A Yorkshire photographer’s fascination for Victorian mental institutions led to a poignant tribute to more than 3,000 unmourned souls. Tony Earnshaw reports.
Their faces stare out from a grainy monochrome past, the eyes variously blank, psychotic, always uncomprehending.
They are the forgotten souls hidden away from the teeming humanity of 19th-century Britain, wrested from families and consigned to a lonely and often long life behind bars.
But this was no jail. And they had committed no crime. Instead these wretched individuals were placed within the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum (later Menston Mental Hospital and finally High Royds Psychiatric Hospital), in Menston, and abandoned for their perceived insanity.
The asylum has long been closed. But it stands still, a testament to all that was wrong with mental health care in the 19th and early 20th-centuries. Many have shunned it and its bleak reputation as a place where the mad walked free. Others, a few, have been drawn to it, driven to unravel the stories of the people long held there.
Among them was Yorkshire photographer Mark Davis. A historian with a foot in the Victorian past he made his own entry into this lost, forbidding world. The pictures he took hint at the remnants of a regime that, seen today, appals and frightens.
His photographs have been collected in Voices from the Asylum, a book that retells haunting personal stories based on the asylum’s own casebooks for its inmates.
These days they would be known as patients. Dignity would prevail.
But with the less enlightened mindset of Victorian England, many found themselves on a one-way ticket to oblivion and incarceration with the asylum as the final destination.
Based in Haworth, Davis can often be seen tramping the cobblestones in all weathers to record the hills and moors made famous by the Brontës. But it is the asylum that draws him like a magnet.
“I spent a lot of time photographing architectural buildings in Bradford and exploring the lives of the people, how they lived and eventually died,” he says. “I became fascinated by the faceless names on the gravestones and thought a lot about the struggles of everyday folk. As I started to become more aware of the emergence of mental asylums to house the pauper classes I became aware of the methods used to bury their dead. I started to explore how I could find out about the people who ended up in this. I felt a real connection with telling their lost story.”
Davis was one of a handful of passers-by who were affected by a tiny plaque affixed to a stone pillar on Buckle Lane in Menston. It reads: “This site is the last resting place of 2,858 patients from High Royds Hospital who died between 1905-1969. May they rest in peace”.
The two acres of grassland adjoining the wall was not a field but a graveyard. Thousands of corpses lay beneath it – anonymous, unwanted, unclaimed abandoned. Poverty prevented some families from claiming their relatives. Stigma stopped others. A cast iron marker denoted the row number and grave, often packed three deep. The weather-beaten sign was the only physical indicator to the people who had lived and died in obscurity. Davis resolved to tell their stories.
He immersed himself in the struggle of the pauper classes and the fact that they were seen as a nuisance in society. If the rich ensured their reputations lived on after death through ostentatious memorials – the taller and grander the better – then the pauper dead were cast aside like so much trash.
“Many felt they should be locked away. In death they were also deprived of the one thing that the Victorians aspired to: that of a little piece of immortality. These poor folk were buried in unmarked graves in a most demeaning way.”
Davis began researching High Royds in 2008. His website, a comprehensive digital archive dedicated to care and treatment, has received more than two million hits. It is fascinating and saddening. But the patients of Menston are long dead. Why should modern people care? Davis’s response is unequivocal.
“They are ordinary people like you and I. People with lives, family, loved ones. Some who fell off life’s pathway and experienced inexplicable hardships. Without today’s infrastructure the asylum was often the only solution for many. The elite classes felt they were providing a real solution by incarcerating these folk in what we would see today as a living hell. To die in this way and to take your place in the next life through this route was a real crime. I feel we owe these people a debt of respect by honouring them in the book. I really wanted to create a peace for them.”
The book gives a collective voice to “the apparent insane”. The asylum’s original medical casebooks, now with the West Yorkshire Archive Service, provided key biographical information.
Davis points out that the 100-year rule protects patient confidentiality and deters exploitation. However it does not silence them. Voices from the Asylum offers precisely that: Patients’ voices via doctors’ notes and, occasionally, direct reports of their speech.
It is distressing, sometimes alarming stuff. And it underlines the difference between contemporary and Victorian/Edwardian attitudes to mental health.
The new asylum at Menston admitted its first 30 female inmates in October 1888. All were transferred from the overcrowded Wadsley Asylum in Sheffield. The first patient to be entered into the casebook was Elizabeth Johnson. She would spend 16 years at Menston, dying in February 1904. She was laid to rest in the cemetery on Buckle Lane.
It is impossible not to be affected by the inmates’ stories and the records of their behaviour. Thomas Edmondson was 31 when he was admitted in March 1889. A bricklayer from Bradford, he was assessed as being delusional and suicidal with a fragile mental state.
His mother reported that he had “been wrong since Christmas” and refused his food, claiming it was poisoned. He told doctors he had several names including Luchmond Dass and Mahomet Falier. He was frightened of electricity and worried that his body and soul were about to be destroyed.
Described as “irrational and deluded, aggressive and irritable”, his prognosis was “unfavourable”. He died, aged 71, in 1928 having spent 39 years at Menston.
Ethel Wilson was a child of six when she was admitted in January 1895. The daughter of a Bradford plasterer she was labelled “an idiot apparently from birth” who was “very vicious, mischievous, (and who) bites. Scratches and attacks other patients.”
It was noted in 1898 that her intelligence was “little less than that of an ignorant child of her years”. By modern-day standards she should not have been institutionalised. She remained at Menston until her death, in 1915, aged 26.
Poor, pathetic Robert Cort was admitted to Menston in 1889, aged 39. Described as a feeble-minded epileptic – “stupid, uncommunicative, absent, laughs violently and for a long time” – the young farmer from Wakefield would remain there for 30 years.
With his haunted and frightened appearance Robert refused to look anyone in the face and would cower in a corner away from staff and other patients.
Pretty Ada Ward was 19, single and a spinner from Pudsey when her father admitted her in July 1911. She had been insane for three weeks. Her mother was terrified of leaving Ada alone in the house with other younger children. Several times she had tried to put her head in the fire.
Officials at Menston noted she was uncommunicative, childish and irrational and would laugh and cry without any cause. She was considered hysterical and silly by staff and spent half a century on the chronic block.
She died aged 75 in September 1967 having lived through two World Wars and witnessed the transition of the asylum to High Royds Psychiatric Hospital.
She was one of the last to be interred in an unmarked grave. There were to be only 11 more burials in Buckle Lane before the hospital closed in January 1969.
Mark Davis was equally traumatised and scandalised by what he discovered at Menston. Always keenly interested in miscarriages of justice he hears echoes of untold injustice each time he walks the darkened corridors of this strange place.
Having once been forced to steal into the asylum via open doors, Davis says he is no longer regarded with suspicion or as a nuisance. Now he is invited to photograph instead of being sent packing by security personnel.
Did the journey affect him?
“Unlike individuals wrongly accused of a crime such as murder these people whose lives were traumatised had no right of appeal until 1959,” he says. “Lives were stolen and when you take hope away from an individual you leave them with nothing. It was an era when we would do things, which we would consider abhorrent today. I have often wondered how the lives of these patients might have turned out had modern care and treatments been available. Yes, it did affect me.”
• Voices from the Asylum is published by Amberley Press.