Clare Hickman – Conceive a Spacious Building Resembling the Palace of a Peer.

Royal Holloway University of London Department of History

Event Date:
14 and 15 September 2010

11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)


Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950

Spaces and Institutional Structures


Clare Hickman (Bristol): “Conceive a Spacious Building Resembling the Palace of a Peer. Airy, and Elevated, and Elegantly Surrounded by Swelling Grounds and Gardens”: The role of the gardens in domesticating the environment of the nineteenth-century lunatic asylum

There was a close relationship between the nineteenth-century asylum and its surrounding gardens. Asylum superintendents and the Commissioners in Lunacy seem to have believed that the experience of looking at or participating in an activity within the surrounding landscape formed part of the treatment of mental illness. Both the architecture and the gardens were viewed as integral to the success of ‘moral therapy’, which was the accepted therapeutic approach to mental illness throughout the period.

One of the functions of the landscape seems to have been to create the illusion that the asylum was more of a home than a prison. This can be seen in the entry in the Visitors’ Book for Northampton General Lunatic Asylum of 16 June 1846 in which one of their concerns was that the front airing courts had unsuitable iron bars that they felt gave the house a “prison like or menagerie appearance”. This paper will explore the role of the gardens in creating a sense of domesticity and homeliness and how this may have been related to the therapeutic programme. To develop the idea of domesticity further, a comparison will also be made with the country houses of the time in terms of location, layout and use; which will build on the work of Sarah Rutherford (2003).

A number of case studies will be used to illustrate this idea, including, Brislington House private lunatic asylum (c1804-6), Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (1839) and Abington Abbey Retreat, Northampton (1845). The reports of both the Visitors to the asylums and the Commissioners in Lunacy will be used to explore the perceived links between therapy, domesticity and the asylum gardens. These accounts will be enriched by descriptions of physical elements created within the landscape, such as ornamented cottages, bowling greens and a Cliff-top Walk.





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