By Mike Finn
The West Riding Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield was one of the largest and most famous asylums of the Victorian era, and a significant location in the development of psychiatry and the neurosciences in Britain.
The Asylum – located around one mile north of the centre of Wakefield – first opened in 1818, only the sixth new asylum to be built under the County Asylums Act of 1808. The designs for the new institution were overseen be Samuel Tuke, a member of the Tuke dynasty associated with the famous Quaker Retreat in York, an establishment which provided the model of moral treatment that dominated British psychiatry through much of the nineteenth century. Prior to the construction of the Asylum in Wakefield, the only other public asylum in the county was the one at York, which had itself been the site of a number of scandals that had stimulated early asylum reformers and the founding of the Retreat. Yorkshire has long had a history in the world of asylums.
The first director of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum was William Charles Ellis (1780-1839), a noted phrenologist and early proponent of moral treatment and “therapeutic employment”, who later became the first British psychiatrist knighted for services to the field. In the thirteen years he spent at Wakefield, the capacity of the Asylum grew from 150 to 250 patients, and in the following thirty five years after he left, under the directorships of four different medical men, it continued expanding to accommodate over 1,100 patients. Such expansion was in line with the enormous and well-documented growth in asylums nationally during the middle decades of the century, with the number of officially insane in England and Wales rising from around 5,000 in 1818 to around 50,000 in 1866.
The most significant era in the Asylum’s history came under the leadership of James Crichton-Browne (1840-1938), who was superintendent from 1866 to 1876. He was the son of W.A.F. Browne (1805-1885), an alienist and close ally of George Combe who had, in 1826, introduced the young Charles Darwin into the world of radical student politics and science in Edinburgh. Under Crichton-Browne the whole Asylum became, for a brief period, one of the most active research schools in the world, concerned with advancing knowledge and treatments of insanity. Young medical men came to use the Asylum’s newly built laboratory, or to study its patients, and had their findings widely disseminated in the Asylum’s own journal or at the annual Conversazione.
The most notable work conducted at Wakefield during this time came from David Ferrier, who developed the theory of cerebral localisation through his experimental researches into the brains of animals. Operating in the Asylum’s laboratory, Ferrier produced the first map of the motor cortex in proving that different functions of the brain were located in different sites of the hemispheres. His work spread quickly, attracting both praise and criticism (the latter coming mostly from anti-vivisection campaigners). In 1878, he and Crichton-Browne, along with John Charles Bucknill and John Hughlings Jackson – who had also contributed to the Asylum’s journal – founded Brain, a journal of neurology which continues today and can be considered a lasting legacy of the Asylum’s scientific endeavours.
After Crichton-Browne left, the scientific reputation of the Asylum was continued well into the interwar years through the work of successive superintendents H.C. Major, W. Bevan-Lewis and J.S. Bolton, whilst new sites built in Middlewood, Menston and Storthes Hall, and a separate institution in Wakefield for acute cases, greatly increased the lunatic population of the West Riding. The Asylum offered the full array of mid-twentieth century chemical, mechanical and electrical psychiatric treatments, and was gradually down-sized during the period of ‘de-institutionalisation’ throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, finally closing its doors in 1995. The last major news story from the Asylum – which came to be known as the Stanley Royd Hospital – was in a 1984 scandal, when a major food poisoning outbreak killed 19 patients and infected another 300.
At its height in the late-nineteenth century, the site at Wakefield housed over 1,500 patients and had, among other things, its own farm, brewery, chapel, bookbinders and in-house fire-fighting service. Most of the additional buildings have now been removed, but the original 1818 building and its attached extensions still remain and have been converted into residential flats. You can wander around the site and visit the nearby Stephen G. Beaumont Museum, a small museum which displays many original objects from the Asylum.