Prayers before breakfast!

Prayers before breakfast!

Monday, 8 August 2011

A Brief History of Prestwich Asylum

The Victorians’ had genius for finding large-scale solutions to social problems. In mental
health care, the cruelty of the unregulated private asylums, the pauper lunatics housed in
the workhouses and bridewells, the mentally ill in the prison systems, the haphazard care
that one might find within a family, were meant to be replaced, mid-century, by a
countrywide network of state asylums. These were set in attractive, rural surroundings,
were well provisioned and staffed and built to high specifications. Prestwich County
Asylum was one such. It was built in 1850, costs £87,979. 5s.1d. (There’s Victorian
accounting for you!) There then followed the dedicated profession of psychiatrists –
alienists as they were referred to - to work in these new institutions and a regulatory and
monitoring system, was put in place with 11 Commissioners. It was a system full of hope.
Prestwich was initially scheduled to hold 375 inmates but was quickly enlarged in 1853
to take 500. Originally there were 10 male attendants, 15 female attendants and servants
but these numbers increased greatly over the second half of the century. A brewer was
hired. There were House Stewards, a Chaplain, tailors, shoemakers, bakers, carpenters,
plumbers, painters, engineers and a whole host of domestic staff. A great gang of latrine
emptiers, drawn from the inmates themselves, was formed to keep the sanitary systems
functioning. (They were given extra beer rations). The community made their own
furniture. They worked the farm, forge, kitchen gardens, library, and the extensive
domestic areas and dining halls for 400 patients. Industry was encouraged and much of
the philosophy was based on ‘moral management’, the system pioneered by the Quaker
William Tuke in the York Retreat. By 1875 Prestwich had over 100 acres of parklands
and grounds with a summer house, bowling green, croquet court and extensive walks and
pathways. Any use of mechanical constraints was frowned upon (though there are some
on display in Bury Museum) and people were sacked for rough handling of patients.
But a revolving door system of treatments quickly established itself with epileptic,
syphilitic and demented patients moving back and forth between the asylum, the
workhouses and the community. There was continuous pressure for more admissions, so
an Annexe was built for the chronically ill in 1883 and by 1914, the numbers hovered
around 3,000 patients. Then war broke out. Good doctors and attendants went to the
front. Soldiers with wounds of mind and body returned. The asylum system itself never

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