Thursday, November 20, 2008

Life in Broadmoor Hospital Revealed

The Berkshire Record Office in Reading has recently made nineteenth-century patient records from Broadmoor Hospital available for the first time, enabling researchers to get a better picture of life inside England's first "criminal lunatic asylum," which opened in May 1863.

The archives tell the stories of some of the hospital's most famous patients, including William Chester Minor (DNB entry here; Wiki entry here), the "Surgeon of Crowthorne" and amateur lexicographer who supplied entries for the Oxford English Dictionary while a patient at Broadmoor, and Richard Dadd (DNB entry here; Tate Britain bio here; Wiki entry here), murderer and celebrated painter of fairies and other supernatural subjects. Roderick MacLean, who shot at Queen Victoria at Windsor Station in March 1882, was sent to Broadmoor after being found not guilty by reason of insanity.

(Concerning the last, there's a famously awful poem by the even more famously awful Victorian poet William McGonagall, one stanza of which goes: "MacLean must be a madman / Which is obvious to be seen / Or else he wouldn't have tried to shoot / Our most beloved Queen.")

Some of the newly released records are included in an exhibition that runs through 22 February at the Reading Museum. "The Secret World of Victorian Broadmoor" features documents and artifacts never before seen by the public, revealing the hidden lives of the hospital's patients, doctors, and staff.

The exhibition marks the completion of Berkshire Record Office’s project to catalogue and conserve Broadmoor’s archives, and includes paintings by Dadd on loan from Bethlem Royal Hospital.

"Broadmoor is one of those collections where every page tells a story," says Dr Peter Durrant, county archivist of Berkshire. "There are many sad tales of lives destroyed by mental illness, of families broken up and never mended, of fear and paranoia.

"It is not history for the fainthearted. Yet at Broadmoor's heart is a community of patients and staff, and it is the history of this community that is now available to all."

Broadmoor, in Crowthorne, still operates as a secure psychiatric unit.

Shown here: Broadmoor Hospital (top), Minor (middle), Dadd (bottom).


Patricia Allderidge, The Late Richard Dadd, 1817-1886 (Tate Gallery Publications, 1974).

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (HarperCollins, 1998).


Berkshire Record Office said...

We've posted some Victorian patient biographies online. See:

Berkshire Record Office said...

Just to update the link above, and also let you know that the free ebook, 'Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum', is now available from most online retailers. Please take a look!

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