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13 November 2014

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You are in: Berkshire > History > Local History > Victorian asylum secrets revealed

Broadmoor Hospital

Broadmoor Hospital

Victorian asylum secrets revealed

The murky world of Victorian mental asylums will be laid bare as Broadmoor's archives are unveiled to the public for the first time in Reading.

Broadmoor has housed thousands of mental patients, including a Jack the Ripper suspect, the artist Richard Dadd, and a would-be assassin of Queen Victoria.

Maggie Philbin interviewing Aileen Dawson at the Broadmoor Archives

Maggie Philbin investigates the archives

Now it is throwing its Victorian archives open to the public for the first time at the Museum of Reading, having spent the last two years listing and repairing the hospital's records with a £200,000 grant from the Wellcome Trust.


BBC Berkshire's Maggie Philbin visited the archives on the day they opened for the first time.

She said: "It's a a mix of the incredibly sad and the surprising.
"It was 1863 when Broadmoor was completed, and our attitudes to mental illness have changed so much in that time.

"Back then there were no drugs or psychological treatments, just a regime of rest and hard work, and for many people who found themselves in Broadmoor the conditions may have been more comfortable than their own homes.

Staff at Broadmoor (C) Berkshire Records Office

Staff at Victorian Broadmoor asylum

Senior Archivist Mark Stevens said: "Every story in Broadmoor has a very sad beginning. Happily some of them have a happy ending and there are examples of people in this exhibition who took part in Victorian occupational therapy. For example we have Richard Dadd who did painting and William Chester Minor with his work on the Oxford English Dictionary."

Jack the Ripper

The most popular exhibit at the museum so far is the file for Thomas Cutbush, who was detained at Broadmoor between 1891 and 1903. Cutbush was named as a Ripper suspect by the Sun newspaper, first on 13 February 1894 and then subsequently in later editions.

Portrait of Doctor Orange by Richard Dadd

A portrait painted by Richard Dadd

'Ripperologists' as they are dubbed by Mark Stevens, archivist at Berkshire Record Office, have been flocking to see Cutbush's warrant sending him to Broadmoor after he was found insane at his trial.

Richard Dadd

Another intriguing inmate is Richard Dadd, an artist who had a breakdown while on a Grand Tour of Europe and became convinced that he was being controlled by the Egyptian god Osiris.

Famous Broadmoor residents

* Thomas Cutbush, Jack the Ripper suspect

* Richard Dadd, painter.

* Roderick MacLean, failed to assassinate Queen Victoria.

*Dr William Chester Minor, the former US Army physician who sent thousands of citations and quotations to the first Oxford English Dictionary.

Dadd worked as an artist before he was sent to Bethlem psychiatric hospital (also known as Bedlam) for murdering his father in 1843. He had believed that he was murdering the devil.

During his time at Bethlem and Broadmoor Dadd created his most celebrated paintings. These included the Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke and thirty-three watercolour drawings titled Sketches to Illustrate the Passions, which include Grief or Sorrow, Love, and Jealousy, as well as Agony-Raving Madness and Murder.

Ordinary people

However, many of the most intriguing stories are found by looking at the tales of ordinary people who populated the asylum.

Wages of people working at Broadmoor

Wages of people working at Broadmoor

Rhonda Niven, who has toiled for the past two years restoring original Victorian books at the museum, said: "I tend to focus on the ordinary people. I've been reading about the women who were in for child murder, I guess they were post-natally depressed, and a lot of letters from wives and mothers asking how their children are."

And staff records are also kept - including an account of one staff member who was punished for eating an inmate's pudding. 

last updated: 20/01/2009 at 13:51
created: 21/11/2008

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