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I say, do you mind, I’m the Emperor of Germany!

by Bridget Osborne

I say, do you mind, I’m the Emperor of Germany! 30 October 2018

If you happened to visit Chiswick House on Sunday afternoon you may have come across some actors wandering about in 1920s costume. They were there to draw our attention to the fact that Chiswick House was for a while a private asylum, home amongst others to one man who believed he was the Emperor of Germany.

The residents lived there for all sorts of reasons, including the Edwardians’ attitude to epilepsy and depression. The Tuke brothers, who ran it from 1892 to 1928, were pioneering in their views on 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.

A passerby stops to play along

That’s not to say they all wanted to be there. Paul Homer and Katie Smith are project managers of a heritage lottery funded project looking at the lives of deaf and disabled people throughout 800 years in eight places, of which Chiswick House is one. 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 she was a famous poet; another was obsessed with Alice in Wonderland. 

Seems perfectly reasonable to me, but in those days it was enough to get you locked up. The project has made an interactive online version of the story of G.B Bartlett, who wrote to his friend that he was desperate to leave the asylum.

Find out more about Chiswick’s asylum and its residents in the This Is Chiswick pages