Cheerful and Diverting – Animals in Nineteenth-Century Asylums

We usually thinks of pets as living in or near people’s homes. But in our project we are also tracing their presence in other kinds of residential spaces such as the ‘asylums’, where from the early nineteenth century onwards increasing numbers of people with mental health problems and learning disabilities were housed.

L0011383 Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water, 1885.

Original Source: Wellcome Images

Many asylums were ‘public’, built and run by counties and boroughs for people who could not afford to pay for their keep, but there were also a number of private or charitable establishments which took patients who were able to meet their costs. The private institutions generally made an attempt to offer a respectable and reasonably comfortable environment but the earliest of the big public asylums provided only basic living conditions. However, from the mid-century onwards, it was recognised that public asylums too should provide patients with a ‘cheerful’ environment; the professed (though by no means always achieved) aim was to offer home-like wards, with things to do to enliven the monotony of the inmates’ routine. The Brookwood Asylum in Surrey, opened in 1867, was described in a survey in The Lancet (December 4th, 1875) as a model in this respect:

Within, the institution wears an air of quiet repose and cheerfulness. The day-rooms are fitted with plain and convenient furniture, embellished with stands of flowers, plants, and aviaries, and provided with pianos, bagatelle boards, cards, dominoes, draughts, books, and pictures. The walls are decorated with coloured prints, in cheap but elegant frames; … The surrounding objects divert, as far as possible, the mind of the patient from that brooding self-consciousness which constitutes one of the most formidable obstacles to recovery in curable cases, and the severest sorrow of the confirmed lunatic’s dreary existence [my italics].

In this context, aviaries and bird-cages became a standard feature on asylum wards; birds were ‘official’ asylum pets, used as a treatment to cheer and interest the inmates. But other animals also lived in these establishments, sometimes as the pets or companions of the inmates. Patricia Alleridge wrote about this in relation to Bethlem Hospital.[1] Cats were especially numerous. They were ‘ward cats’, whose job was not to interest and amuse the inmates but to keep down the mice and rats that must have troubled such places. However, institutional records provide us with occasional glimpses of how some patients built a close relationship with the cats – making pets of them – as a way of dealing with their own mental health problems or of alleviating their circumscribed living conditions. One such cat-inmate relationship is recorded in the case books of the Holloway Sanatorium, a private institution in Surrey for upper- and middle-class, though not necessarily wealthy, patients.

mrs-p-with-cat

Courtesy of Surrey History Centre. 3473/3/1.

Miss P. was 52 when she was admitted in October 1885. Prussian by birth, she had been a governess in wealthy family in Croydon. She had long-standing problems and had previously spent many years in other asylums. Her admission notes state that, though she was not at all violent, she was difficult in personality and did not get on with her fellow patients: ‘Is very dismissive of other ladies. Reads & plays cards but then jumps up & stamps across the room & bangs the doors.’ Often she refused point-blank to speak to the doctors. But by the spring of 1887 she clearly was getting enormous succour from her relationship with the ward cats, whom she found to be much more satisfactory companions than the other inmates and the staff: ‘Her chief amusement now is looking after the cats in the gallery for which she has developed a strong affection.’

Later that year she was recorded as being convinced that one of the cats was starved and suffering from heart disease ‘although’, wrote the doctor, ‘the animal is so well fed & fat that it can hardly walk.’ This was an absorbing and continuing relationship because two years later it was reported that: ‘She still displays great affection for the cat bringing away the choicest morsels from her dinner for it. A few days ago she bought a dozen oysters from Egham for it.’ Alongside keeping her room clean and tidy, the cats were a focus of her interests, emotions, and daily activities. Although, in 1895, she was recorded as ‘Very eccentric in appearance & behaviour. Rarely speaks to anyone except to abuse them.’ The doctor also estimated that ‘She seems to be happy & contented’. We might think that this was at least partly thanks to her relationship with the ward cats, with one of whom, in about 1888, she had chosen to be photographed for the sanatorium’s records.

Miss P. died in Holloway Sanatorium, of breast cancer, in 1900. She had lived there for nearly fifteen years, obviously a solitary and withdrawn person but someone who was able to achieve some contentment by caring for ‘her’ cats, and perhaps feeling cared for in return.

[1] ‘Sketches from the history of psychiatry. A cat, surpassing in beauty, and other therapeutic animals’ Psychiatric Bulletin (1991), 15, 759-762.

This blog was written by Dr Lesley Hoskins.

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