he remained there nearly three years and was then discharged – being sufficiently recovered – and returned home to Rye.”  He had been given out-relief for a “considerable time,” but due to his destitution and “evident tendency to relapse into his former mental condition” he was ordered back to the workhouse and put in the infirm ward.  The Clerk finished by writing that Hunter:

has frequently addressed Letters to the Guardians of an abusive and incoherent description and also has written similar Letters for other Paupers.  Of the evident untrue statements made at various times in the Letters written by Hunter the Guardians have long been convinced and at the Meeting of the Board on the 1st inst an opinion was expressed that his Letters are not worthy of Credit.

Although it is undoubtedly true that parts of some of Hunter’s letters were “abusive and incoherent,” we can also see that even in his anonymised letter (his most confused) there were statements of truth, such as the details of his release from Haydock Lodge.  In the same letter Hunter mentions that he had been a schoolmaster, and we know from some earlier correspondence (and that of the Guardians) that he had indeed briefly been a schoolmaster at the workhouse before he became ill. Crucially, when writing more coherently under another name his complaints were taken seriously and investigated as having some merit; yet his letters were quickly dismissed by the guardians when they were identified as coming from Hunter himself, on the grounds that he was a known ‘lunatic’.

So, to return to Rob Behrens’ recent report, one feels that Hunter would instantly have recognised its findings in relation to the loss of liberty, absence of right to appeal, and mentally ill patients’ loss of control over their own lives. In some fundamental ways, Hunter’s case shows us that the care of those suffering from mental illness has moved on very little since the nineteenth century.

Further Reading

  • P. Bartlett, The Poor Law of Lunacy: The Administration of Pauper Lunatics in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (London, 1999)
  • C.A. Smith, ‘Living with Insanity: Narratives of Poverty, Pauperism and Sickness in Asylum Records, 1840-1876’ in Gestrich, Hurren and King (eds.), Poverty and Sickness in Modern Europe: Narratives of the Sick Poor (London, 2012), 117-142