PhD-dom (or, Descending Into the Depths of an Archive)

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11 May 2021

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With the pandemonium seemingly easing here in Britain, the opening of a number of services has been a welcome event for many people. Haircuts and pub lunches are now a common thing that people are able to do.

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So, too, are visits to archives - and for PhD researchers this has been am absolute blessing.

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Sussex County Lunatic Asylum, now Southdowns Park, Haywards Heath [image: mine]

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My research into the patients of the Sussex County Lunatic Asylum requires in-depth journeys through the archival materials kept at The Keep (East Sussex). They reopened in April and since then I have been a regular patron, coming every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and spending the whole day with the records and documents to be found.

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The Keep, Brighton - Wikipedia
The Keep, Brighton [Image: Wikipedia]

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While my excitement and joy obviously lies in the information found in these historical documents - and the information I am finding is of huge assistance to my research (and has, in many ways, helped me to shape and refocus my research) - it is the staff here who have made the whole experience not only fruitful, but thoroughly enjoyable.

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The professionalism they show is second-to-none and combined with their friendliness and helpfulness, my days in The Keep are always an absolute joy.

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So what the hell are you looking at, then?

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My focus for this thesis is on the patients of the Asylum between 1859 and 1913.

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To provide a historical overview of the Sussex County Asylum (SCA) by way of its patients and add to the existing body of work on c.19th asylums in England.

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Research into the general history of the asylum, its construction, administration, and decline, has been conducted but an in-depth study of the patients who resided in the asylum has never been done. As SCA was one of the last asylums to be built in England, and during a period in which developments in psychiatric care within communities was progressing, the individuals who were committed will provide a unique snapshot of the life of the mentally ill during the late 19th century. 

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Before the nineteenth century, madness and insanity was generally treated at home. The first purpose-built hospital for insane patients was Bethlem Hospital built in 1676

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The Sussex County Asylum in Haywards Heath was one of the last asylums to be built following the 1845 Asylums Act and at one point housed over 1000 patients. Many of the first patients to arrive came from overcrowded asylums in London. The importance of the Sussex County Asylum to the well-being of the people of the county will be studied, along with the impact the Asylum and treatments had on the patients.

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The focus of this study will be on the people – their lives before, during, and after time spent in the Asylum.

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A beast of a book - the Male Patient Case Book (HC 55/10) [Image: me]

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The patients will be all people resident in the asylum between 1859 and 1913. The asylum opened in 1859 and so changes in treatment and the lives of patients from its opening until just before the outbreak of WWI will give an insight into the general methods of psychiatric care, changes to care, and how this impacted patients’ lives both within and outside the asylum.

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Limiting the study to pre-WWI also avoids the need to investigate the treatment of victims of WWI who may have been committed to the asylum. This also avoids the problems created by current data protection laws, as the patient records of the period during and just after the war become available for consultation a study into the treatment of such patients can be completed.

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The history of lunacy, the treatment of the insane, and the creation and running of Victorian asylums has been the subject of much study and debate. The general nature of insane asylums of the time has been explored, including detailed studies of specific asylums. 

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Much has been written about specific asylums, focusing on the general history and administrative management of these locations. Asylums which have been researched include:

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  • St Lawrence’s Hospital, Bodmin
  • Bedfordshire Lunatic Asylum
  • Norfolk Lunatic Asylum
  • Buckinghamshire County Pauper Lunatic Asylum
  • St Nicholas Hospital, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Severall’s Hospital
  • Storthes Hall
  • Ticehurst Private Asylum
  • Parc Hospital
  • Stone House, London
  • Haven Hospital
  • Bethlem Hospital
  • The Retreat, York

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These are institutional histories which are of interest, but this study will be looking at life courses and specifics of patient care.

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Case Book record of Walter Lambert, admitted Oct 1 1903 and discharged 19 Dec 1919. (HC 55/10) [Image: me]

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A similar institutional history has been done by James Gardner in his book Sweet Bells Jangled Out Of Tune, but no major research has been conducted into the patients of the Sussex County Asylum. As Sussex County Asylum was such a large and important asylum treating many people over a long period of time, it is an important one to study as it gives us insight into the experiences of the poor, treatments of the insane and attitudes to poverty.

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There is one book which is a timeline of the life of the asylum and goes into some detail about operational matters with comments on some incidents that occurred with patients. No detailed analysis of the patients of the hospital exists.

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Looking closely into their experiences, before, during and after treatment will not only provide more information about the workings of the Sussex County Asylum but will greatly enhance our knowledge of psychiatric treatment of lunatics in the 19th century. It will provide more than just procedural information and will strengthen our understanding of asylum care and its impact on individuals.

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