From the Bailey to Broadmoor

Not everyone sentenced by the Old Bailey ended up hanged or in prison.  For over two hundred years there has been the option of sending defendants to a special hospital instead.  This guest post by Mark Stevens of the Berkshire Record Office explores the history of probably the best known of those hospitals: Broadmoor.

Broadmoor is – and always has been – a very special hospital.  It is the oldest of these English institutions; the men’s wards opened 150 years ago this month.  Throughout its history it has operated in the no man’s land between the trenches of law and medicine: a place where guilt might be seen clearly but where responsibility is somewhat harder to determine.

The hospital was built as Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and its function has always been the same.  It provides highly-secure psychiatric care for patients referred by the justice system.  It has become synonymous with this function; so much so that its name alone is enough to describe the complex work that it does.

The story of Broadmoor is one that is closely linked to the courts.  Many of its patients have been the subject of celebrated hearings.  Seldom have these hearings influenced the direction of the law, but they have had a profound effect on the way that society responds to people with mental illness.

James Hadfield shoots at George III, 15 May 1800

James Hadfield shoots at George III, 15 May 1800

Broadmoor’s genesis is usually traced to a similar hearing that took place in London in June 1800: not before the Old Bailey, but at the court of King’s Bench.  This was the trial of James Hadfield, a twenty-nine year-old Westminster silver worker, husband, and father.

Hadfield was charged with high treason. The month before he had purchased two pistols, stood on a bench at the Theatre Royal and then fired his weapons at King George III.  While chaos and pandemonium raged around him, Hadfield was tossed into the orchestra pit, sat upon and arrested.

For Hadfield, this was part of a larger plan.  He believed that his own death would usher in the return of Christ.  However, considering himself to be damned by sin if he committed suicide or murder, he had decided it would be preferable to engineer his execution.  Shooting at the King seemed a foolproof way to bring about this outcome.

But Hadfield had not bargained with the state’s reluctance to kill him.  No one wished this would-be assassin dead.  He was a war hero who had fought beside the King’s brother in France, who had suffered terrible head injuries in battle and who was clearly unwell.  The court of King’s Bench was instructed to let Hadfield plead insanity instead.

This presented a problem.  At the time, a successful insanity defence led to acquittal and a full discharge.  Hadfield would go free, potentially to shoot at the King again.  That was a risk that no responsible government could take. So Parliament simply changed the law to accommodate him. Hadfield was given a new status as a ‘criminal lunatic’ and a new, indefinite sentence was applied to him: he was ‘to be detained until His Majesty’s pleasure be known’.  Forty years later he ended his days in Bethlem, London’s ancient home for those with mental maladies.

Meanwhile, Hadfield’s sentencing option was applied occasionally by other English criminal courts.  The Old Bailey was amongst them.  And with the population of London standing in 1801 at over one million, it was inevitable that the capital’s central court would create a high proportion of the country’s growing number of ‘pleasure’ men and women.

Some of these pleasure patients became part of Broadmoor’s earliest cohort.  After a number of decades when criminal lunatics were housed in different institutions, it was decided to bring them together in one national asylum.  Broadmoor opened as this asylum on Wednesday, 27 May 1863.  Eight women were discharged from Bethlem, escorted to Waterloo and sent out by train into the Berkshire countryside.  They were met at Wokingham Station and then driven on by horse and carriage.

Sarah Allen was one of these women.  She was a Chelsea housewife who was married to a steamboat messenger.  In 1855, she became convinced that she had infected her three boys with a fatal skin disease.  Agonised by the hurt that she was sure she had caused them, one foggy autumn evening she took the boys down to the Thames embankment and threw them in.  Hearing screams in the water, two river bargemen managed to rescue the youngest children but the body of six year-old William was found downstream three days later.

On the same carriage bench sat Mary Hamilton.  She was a tailor’s wife from Hammersmith.  Two years earlier she had been living with her husband, baby son and four year-old daughter in a single room.  ‘It was a poor, miserable place’, said a policeman at her trial, ‘the worst place I was ever in for a dwelling’.  Her husband had been finding work difficult to come by and now the family was starving.   Mary tied a piece of braid tight round the baby’s neck and waited for him to suffocate. She explained that ‘I could not see it want for bread any longer’.

One of the women's dormitories in Broadmoor, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

One of the women’s dormitories in Broadmoor, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

Sarah and Mary were typical female admissions to Victorian Broadmoor.  Roughly 40% of the nineteenth century intake had killed their children.  ‘Over lactation’ was blamed in the case of Mrs Allen, while ‘destitution’ was the cause of Mrs Hamilton’s crisis.

Both women were placed within Broadmoor’s version of the moral regime.  The new asylum adhered to the same principles as other public hospitals.  Patients were provided with healthy surroundings, fresh air and regular occupation.  And because neither Sarah or Mary exhibited signs of active illness, they were placed in the women’s convalescent ward, allowed a needle and encouraged to sew clothes for asylum issue.

In due course Sarah was discharged, recovered: not to her husband – who did not wish to have her back – but to the care of her prosperous sister in Bristol.  Mary might also have been discharged, but she had no family to receive her.  Her poverty-stricken husband had died alone, while her daughter had died in the local workhouse.  So Mary remained in Broadmoor until she died at the age of 85.

Men's dayroom at Broadmoor, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

Men’s dayroom at Broadmoor, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

Similar stories can be found amongst those of the first male patients, whose transfer began on Saturday 27 February 1864.  These men also arrived from Bethlem, and amongst their number were patients whose tales are well-known, including Edward Oxford, Daniel McNaughten and Richard Dadd.

More so than the women, the men of Victorian Broadmoor demonstrate the breadth of cases that were referred to it.  Not only did the new asylum receive cases from across England and Wales – and the wider British Empire – but it also housed patients whose ages ranged from ten to eighty, and whose backgrounds spanned the social spectrum.

It is this breadth of status that makes Broadmoor such a unique hospital.  For while working men and women looked to the poor law asylums for relief, the middle class would usually opt for private care or nursing at home.  The nature of Broadmoor’s admissions did not allow for such distinction.

At one end of the class hierarchy are cases such as George Hennem.  Here is London’s working poor: George lodged with his wife Jane in east London and took stone-cutting work when he could.  Like Mary Hamilton, George’s fear of privation led him to acute depression.  He had always been a loving husband, but now he felt that Jane might be better off without him.  He contemplated suicide.  Then, fearful for Jane’s future as a pauper’s widow, George resolved to let her suffer no longer: he took a hatchet and bludgeoned his wife’s head as she slept.  He took off to the Thames to drown himself but was rescued and ended up in Broadmoor instead.

George shared his new accommodation with the Honourable William Ross Thicknesse Tuchet, third son of the twentieth Baron Audley.  The Audley family had fallen lately on hard times – the result of some dubious land deals and a disputed inheritance – and William had been obliged to take a flat in London with his elder brother.  There was little hope of an improvement in circumstances and the avenues to comfort were slowly closing to him.  On a summer’s day he walked into a Holborn gunsmiths, loaded a pistol and shot the proprietor.  Like James Hadfield, William expressed a desire to be hanged.  He felt that he ‘had been treated very badly’.

William was almost certainly suffering from a form of progressive dementia.  At Broadmoor, he gradually lost the powers of speech and movement, so that he had to be helped to wash and dress.  In his later years he entered a catatonic stupor.  His existence was discreetly removed from Burke’s Peerage and he was ignored by the Audley men.  Instead his sister, niece, and great-nieces organised a relay of visits and an annual Christmas hamper to the relative they knew only as ‘the boy in the shed’.

The extent of Broadmoor as seen from the south, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

The extent of Broadmoor as seen from the south, 1867 (courtesy of Reading Libraries)

These two men were part of a group who met Broadmoor’s initial capacity of 500 patients, which was filled in a ratio of four men for every one woman.  It was a sizeable space, but even this was soon replete.  Broadmoor was expanded twice in the Victorian period: first in 1887 and again in 1902. By the early years of the twentieth century, this Berkshire plot was home to some eight hundred patients.  And as even this enlarged hospital approached capacity, plans were put in place to build a branch of Broadmoor in the midlands.  That branch would become Rampton Hospital, opened in 1912.

The reason Broadmoor expanded so quickly was because it worked.  It delivered the public protection demanded by Victorian society, and it delivered the medical care that was required by its new patients.  Its success made the special hospitals an established part of the medical and legal landscapes, and allowed courts like the Old Bailey to continue to make hospital orders.

But Broadmoor is a much smaller place today.  The women have moved to Rampton; Ashworth is available for the men of north England; while a number of medium secure facilities now exist to provide care beyond the walls of the special hospitals. The result is that the old asylum has become an expensive monument to a previous age.  It is too big for its current patient numbers and too costly to maintain.  So it is to be rebuilt.  By 2017 a new hospital will be open on the site of the old women’s wards, while those buildings that remain on the men’s side will be redeveloped for other uses.

Whatever form Broadmoor takes in the future, the criminal law will continue to have need of it.  Cases will still be heard where the responsibility of defendants is either diminished or obscured by mental illness.  The successors to Sarah Allen and George Hennem will continue to impact on our understanding of mental illness.  Broadmoor’s pioneering work became the model for our response to such cases; it remains the standard by which the no man’s land of law and medicine is judged.

Mark’s book Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum is available in bookshops and online.

Follow Mark on twitter @markoria

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