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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Man and Beast: Confinement and the Asylum

By Gemma Angel, on 17 December 2012

  by Sarah Chaney






Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a replica strait-jacket, which visitors to the Grant Museum were only too eager to try on, offering an interesting point of departure for conversations on freedom and constraint within a mental health context. The backdrop of the Grant Museum itself offered a striking way of representing a comparison often made in histories of psychiatry: as Andrew Scull puts it, “the madman in confinement was treated no better than a beast; for that was precisely what, according to the prevailing paradigm of insanity, he was.”[1] Scull was talking about the 17th and 18th centuries in particular – for him, the introduction of moral treatment (an approach focused on providing a restful environment and work and occupational opportunities for asylum inmates) around 1800 encouraged a shift in understandings of the mentally afflicted. From being viewed as animals, requiring control and confinement, they were re-classified as children, who might be educated.

This idea of a clear shift is overly simplistic, failing to take into account, for example, changing ideas of education, child-rearing or cruelty to animals. Indeed, Patricia Allderidge has criticised the use of cases of restraint to support this argument. The dehumanising nature of restraint is often supported by reference to cases like that of James Norris, an American marine who was admitted to Bethlem in 1800. From 1804, Norris lived in an iron harness which had been specially made for him, and is pictured below. The effects of a severe head injury made Norris violent and dangerous, and all other methods of controlling his behaviour had apparently failed, resulting in serious injuries to staff and other patients. This type of restraint was thus extremely unusual, and cannot be used to make general points about contemporary ideas of insanity. What’s more, there are other suggestions that Norris was not necessarily confined because he was considered to be “a beast”: as Allderidge notes, the least-quoted aspect of Norris’ life at Bethlem is that “he occupied himself … by reading the books and newspapers which were given to him, and amusing himself with his pet cat”.[2]

James Norris, 1815
(incorrectly identified as William Norris
by newspapers).

In popular lore, the history of asylums is frequently presented as closely associated with mechanical restraint. Few people, for example, are aware of the “non-restraint” movement in England and Wales, which saw all restraining garments, straps or chains disappear from the vast majority of asylums for a half-century, from 1840. This rather complicates the widespread assumption that social or medical change must necessarily be progressive: if one encounters a strait-jacket in a museum collection, for example, it is much more likely to be a twentieth century garment than a Victorian one. This idea can be disturbing for those who like to imagine a humane present contrasted with a brutal past. The arguments used during the non-restraint debates indicate that this topic was also much more complex than ideas of progress allow for. Those who were wary of adopting a blanket policy of non-restraint argued that other measures of coercion were simply being substituted, including physical handling by staff, the use of locked rooms and padded cells, and “chemical restraint” by drugs (all issues, along with legal constraints, which remain concerns in psychiatry today).

Indeed, one of the most disturbing cases that I came across in my asylum research was well within the non-restraint period. In 1865, Henry Wright, a middle-aged clerk, was admitted to Bethlem after severely wounding himself by cutting his own throat. While in hospital, Henry made repeated efforts to tear open his wound, so that, a month after admission, it was noted that “[i]t is not safe to leave hold of his hands for an instant. He is looking ill and sedatives have very little effect on him.” For much of his time at Bethlem, Henry was accompanied everywhere by two attendants, who ceaselessly kept hold of his hands, severely limiting his movements. This was not considered to be restraint: nor did it help Henry, who made his last recorded suicide attempt a year after admission, following which he was discharged uncured.

Replica Strait-Jacket.

Sad cases like Henry’s remind us that the assumption that restraints are necessarily dehumanising can actually perpetuate the associations between madman and beast suggested by Andrew Scull. While strait-jackets are often assumed to be cruel, they also tend to be judged as evidence of the wearer’s problematic nature. When restraints appear in film or TV, they tend to be used to signify potential danger to others: as Henry’s case indicates, most people who wore such clothing were considered dangerous only to themselves. Even those who were thought to be a danger to others, like James Norris, do not necessarily fit the stereotype of the “raving lunatic”, and were able to carry out intellectual pursuits while confined. An excellent exhibition at Guy’s Hospital by artist Jane Fradgley (Held, on until 8 March 2013), offers a much more nuanced perspective on so-called “strong clothing”, suggesting that it can in some cases be protective, as well as restrictive. For people like Henry and James, restraint of some kind was inevitable: whether this was in the extreme form suffered by the latter, or the sedatives and physical holding used to try and prevent the former from severely injuring himself.


[1] Andrew Scull, Museums of Madness (London: Allen Lane, 1979), pp. 64-6

[2] Patricia Allderidge, ‘Bedlam: fact or fantasy?’ in William Bynum, Roy Porter and Michael Shepherd eds. The Anatomy of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry (London; New York: Tavistock Publications, 1985), Vol. 2: 17-33, pp. 25-6


Justice for Magdalens

By Gemma Angel, on 12 November 2012

Lisa Plotkin by Lisa Plotkin






Many visitors to the Grant Museum of Zoology reacted very strongly to the recent exhibit Buried on Campus, which ran from April 23rd until July 13th. In fact, almost every single conversation I struck up with visitors during my time on the museum floor had something to do with the story the exhibit was telling – namely, the discovery of the remains of 180 individuals were discovered buried underneath the main quad at UCL in 2010. Visitors were surprised, inquisitive, and incredulous. Where did the bones come from? they wanted to know. When were they buried? Was UCL aware of this all along? Conspiracy theories abounded.

And it was not just the visitors who were asking questions. My fellow engagers did as well, with both Katie and Sarah writing blog posts on the topic. It seemed everyone was interested in reclaiming these human remains and reinserting them into an historical narrative. Buried on Campus also touched on a topic that is prominent in my own doctoral research, recalling the same questions that Sarah, Katie, and visitors alike asked: mainly, where in history do these bones belong and what are we going to do with them now?

From the main quad of UCL I will detour to Dublin, where in 1993 an order of nuns put up a portion of their estate for sale to a real estate developer. Subsequently, the remains of 155 women were found buried in unmarked graves on the grounds. Their discovery was a catalyst for which revealed the hidden history of the Magdalen Asylums – or the Magdalen Laundries, as they were also known. If you haven’t already heard of Magdalen Asylums then perhaps you can guess their purpose from their namesake. These asylums were built to serve as penitentiaries for the housing and redemption of ‘fallen’ women. Their target demographic was prostitutes, but other so-called ‘deviant’ women were also admitted, for crimes ranging from unmarried motherhood to mental instability. While Magdalen Asylums were first created in the late 18th century, it wasn’t until post-famine Ireland that they were transformed from voluntary refuges for cast-out women to punitive institutions, which sometimes detained their inmates unwillingly for life.

Magdalen Asylums were supposed to offer a new vision for post-famine Irish society. They would solve the problems of poverty, family breakdown, and moral decline. As the Reverend Father Kerr explained:

The appalling demoralization of our times is evidenced mostly in the decline of that virtue amongst woman-kind which is her chief glory and title to our esteem. To-day in ever increasing numbers “Magdalen” has imitators in her sin. But few will share her penance.[1]

But that was no longer true due to these Asylums; now fallen women could share her penance. And repent they did. The women penitents were required to work long hours in laundries for no pay. They were to live under a regime of prayer, silence, and complete obedience and they were separated from their children. They could no longer leave voluntarily, as the late 19th century ushered in a preference for permanent inmates.

Magdalen Asylum.


This 1897 account sums up the situation succinctly:

At five o’clock I was at the Magdalen Home and was introduced by the Mother Superior of the Convent of Mercy to the Sister-in-Charge and six nuns who managed the laundry. We were all seated in the Sisters’ parlour where I put my questions. Most were answered by the Sister-in-charge.

         “How many girls have you?”


         “How many are unmarried mothers?”

         “About 70 percent”

         “And the others?”

         “Some are sent here when they leave the Industrial School because they need special


         “Are they mental defects”?




         “Are the girls paid?”

         “No, they earn their keep.”


         “Are the girls free?”


         “Can a girl leave whenever she chooses?”

         MOTHER SUPERIOR: “No, we’re not as lenient as all that. The girl must have a suitable

         place to go…”

         “How long do they stay”?

         “Some stay for life” [2]

These asylums continued to operate up until the 1980s. In 1997 the documentary Sex in a Cold Climate premiered, featuring the testimonials of four former penitents. The women spoke of having to endure physical and sexual abuse while incarcerated against their will and one woman spoke of being forcibly separated from her child. Since then there have been numerous documentaries chronicling the physical and psychological abuse that the estimated 30,000 Magdalens suffered. Calls for justice for these forgotten women resound in Ireland today, and on June 6th, 2011 the United Nations Committee Against Torture put out a statement urging the Irish government to investigate the claim that thousands of girls and women were tortured in Catholic laundries.

As I reflect on the impact that Buried on Campus had on the UCL community, I can only imagine the impact that the 1993 discovery must have had in Ireland. Visitors to the Grant wondered at our complicity in the deaths of those 180 people buried underneath our lecture halls, and many were adamant that the narratives of these unknown people should be reasserted into UCL’s history. I am happy to say that over the past two decades Irish historians, and the Irish public, have given us a great model to follow in doing just that. And whilst justice was not granted to the unknown 155 buried in a mass grave within a convent’s walls, their story is being told and their memory is not forgotten.


[1] Rev. Father Kerr, Galway. ‘The Good Shepherd Nuns at Home’, in The Fold of the Good Shepherd  (1931), p. 10.

[2] Halliday Sutherland: Irish Journey (1958), pp.81-83.