Authors: Rita Bradshaw
For my wonderful grandchildren – Sam and Connor, Georgia and Emily, and Reece.
I pray for you always, precious ones, and hope life will hold God’s blessing and joy in abundance and great happiness. May you always have the courage to stand up for what
you believe is right, and the strength to be yourselves in this fast-changing world.
You are the future, my darlings, and I love you more than words can say.
I had absolutely no idea of the horrors of the old lunatic asylums until a sentence or two on a news programme set me thinking. The result was the idea behind this story, and a
personal journey for me, into a world that was both disturbing and harrowing.
Before the nineteenth century, and in the absence of any curative treatment, public and professional attitudes veered towards the opinion that mental illness was somehow the fault of the
individual – a spiritual weakness. Sometimes the manifestations of this disease were attributed to evil demons that had possessed the soul, and the cruel punishments that were inflicted on
some unfortunates are among the worst records of man’s inhumanity towards his fellow beings.
In Britain, apart from private madhouses – many of sinister repute – little existed beside Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, known as Bedlam. This grim institution became a macabre
tourist attraction where, for the fee of one penny, genteel society could mock the strange and terrible antics of the inhabitants and watch them being bled or beaten.
In 1774 Parliament passed an Act for the regulation of private madhouses, and a further Act in 1808 – the County Asylums Act – legislated that counties should establish institutions
for the care of pauper lunatics. However, it was customary for mechanical restraints to be used, such as straitjackets, muzzles to prevent patients biting, and chains and iron manacles to prevent
them harming themselves and others, along with purgings, bleedings, beatings and sometimes starvation; and each ward held the dreaded padded cell.
These sprawling institutions were often self-contained, isolated villages in their own right, cut off from the outside world and cloaked in dark mystery to outsiders. And their remote locations
tended to make visiting the patients difficult, particularly for the poor.
One of the most horrific aspects that has come to light in recent years is that 30 per cent of the asylum population was unjustly incarcerated, without crime or due cause, often by members of
their own family who had ‘inconvenient’ relatives, wives or husbands they wished to get rid of. These patients could be imprisoned for months, for years and sometimes even for life,
amid those who were genuinely insane.
By the middle of the 1800s restraint was beginning to be questioned by more enlightened and humane doctors as a form of treatment, but the fact that the Lunacy Act of 1890 provided for the use,
under ‘careful medical supervision’, of both mechanical restraint and seclusion speaks volumes.
As the century neared its close, campaigners for the improved property rights of married women – and for the greater freedom of women in general – seized the lunacy–liberty
issue and rolled it into a larger battle. But the twentieth century saw the ‘new’ cure of electric-shock treatment come to the fore (although electric eels and electric fish had been
used by people in ancient times to treat mental illness). ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy, sent patients into violent convulsions worthy of a medieval torture chamber, often destroying the
memory, and so the fight for the rights of the mentally ill can have been said to have merely taken a sideways jump, rather than being advanced.
By the 1960s there was growing disquiet about ECT and lobotomy (surgical severing of connections in the frontal lobe of the brain). And with new scanning devices in the 1970s and 1980s, such as
the CT (computerized tomography) scanner and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), and more effective drugs in the 1990s, the twenty-first century has seen the treatment of the mentally ill change once
However, the million-dollar question still remains: do we really have any idea of what we do, when we interfere with a human being’s most sensitive and complex organ – the brain?
It’s a sobering thought.
It was the smell that brought her to herself, a nauseating odour that the stronger stench of bleach and disinfectant couldn’t quite mask. She began to struggle again as
they half-walked, half-carried her along the green-tiled, stone-floored corridor, desperately trying to rise above the deadening stupor that had resulted from the injection administered some time
before in the carriage, when she wouldn’t stop fighting.
How could this be happening to her? How could she have been manhandled out of her own home in broad daylight?
She was still weak from the complications that had followed in the wake of the miscarriage, but fear poured strength into her limbs. She kicked out wildly, and one of the men dragging her
growled a curse as her shoe made sharp contact with his shinbone. They came to a brown-painted door and the same man knocked twice. Although her body was aching and bruised from the fight she had
put up when they had come for her, and she felt sick and dizzy, she continued to twist and wrestle against the hard hands, and screamed with all her might.
The door was opened by a stout woman in a grey dress and a starched white apron and cap. For a moment she felt a flood of relief at the sight of one of her own sex. Surely this woman would
listen to her? She wasn’t mad – they would see that and understand this was a terrible mistake.
‘You’ve got yourselves a right handful with this ’un,’ the man she’d kicked muttered morosely to another woman sitting behind a large polished walnut desk. As she
rose to her feet and stared disapprovingly, he added, ‘Carryin’ on somethin’ wicked, she’s been. I’m black an’ blue.’
The woman ignored him. Looking over his shoulder to the third man who had been following in their wake, she said, ‘What medication have you administered, Dr Owen?’
‘She’s been on bromide and ergot for the last weeks, but I had to administer morphia on the way here, such was her agitation. I dare not give more for some hours, Matron.’
The matron nodded, then inclined her head at the other two burly uniformed females in the room, who stepped forward and relieved the men of their prisoner. Their grip was every bit as powerful
as that of their male counterparts.
Granite-faced, the matron said coldly, ‘Do you understand why you are here? The court has issued a lunacy order, on the grounds that you are of unsound mind following a recent malady. If
you do not cooperate, my staff will be forced to use the necessary restraints to prevent injury to yourself or other persons, and that will not be pleasant.’
They weren’t going to help her.
She stared into the gimlet eyes, and a terror that eclipsed her previous fear caused her ears to ring. She may well have lost her reason in the
minutes that followed, because she couldn’t remember much of what happened, only that she fought until they thrust her into the padded cell. A number of women held her down and stripped her
to her shift and drawers, before pulling a rough linen frock over her head and strapping her into a straitjacket – the white, stained, leather-covered walls and the floor packed with straw
deadening any sound.
And then they left her to the hell that had opened and engulfed her.
Angeline Stewart stood in the swirling snowflakes that the bitter north-east wind was sending into a frenzied dance, but her velvet-brown eyes did not see what they were
looking at. The bleak churchyard, the black-clothed figures of the other mourners and Reverend Turner standing at the head of the double grave had faded away. In their place were her beloved mother
and father, as they had looked that last evening. It had only been a severe head-cold that had prevented her from accompanying them to the theatre, otherwise she, too, would most likely have been
killed in the accident that ensued after they left the Avenue Theatre and Opera House in the midst of one of the worst snow blizzards Sunderland had experienced in years. The overturned coach had
been found early the next morning after their housekeeper, Mrs Lee, who was also the coachman’s wife, had instigated a search after they’d failed to return. Her parents and the coachman
were dead, pinned beneath the badly smashed coach. It had veered off the road and down an embankment, and the two horses had been so badly injured that they had been shot at the scene.
Angeline brushed a strand of burnished brown hair from her cheek and took a deep breath against the picture that her mind conjured up. She hadn’t been allowed to see her parents after the
accident. Her Uncle Hector, her father’s brother, had forbidden it after he had identified the bodies. He said she must remember them as they had been. He wasn’t to know that her
imagination presented her with horrors probably far worse than the reality, images that caused her to lay awake most nights muffling her sobs.
‘All right, m’dear?’
Her uncle squeezing her arm brought her back to the present, the moment before Reverend Turner beckoned them forward so that she could drop the two long-stemmed red roses she was holding on top
of the oak coffins that had been lowered into the earth. Red roses had been her dear mama’s favourite flowers, and McArthur – their gardener – had kept the house supplied with
fragrant blooms winter and summer, courtesy of the heated greenhouses that were his pride and joy.
Angeline glanced at him as she passed the group of servants she regarded as family. McArthur’s weather-beaten face was grim and his two lads, Seth and Bernie, who assisted their father in
the upkeep of the two acres of land surrounding the house on the edge of Ryhope, had no cheeky smiles today. Myrtle, the housemaid, Lottie, the kitchen maid, and Mrs Davidson, the cook, were openly
crying; and even Fairley, her father’s butler-cum-valet, was struggling to keep back the tears. And poor Mrs Lee, who was standing with Angeline’s governess, Miss Robson, looked about
Angeline paused at the woman’s side and touched her arm. She’d wanted the interment of the housekeeper’s husband to be incorporated in the service for her parents, but her
uncle wouldn’t hear of the idea, saying it wouldn’t be seemly for a mere servant to be given such regard. She had tried to argue with him, but when Reverend Turner had agreed with her
uncle, she had been forced to admit defeat. Simon Lee would be buried tomorrow, and his widow would have to endure a second funeral.
Her uncle’s hand in the small of Angeline’s back urged her forward. The subtle pressure had the effect of making her want to resist. Her father would have seen nothing wrong in
publicly expressing empathy towards their housekeeper, who had been with her parents even before she was born. He’d always maintained that it was their duty to care for and protect their
servants, and that each should be treated as a valued human being. She had grown up knowing that her father’s father had been born in the slums of Sunderland’s notorious, disease-ridden
East End. Her grandfather had escaped by running away to sea at an early age, returning a rich man at the age of forty. After setting up as a wine and spirit merchant, he’d married the
daughter of a local jeweller. Exactly how he had acquired his wealth was never discussed, and she had been forbidden to ask any questions on the subject by her mother, but she did know that when
her grandmother had died giving birth to her Uncle Hector, ten years after her father had been born, her grandfather had wanted nothing to do with his younger son. She’d thought that very