Photographs above: Actors Hannah Yahya and Will Lewis dressed as 1920s residents of Chiswick Asylum / Chiswick House as it looked when it was an asylum
There are large swathes of history which are missed out by historians – the lives of the poor are usually approached with a pretty broad brush. Disabled and deaf people hardly get a look in, which is why a heritage lottery funded project was set up called ‘History of Place’ which looks at the history of deaf and disabled people over 800 years in eight places, including Chiswick House.
Chiswick House was used as a private asylum at the turn of the last century (1892 – 1928). The residents were there for all sorts of reasons, including epilepsy and depression. The Tuke brothers, who ran it, were pioneering in their attitude to disability and mental health. At a time when Bethlam in south London was still keeping its inmates chained up, the Tuke brothers’ residents wandered the grounds reading poetry and taking exercise and the food apparently was excellent.
That’s not to say they all wanted to be there. Paul Homer and Katie Smith are project managers of History of Place. Their research at the Wellcome Library has thrown up some interesting characters and snippets of information about some of the Tuke brothers’ clients. One resident thought he was the Emperor of Germany; one thought she was the famous poet Alice Meynell; one had a penchant for cutting down trees; another was obsessed with Alice in Wonderland.
Accentuate History of Place project (funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and delivered by the creative development organization Screen South). Actors L-R: nurse (Hetty Burton), Emperor of Germany (Damien Noyce), Tukes Brother (Thomas O’Malley), Violet (Hannah Yahya) and G.B. Bartlett (Will Lewis) / On the bridge at Chiswick house with a passer-by playing along / G.B. Bartlett’s original letter.
G.B Bartlett, resident in the 1920s, was a pathologist. Why he ended up in the asylum is unclear but it seems from his letters to his friend and colleague Professor Matthew Drennan that he was there against his will.
‘Dear Drennan, it has now been five months since my incarceration in this place began and I am having a truly rotten time of the enforced idleness and boredom. They have me bottled in with little hope of a fair deal since it appears that the people here are in cahoots with my wife over all this nonsense. My wife had me sent here on concocted evidence after I discovered her plan to harm the children. It is this which concerns me most, that while I am here against my will I am powerless to act on their behalf’.
He reports that the food was ‘almost too good’ with fish, meat and ‘every good thing’ and even a glass of brandy with meals. He writes that there were no restraints and he was allowed to roam the grounds freely but that such license only created ‘the illusion of freedom’ as he was always being watched. He took to leaving notes around the gardens in the hope that they might blow over the wall and be found by someone who might come to his aid. The History of Place project has created an interactive version of his story online.
The asylum at Chiswick House was run more like a country house than an institution, with as many servants as there were residents and the rooms nicely furnished, warm and comfortable. The patients were from the upper echelons of society from the upper and middle and upper echelons of society, with a sprinkling of titles – Lady A, The Honourable Colonel B, Sir C. Pamela Bater, a retired librarian who has lived in Chiswick for more than 25 years, has also researched the Tuke family and the two asylums they ran in Chiswick. The first asylum they ran was at Manor House, Chiswick Lane but they had to move to Chiswick House because the road needed to be widened. The facilities at Chiswick House included a surgery, a consulting room and an acute wing. The rooms where the patients lived, in large wings on either side of the current house, were demolished in the 1950s but some of their medical notes survive.
‘The case notes do not generally give a diagnosis of what the patient was suffering from, but they do offer long descriptions of symptoms and behaviour’ she writes. ‘Lady C, for instance, was difficult to deal with because she insisted on ‘her rights as being the Messiah’. Another patient thought he was the Emperor of Germany. Some patients were suffering from conditions such as epilepsy which are now treatable with drugs. Others were depressed or had suffered a breakdown. One or two might have been alcoholics as there is a mention of ‘overuse of stimulants’. Treatment was largely based on listening and talking to patients rather than using drugs, although chloral was used as a sedative’.
Read more from Pamela’s fascinating account of the two asylums and the pioneering Tuke family on the website of the Brentford and Chiswick History Society.
Read more about the History of Place project on their website