Broadmoor Revealed – Victorian Crime & the Lunatic Asylum

Today on No wriggling I am lucky to have a guest post from Mark Stevens, Senior Archivist at Berkshire Record Office, responsible for looking after the Broadmoor Asylum archives. Pen and Sword Books have recently published a revised and expanded edition of his book ‘Broadmoor Revealed’ which became the most popular history e-book of 2011.

My sincere thanks to Mark for offering me this fascinating piece. All the links to learn more are included in the text.


Broadmoor Hospital is one of those institutions that everybody knows.

In fact, they probably only know it as ‘Broadmoor’.  A bit like Madonna, or Pele, one word suffices to indicate the subject.

If you push someone, then they might mention the Krays, Peter Sutcliffe or more recently Jimmy Savile.  Push someone a bit more and it is possible they might mention the artist Richard Dadd or lexicographer William Chester Minor.

When the Broadmoor archive arrived at my workplace some nine years ago, I was the sort of person who struggled to do more than know the one word.  But my relationship with the hospital has changed dramatically since then.  The archive was – is – incredible.  And it is part of my job to look after it.

I’ve said elsewhere that the archive sort of draws you into it.  It feeds the voyeur in us with page after page of the most raw, unscripted history.  It is bursting with stories, often very sad ones, that give an insight into a hidden community, experiencing what was and still can be a silent problem.

I’ve tried to tell some of those stories in my book Broadmoor Revealed.  I have included Dadd and Minor, and a couple of the other more high-profile cases, because I think that people expect to see them in a book about Victorian Broadmoor.  But for me the more interesting thing is not these remarkable and – dare I say it? – mostly middle class, intellectual patients.  Rather it is all the ordinary Victorian men and women, who were simply getting on with their workaday lives until they experienced an overwhelming and irrational desire to do something dreadful.

Many of these dreadful acts followed a similar pattern, and usually, it was the patients’ nearest and dearest who suffered.  Modern crime studies suggest that we are always most unsafe under our own roof, and the Victorian cases that I’ve read suggest that it was ever thus.

Patients on the terrace, Broadmoor Asylum c1908

Patients on the terrace, Broadmoor Asylum c1908

So the book has examples of husbands who killed their wives, such as Isaac Finch, a devout Christian who became convinced that both he and his wife were damned for their sexual sins.  There is no true crime glamour in Finch’s story.  The family were desperately poor, existing on seasonal farm work in Essex, when Isaac took a razor to Martha’s throat.  He was simply suffering from a delusional problem that ended in a tragic solution.

Even sadder than that are the cases of those parents who have murdered their own children.  These mums and dads often ended up in Broadmoor because Victorian courtrooms were all too ready to find their act insane.  It is interesting to see how 19th century society sought to rationalise what was terrible by seeking proof that the perpetrator was irrational.  Today, we might prefer to create monsters rather than medicine out of such defendants.

This type of patient made up the typical female admission to Victorian Broadmoor.  I’ve written about some of them in my book.  One of the things that interests me in such cases is how the wider family unit responds to such a devastating trauma.  One of the mothers I’ve written about was effectively abandoned by her partner, for example, though actually this outcome is very rare.  The more often heard refrain from family is one of wanting their unwell member back.

You could choose any one of these women’s stories and find a tale that tugs at your heart.  I just couldn’t find space for them all in the book.  One who didn’t make the cut is Martha Baines, a housewife from Kendal.  One cold winter’s day in 1875, she poured bleach down the throat of her youngest child, aged five months.  She said that she had done it to keep the baby quiet, as it had cried for such a very long time.

She left behind her husband and three other children, and they felt strongly that Martha needed compassion, rather than treatment or punishment.  ‘No one was a better mother and wife than she’, wrote her husband to Broadmoor’s chief, pleading for her return.  It is extremely touching, and also of some comfort to know that they were reunited some two years later – a comparatively short time after the offence, and evidence of the hospital’s own compassion, together with a possibility that post natal depression may have been the cause of Martha’s illness.

To a certain extent, the desperation to obtain Mrs Baines’ discharge might be seen in an economic as much as a loving context.  Without friends or family to look after young children, a lone parent might find it difficult to raise an income while their other half was shut away.  The families of patients had everyday problems, as befits a group who were everyday people.

Author Mark Stevens

Author Mark Stevens

Which brings me back, I think, to the very unexceptional nature of most Broadmoor patients, regardless of the often dramatic cause of their admission.  After reading through so many case histories, I have concluded that the true story of Broadmoor is found not in creative geniuses or indeed in monsters of evil, but rather in the boy or girl next door.

And that may in itself be a fairly shocking statement.  But the bald truth is, as MIND confirms, that in any year around one in four of us will experience some mental health problem that requires a visit to our GP.  It is not so great a leap from that to see that a small percentage of us will from time to time experience symptoms so severe that we need hospital care.  And in the intervening period between symptoms and care, it also seems inevitable that occasionally bad things will happen.

Those bad things might suggest that Broadmoor is potentially a dark subject for any book.  Yet that is to suppose that life is static; that everyone affected by the place is frozen into solid form.  In reality, life flows within Broadmoor as it flows without the walls.  Not every unhappy beginning has an unhappy ending.

For me, that provides enough light to see Broadmoor in a variety of textures and shades.  It provides hope, too; and hope as much as horror lies behind the Broadmoor name.  The one word is never enough.



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3 Responses to Broadmoor Revealed – Victorian Crime & the Lunatic Asylum

  1. Viv says:

    What a powerful post. Thank you Mark for sharing it. May well have a look at the book.
    An old friend of mine I have now lost touch with worked as Anglican chaplain to the hospital; I asked her once if she was ever scared to go in. She said no, as the dangerous patients were so heavily drugged, but the rush for communion was a a bit alarming as all the attenders hurtled forward for their sip of wine.

  2. Viv says:

    Sorry, meant to say, Park lane Hospital, not Broadmoor, was where she worked. But some of the famous killers were held there when she was chaplain. Sorry for confusion 😀

  3. MarinaSofia says:

    This is staggering. Thank you for sharing. A subject which always moves me no end.

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