Historic case studies from former Norwich asylum revealed in new book

St Andrew's was used as a 'mental asylum' in the Victorian era

St Andrew's was used as a 'mental asylum' in the Victorian era - Credit: Contributed

Today postnatal depression is recognised as a medical condition some women may experience following childbirth. However it was only officially recognised in the late 20th century, and 100 years earlier these unexpected moods, ranging from ‘baby blues’ to more serious postnatal melancholy, meant many mothers were diagnosed with ‘lunacy’.

Sometimes, tragically, they found themselves admitted to the local asylum, with causes recorded variously as ‘confinement’, ‘childbirth’, ‘miscarriage’, ‘pregnancy’, and ‘suckling child’. All terms found in the patient records.

Norfolk Lunatic Asylum, located in Thorpe next Norwich, and transformed into St Andrew’s Hospital in 1923, was the county hospital for those suffering with mental health issues until it closed in 1998, being converted into residential St Andrew’s Park.

Postnatal depression, or the ‘female malady’ as it was known, was the cause of insanity listed most frequently in female patients here. Victorian psychiatrists held the astonishing view that ‘women were more vulnerable to insanity than men because the instability of their reproductive systems interfered with their sexual, emotional and rational control’. 
Case notes of patients suggest their physical condition was frail and the substantial demands of breastfeeding further drained their strength, already weakened by hard labour and malnourishment. Mary Ann N was typical. 

An illustration of the physiognomy of mental diseases by Morison, Alexander, 1779-1866

An illustration of the physiognomy of mental diseases by Morison, Alexander, 1779-1866 - Credit: Wellcome Collection

Having previously been admitted for a breakdown caused by overwork, anxiety and poverty, the mother (pregnant with her 10th child), was re-admitted to the Norwich facility in February  1865, said to be suffering with delusions. One week later she had ‘gone on very nicely since her confinement’ and after three weeks she was doing well and described as ‘most industrious’, and so discharged as recovered in May 1865. 

The speed with which some patients recovered their mental and physical health within the asylum is quite astonishing, bearing in mind there was rarely any medication involved in their treatment. The provision of regular meals, comfortable accommodation, bathing facilities, clean clothing and rest met the basic needs of those patients who had been living in dire conditions, and this was sometimes enough to restore their mental, as well as their physical health. 

However, not all patients’ outcomes were as happily concluded as Mary Ann N’s. Another Mary Ann was admitted to the asylum in July 1864, the mother of three children, with the youngest at almost two-years-old having been breastfed since birth. Mary Ann H had become extremely weak and stated ‘that the devil tempted her to make off with her children’, she had also grasped her 10-year-old by the throat, and the youngest too, leaving finger marks.

Her appearance on admission was noted as ‘a short weakly looking woman, continually fretting about her children’ and, being unable to sleep, she was given a dosage of morphia each night as a calming agent. Within a week the morphine was discontinued, Mary Ann was conversing rationally and settling to needlework by day. At the end of November she was reported to be very comfortable, her mind appeared fully restored and she was keen to return home. A month later Mary Ann was discharged, recovered. 

What was not known by asylum staff were the circumstances of Mary Annʼs home life. She was married in 1860 to Robert H, a widower, and an agricultural labourer by occupation. Robert had a daughter, Clara, born in 1854 from his first marriage. Clara was deaf from birth and unable to speak, so needed more care and support than other children. Mary Ann may have found herself unable to cope with Claraʼs needs, as well as the demands of her own growing family. Mary Ann gave birth to four children, Eliza, Samuel, Maria and Isabella between 1861 and 1870 - Maria being the sole survivor.

The circumstances surrounding Isabellaʼs death were tragic. One morning, Robert H left his home in Stow Bedon for work, leaving baby Isabella in bed with Mary Ann. Soon afterwards Maria came into the bedroom feeling unwell. Mary Ann suggested she also get into bed with her. Moments later, taking her husbandʼs razor she went into the second bedroom where Clara, her step-daughter was in bed, tied the girlʼs hands behind her back and attempted to cut her throat, inflicting serious injuries. 

Asylum for criminal lunatics, Broadmoor, Sandhurst, Berkshire, from Illustrated London News, 1867

Asylum for criminal lunatics, Broadmoor, Sandhurst, Berkshire, from Illustrated London News, 1867 - Credit: Contributed

She then returned to her own bedroom where the other two children were in bed and seized the baby, ‘nearly severing her head from her body’, killing her instantly. Maria had a remarkable escape: according to newspaper reports, as Mary Ann was about to cut her throat, she pleaded, ‘Oh mother please donʼt kill me, for I am your darling you know’. At once Mary Ann laid the razor to one side and, in her nightdress, hurried with Maria to the nearest cottage telling her neighbour what she had done. 

The inquest was held on Tuesday, August 22, 1871, and Mary Ann was tried for murder at the Norfolk Assizes in March 1872. She was ordered to be detained during Her Majestyʼs pleasure for the wilful murder of her daughter, Isabella.

Mary Ann became an inmate at Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire where she spent the rest of her life. Broadmoor was initially known as Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum and the first patient admitted in 1863 was a woman convicted of infanticide. Mary Ann remained a patient there until she died in 1913 at the age of 80.

The high proportion of gender-specific causes assigned to women patients meant the label of ‘women’s problems’ as the cause of their mental disorder was used as classification when no other explanation was apparent. 

If you would like to learn more about these women, whose lives through poverty, debility and the stresses of everyday life, brought them to the asylum for a period of refuge, and how their lives evolved in the years that followed, you will find 21 case studies included in my book, Manifestations of Madness, Women’s Voices from the Norfolk County Lunatic Asylum, published by Poppyland Publishing. Copies are available from Jarrolds and other book shops, or directly from the publisher at: poppyland.co.uk/products/B79685