Louise Hide – People in their place: space, gender and class in the late 19th century asylum

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


Louise Hide (Birkbeck): People in their place:
space, gender and class in the late 19th century asylum

The late nineteenth-century asylum was a purpose-built institution. Its function was both custodial and curative, separating people with mental disorders from society in addition to providing them with care and treatment. Male and female staff and patients from different social classes – the majority from the ‘pauper’ classes – both worked and lived within its confines. As a result, it fulfilled multiple roles: home, workplace, curative institution and place of detention.

Creating environments that controlled behaviour, ‘moral architecture’ was infused with discourses influenced by normative concepts of gender and class, as well as medical and religious ideologies. This paper will explore the role of space within two large London asylums in the late nineteenth century, a period that witnessed an ideological shift from the domestic spaces of the asylum to the clinical environment of the hospital. Reflecting on the changing use of space by patients and staff, it will review the different types of space within the asylum – working spaces (such as the laundry, the workshops, the asylum farm) and living spaces (the wards) – and look at their function in terms of, for example, technologies of surveillance, or as places of reward and punishment. The paper will also consider who was permitted to enter certain spaces and why, using sex, class and manageability as categories of analysis. What, it will ask, were the effects of these different environments on the asylum inhabitants and the consequences of transgressing boundaries?

In summary, the paper will ask how contemporary discourses were reflected in the organisation of space within the asylum, together with its effect on the lived experiences of both patients and staff.





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